June 13 2014 05:27 PM

Blind tasting proves price doesn't always dictate quality

Photo by Jen Van Tieghem

As I looked at all of the California Cabernet Sauvignons in my cupboard recently, I did what any decent wine lover would do: I decided to share.

I hosted some friends and family for a blind tasting so that no price or pretty label would skew opinions. Using a tasting kit, I cloaked the bottles and numbered the glasses, and we got to drinking. 

Our contending Cali Cabs were a 2011 Illaria from Napa Valley ($65 suggested retail price), a 2010 Sequoia Grove from Napa Valley ($39), a 2011 Louis M. Martini from Sonoma County ($18) and a 2011 Trader Joe's Grand Reserve from Napa Valley ($10). 

First, we sipped each wine on its own, then with Cab-friendly cheeses and lastly with grilled steak and salads. 

Jotting down notes, I put my choices in two categories—the two heartier, more flavorful wines competed for my first place and the two lighter and more one-dimensional wines competed for third. As the hours passed, the Cabs I liked best evolved in flavor—something to consider when tasting is how open air affects the wine. 

After lots of tasting and nibbling, we compared notes to see where we agreed and disagreed. We then unveiled the bottles and tallied up our rankings.

Collectively, our lowest-ranked wine was the Louis M. Martini; however, itís interesting to note that it was one person's favorite. People's palates and preferences vary, making this exercise that much more appealing. Notes of bell pepper and olives started the aroma, which also held light smoke. The guest who liked it best described its flavors as "fig-like" and found it had a smooth finish. He liked it even better when I told him the price was less than $20. 

Ranking slightly better in the lineup was the Trader Joe's Grand Reserve. This one smelled pleasantly herbaceous but had more tang than I like. It went well with cheese—Spanish Manchego and aged Irish cheddar especially, but I found it fell flat with the rich main course. For the low cost, it would work as a pre-dinner bottle for a barbecue before getting to the grilled stuff.

Second place went to the priciest in the bunch, the Illaria. This one was dark in color with an earthy aroma; flavors identified by the group included plum, cherry and pepper. Its aspects changed the most during the course of the night, making it a popular revisit for tasters. For me, it's steep on the price tag, but if I win my NBA-playoff bets, I'd treat myself again. 

The top pick for most of us, including me, was the 2010 Sequoia Grove. The nose began with light tobacco and developed into a toasted marshmallow scent. Its taste included some of that smokiness along with rich berry essences that mirrored its deep garnet color. At almost $40 a bottle, it's something I'd buy and save for a great menu to really savor its food-friendly aspects. 

With ranging preferences, and budgets, there's definitely a California Cab out there for every wine-lover, and I highly recommend doing a blind tasting party to find out which one's for you. 

Write to jenv@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Jen_VT.


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