“What’s the best/most expensive wine you have ever had?”


I used to like beer. I used to drink it a lot. But then the whole IPA thing started happening about a decade ago and quite frankly, got completely out of hand. Every craft brewer was trying to out-hop the next guy. I get it, I like spicyness quite a bit. In fact I often take the top off of the pepper shaker to pour the right amount of black pepper onto my salads without having to shake, shake, shake it like Michael J Fox at an onanism competition. But I also don’t eat black pepper with a spoon either. The IPA’s of the past few years have basically tasted like you’re eating a handful of dry hops. No thanks.

When you tell people, especially “craft beer snobs” (which seem to populate every corner of the country nowadays) that you don’t really drink much beer anymore, and really prefer wine, they scoff at you for a while, but eventually start poking and prodding around your liquid proclivities. Wine it seems is a mystery to a lot of people. They perceive it as haughty, elitist, or requiring of some special and deep knowledge. In reality the opposite is true. Just like beer, you just have to drink a lot of it to figure out what you like and what you don’t like.

I think it is the restaurant wine list that scares people away from wine. It is opaque, filled with code words, and oftentimes triple-digit prices. So they flee to the simple and inexpensive comforts of wheat, hops and barley.

From that comfort zone though, they have questions. The title of this article is one of the ones I hear most often. I love to relate the tale of these two wines:

At the high end we find Vega-Sicilia “Unico” from the 1962 vintage. A bit of searching around online reveals that a bottle from this vintage can still be purchased, but it will cost you:


I prefer not to relate the circumstances of my tasting of this wine, beyond the fact that it was an important family event. It was delicious. I am not possessed of a Master Sommelier certificate, but there are a few wines I can taste and tell you what they are with absolute accuracy. If I were ever to be given this wine in a blind tasting, I know I would recognize it again. It was both delicious AND unique.

I have tasted some likely similarly expensive wines, especially older Burgundies and Bordeauxs, but to my knowledge this Ribera del Duero is the most expensive bottle of wine I have personally tasted.

More interesting, and certainly more inline to the focus of this website I have tasted a wine that is within a hair’s breadth of the 1962 Unico in terms of overall flavor and quality, and it cost me less than $25. Yes, under twenty-five dollars for a wine that could stand right next to the most expensive wine I have ever tasted. That story is far more interesting to me…

2001 Vina Olabarri Reserva Rioja

I heard about this wine back in 2009 or so and bought two bottles for about $21.99 each. I cellared, and then quite frankly forgot all about them. Fast forward to late 2012. On New Years Eve I was home alone and had made a really nice roast beef. Looking for something special from the cellar to pair up with the meal, I pulled out the Olabarri and was blown away when I popped the cork. The aroma from the bottle was intoxicatingly complex. Hard for me to nail down the exact aromas, but it was akin to that unique sense from an old European sports car… well worn leather and wood. Truly one of the finest noses on a wine I have ever experienced. I often times don’t finish a wine with dinner, and have collected a few high-tech stoppers to preserve my wines over a few nights… but not that New Years Eve! I drank the entire bottle that night, savoring every sniff and sip of that amazing Rioja!

The next day I went back to the website where I had originally bought the wine from three and a half years before. They were sold out. Some googling unearthed a wine shop about a three hour’s drive away that had some available. I called them up and ordered a case. It was priced a few bucks more than what I paid back in 2009, but still under $25. They held that case for me for close to a month before I was able to drive over and collect it. As I was walking out to my car with it, the guy told me “I think the word is out on that wine. Since you bought it I’ve had several more calls about it and my supply is going fast. Let me know if you want more.”

I drove home and after a couple of weeks I opened another bottle and thought to myself “What am I doing?…” and called that merchant again to ask how much he had left. “Six bottles” was the answer, and I bought them all on the spot.

Since then I have served this wine to several friends, and it receives universal acclaim. I have acquired several bottles of other vintages, but have yet to give them a try, as I still have a stockpile of the 2001s remaining.

Under $25, and tasting almost exactly the same as a $1300 wine from the early 1960s. Ponder that for a while.

