Talking Points and 90Plus Wines

March 14, 2012

Our tasting panel recently convened to evaluate six wines from the Boston based negociant, 90+ Cellars.  You may have seen these modern looking, but otherwise nondescript labels in a local Vermont wine shop or grocery.  Having received some favorable reports from a reader, we decided that it would be interesting to taste what this regional company is bringing to the table.

The “negociant” model has probably been with the wine trade, almost as long as there has been wine trade, specifically in markets that have reached  maturity, and when surplus production was assured.  It is promising news for the wine shopper in


the US, that our consumption level warrants the services of the wine aggregator.  Essentially, a negociant sniffs out wine of justifiable quality that, for whatever economic and market force reasons, is not moving  through channels at its projected price, and needs to find another avenue to the consumer.

The 90 Plus people are globally connected, are making it a point to ID wines that have been lauded for their pedigree, then strategically purchase that wine, to be dressed in bottles with their own distinctive branding.  This crucial practice goes back aeons, and it services the liquid lubrication of supply and demand.   For the discriminating and resourceful wine searcher, more often than not, it allows the highly budget conscious to taste something, that would be otherwise inhibited by the limitation of coin.

90plus_tasting_panelOur consumer focused panel uses a modular set of scales for evaluating wines, including both objective and subjective analysis aspects.  Rather than culminating in an absolute score, these evaluations look more for trends and tendencies in the response data.  Quality to Price Ratio (QPR) also factors in, once the rest of the meters have been checked.  So, it may be a bit incongruous to be looking this way, at wines that are specifically marketed for their critical scores, but it also keeps us from playing games against other critical assessments.  Given the assumption that these are already in the 90+ echelon, we also intended to avoid judging whether they belonged there or not, but rather how they rated, relative to one another.

In most 100 point systems, 90-95 are ‘Outstanding’ wines with character and style, those 96 and above are “Extraordinary”, and those below descend through Very Good, Good, Average, and Not Recommended.
Like it or not, the 100 point scale is an entrenched platform, in heavy use by critics and consumers.  It must also be acknowledged that the scale bends relative to the scorer.  The discussion forums and commentaries are rife with debate whether the system should carry the weight it does, or not. There are questions whether advances in modern wine making have elevated the wines, but the scoring system has not evolved, and if anything has become inflated.

In my own shopping, I do not usually rely on scores as absolute determiners, but as indicators.  Good scores from multiple sources, for a wine that sounds interesting, and fits the budget, would probably go on the “try” list.  A single high score alone, along with an equally high price, may not.  I have also found that Robert Parker scored wines in the 90-91 point range are more interesting and palatable to me, than his more highly scored, super extracted fruit and oak platforms which I have also experienced.  Usually my own research and personal recommendations are my guide to new wines, and scores are otherwise flags and supporting data.  The work of a good negociant, can help reduce the work for the consumer, and put wines with a stamp of approval in front of them.

I do agree on some level, with my colleague Richard Aufrey’s assertion, that the loss of the origin story, takes something away from the experience of the wine.  True, you cannot know the history of the family or company that produces these bottles…and for me, the relationship to the producer matters a lot, especially when I have had a chance to meet the makers.  As a mini home winemaker, I have only a small glimpse of, but the greatest respect for, anyone who lives among the barrels and vines.

vtwinemedia_90plus_corksWith that idealized understanding, we must also balance the realities of the cost/benefit analysis which so often rules our daily ledger.  A good quality negociant wine, provides a good representative sample, of what is possible from a given area, and these 90 Plus wines certainly do that.  Other folks I have read about, make a research game of sleuthing the wine source, by cross referencing the point score ratings, and the designated areas, to deduce whose juice they must be drinking.  In some cases, corks leave a clue, as did one of ours, but we decided not to get hung up on solving the mystery, but focused rather, on the wine itself.

Subsequent to our evaluation of samples provided by the company, I saw a bunch of the 90 Plus wines on display, at the Hunger Mountain Coop, Montpelier, VT, and picked up a few more of our high scorers, for “re-evaluation”.  Obviously we were sold on the idea.  90Plus, scoring hang-ups aside, is definitely a safe place in which to expand palates, and I would hope, expand wine culture as well.