Lowball Bordeaux Grand Cru: 2004 Chateau Lusseau Saint-Emilion

Like most folks, my buying habits have changed over the past decade. I can’t recall the last time I bought a bottle of wine in a store. I do most of my buying online these days. Most of my household goods are bought from Amazon. Tools, car parts, etc are sourced from online shops. All bought from my keyboard. My wine buying is 100% online these days. Partly because of the limited selection found in my local stores, but mostly because I can find better wine online at a better price. The only place I buy wines in person these days is at fine dining establishments. This is where I try new things and find wines I didn’t know about before. But the bulk of my wine collection has been purchased online via wine clubs and online retailers. One of these retailers I use a lot is “Wine Exchange.” I was introduced to them via a wine-focused podcast “The Tasting Room.” They appeared as a guest on the podcast likely a decade ago, when they were called “Best Wines Online”, and they showcased several wines that were all under $30 and all of them amazing. (One of which I ended up buying two and a half cases of, and frankly is one of the best wines I have ever tasted… I should write that one up for you!) I have bought a lot of wine from Wine Exchnage and am on their mailing list, which sends me bargains in email so often that I have to practice a lot of restraint not to buy everything they offer!

I love me some Bordeaux. Most of it is crazy expensive, but once in a while you stumble upon a bargain, and in this case it was a real win. In an email from Winex back in April of last year offering this Bordeaux for under twenty bucks a bottle. I grabbed two bottles. Two bottles is a pretty standard order for me (usually in a mixed half or full dozen) and I’ll drink one after a few weeks’ rest. If it is good, I’ll make a note to enjoy the second bottle at some future date. If it is REAL good, I’ll order more. In this case I ordered six more bottles.

Now I’m kicking myself for not buying several cases!

70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon makes up this garagiste estate blend. Don’t bother looking for it, as Winex bought the entire remaining output of the winery’s 2004 vintage, and sold it to their customers, myself included. Keep an eye on this source though. In fact Winex is selling futures of their 2015 vintage for $17.98. Not sure how it will compare to the 2004, especially after a decade of aging already behind the 2004, but might be worth having a go.

As for the 2004 specifically. Wow. Very old world flavor. Rich. Luscious, and earthy. Classic Saint-Emilion Bordeaux. I have tasted some astounding and expensive Saint-Emilions in my day and this one compares quite well at a tiny fraction of the price.

Two dramatically different Carmeneres: Canepa 2014 & Arenal 2012

The Bad: Canepa Reserva Famiglia 2014 Carmenere

No idea what this costs, as it was given to Testa Rossa as a gift. Some online research points to around $8.00 a bottle. I’m glad we didn’t pay anything for this because it was terrible. It had a harsh metallic edge on the taste right after opening. As you know, Carmenere is one of my favorite varietals, and rarely do I NOT like one. Note sure if this was a storage issue, or just not a very good wine, but this one was beyond help. Letting it breathe for a while, it mellowed a tiny bit, but still ended up being poured down the drain.

The Good: Arenal 2012 Carmenere

As you can see, this one cost me $8.98. Good cheap wine! After the disappointment of the Canepa I literally went to my cellar to find another Carmenere to taste, just to remind me what I liked about the stuff. I have a couple of high-dollar Carms from Montes (Purple Angel) but I wanted to find something in the same price range as the Canepa and the Arenal was right on target. In terms of drinkability and being true to the varietal, it was also spot-on. Dark. Deep flavor. I have two more bottles of this in my cellar and look forward to opening both. Great value.

Snowed in with a (not yet so) Super Tuscan

I live in the mountains. I can’t imagine living anywhere else to be honest. Beaches are not my thing. Neither are cities (though I visit them often and see their charm, especially when it comes to finding good eats.) One of the dangers, or perhaps from my perspective, one of the benefits, of mountain life is when it snows, it snows a LOT. I like snow. Actually i LOVE snow. It makes everything wonderful. I work from home most of the time so “snow days” are just another day for me. I really don’t have to go anywhere, so snow just makes the view out my windows that much better. I make a fire, sit at my desk, and get paid to bang my fingers on a computer keyboard. Might as well have a pretty view!