90plus_malbecTasting Report:
In this particular panel, we slipped in one mystery wine as a “control” to see how it fared.  The list below appears in the order in which the wines were tasted, and have an indication of  where they fell in the relative evaluation rating and consumer preference.

Lot 50 Prosecco – $13.99 – (7th place)
This first wine, while pleasant, crisp and palate waking, may have had a hard start because this particular panel was populated by bubbly aficionados, who appreciated its dryness, but felt that it did not bring the excitement that had been expected.  Well made and balanced, light on character, but serviceable and in the price zone.

Hid-in-Pines  NY Chardonel – $12.75 – (5th place)
The mystery wine was tasted blind, and proved interesting, because while it did not score as well on the reductive analytical side of the equation, subjective responses were much more favorable.  A funny nose of lemon, blue cheese, and old time medicine shows differently in the mouth, with nice silky feel, citrus fruit, pithy astringency, and a mineral finish.

Lot 2 NZ Sauvignon Blanc – $11.99 – (4th place)
Effusive nose that explodes for the glass, not with grassy notes, but in a huge ripe guava cloud that dominates over citrus notes.  Round texture, melon and herbal notes, soft acidity, and residual sweetness make this wine a pleasing mouthful.  Generally enjoyed by the panel, the agreement was that this wine would go with summer salads, or should just be enjoyed on its own.

Lot 21 French Fusion – $11.99 – (3rd place)
A Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre blend from the Languedoc, with a deep purple hue and tight nose of dark fruit and pepper.  New world style fruit approach, with earthy berry flavors, good wood integration, and an unmistakable, but difficult to qualify French note that appears in finish.  In opposition to the Sauvignon Blanc experience, this wine generated quite a bit of discussion about potential food pairings, and the array of suggestions was wide enough to see panel agreement, that this was a tasty, and challenging wine for the table.

Lot 38 Uco Valley Malbec – $16.99 – (1st place)
The undisputed standout of the evening, showing well in all categories, and the lowest deviation between the high/low extremes.  Expressive rich nose of dark fruit, plum reduction, and toast…layered and concentrated on the palate, unctuous in texture, blueberry and blackberry fruit that unpacks itself in waves.  This fine Argentine wine, elicited some of the most interesting commentary such as:
“OK, I need a minute to sit back with this one…”,
“Can we stop now? I don’t want to be disappointed after this.”,
“I am here to fiesta in your glass, AND I brought my guitar”.

Best QPR sub-score of all the wines.

Lot 53 Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon – $15.99 – (2nd place)
Another great showing from South America.  Very nicely balanced with classic aromatic notes of black currant and cassis, brambles, and well integrated oak toast and coffee.  Equally balanced on the palate, with loads of fruit, but sensibly built so that acidity and tannin structure carries the weight of the fruit pretty effortlessly, and leaks out berry notes through a long finish.  Definitely a bright new world wine, crowd pleasing, and screaming for the lighting of the grill…

Lot 48 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – $29.99 – (6th place)
This wine was a good example of the vagaries of tasting and scoring, as well as the difference between a single critic and a consumer focused panel.  This wine is refined, subtle, and sophisticated.  Fruit and floral aromas rest just below a defined layer of baking spice oak profiling, and in the glass, delicate red fruit flavors, and fine tannins that will likely evolve in complexity, if left in the cellar.  Relative placement in this pack can probably be attributed to the fact that this wine came on the heels of two knockouts, and may have seemed demure in comparison.  Also, while this wine scored very well on the analytical sheet, and got good marks on the subjective side, the QPR score fared least well.  Universal agreement was that, at the $30 price tag, it was certainly a good price for accessing the boutique California Cab segment, whereas, no one would have been interested at its target market price of $75.

*Many thanks to guest panelist, photographer Victor Salvo, who was re-visiting the area, to complete a book project about the impact of Tropical Storm Irene’s impact on our neighborhood in central Vermont.


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