My favorite moments out my window are; early morning sun on the snow-covered peaks, animals browsing for food (I see elk, deer, rabbits, quail, etc out there almost every day), and best of all: the full moon illuminating the snow-covered landscape so brightly that I never need to turn on a light to see anything inside or out.

I’ve been sort of snowed in for the past few weeks. A series of storms has landed a foot of snow each on my home in the mountains. I’ve had very little need to leave the house, so I’ve just enjoyed it as much as I can. One of the ways I’ve enjoyed it is cooking nice dinners and opening wines from the cellar (which is currently hovering around 44ºF rather than its usual 55ºF.) One of the wines I had recently is this 2013 La Massa I.G.T – aka “Super Tuscan” meaning a blend of Tuscan and Bordeaux grapes. In this case the blend is mostly Sangiovese and Merlot, with a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouschet.

It was good, but nowhere as good as the last “Super Tuscan” I tried. That one took almost five years of cellar time to blossom into something awesome. This La Massa only cost me about nineteen bucks, and I think I grabbed six bottles, so if history is my guide I should hang onto the remaining stock until around 2018 or later. I’ll consider this a mental note to do so.

Meanwhile… let it snow!

Some practical advice for holiday bubbly: Simonnet-Febvre Cremant de Bourgogne Brut Rose

Good Bubbly

I drink more bubbly than I should. For me there is no better reason to pop a cork off a sparkling wine than “hey, what a nice afternoon!” *pop!* So why wait until the holidays? I guess I’m unusual since most of the population does wait for the holidays or super-special occasions to drink some bubbly. So in the spirit of the holidays I’ll give you some practical advice and suggest a real winner choice for your coming celebrations: Simonnet-Febvre Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Rosé. Yes, it is not true Champagne, as it comes from just south of the Champagne province in the Chablis region of Burgundy. It is also non-vintage. What you have here is a recipe for greatness at a price… a very reasonable price! You can find this one at your local wine shop for about $22-$30

The secret spice to get it over the top? Buy it from The Accidental Wine Company! They specialize in selling wines at a steep discount due to small amounts of damage, usually to the labels. Here is an example of said damage:


Yes. $17. A 20+% discount over retail. Seventeen bucks for what your friends will taste as a world-class bubbly. I bring this wine to pretty much every party or special event I attend and it meets with universal approval and acclaim. It is not overly sweet, and takes people by surprise when they first taste it. Seeing a “pink champagne” they assume it will be sickly-sweet. Instead this wine is a dry pinot noir with bubbles. It has that flinty quality of wines from Chablis, and pairs well with many types of food. Plus it makes any event a special one.


I buy this stuff by the case when it is available and keep it chilled in a fridge in my basement. You should too.

Surprisingly Separate Syrah: 2014 Pedal To The Metal, Santa Ynez Valley Syrah

Pedal to the Metal

This wine is outside the economic scope of this site, being a $75/bottle expense, but I thought I’d share because it caught me by surprise with how enjoyable it was to drink.

I’m not a huge fan of the Syrah (Shiraz) varietal. I rarely drink it as it seems to be a all over the map in terms of how it drinks. It can be super peppery, over-the-top bold, or more often, just sort of … “meh”.

But sometimes, very rare sometimes, a Syrah can be sublime. This is one of those times, as this is the most interesting and tasty Syrah I have ever enjoyed.

I hosted a late Thanksgiving dinner; late by four days, as that was the first time my sons could travel to my home for a family gathering due to their schedules. I chose this wine to accompany this special occasion. I kept three bottles of Pedal to the Metal Syrah in the cellar for several months with the intention of saving them specifically for a such occasions. I assumed that this 2014 wine would not really be ready to fully appreciate in late 2016, but with two more bottles I figured it would be good to taste now and try to peer into the future.

Well, I’m here to tell you the future is now. This wine had none of the tannic explosion I was prepared for… instead it was smooth and very tasty. Nothing like its name except in terms of being at the finish line long before expected or predicted. It was thoroughly enjoyed by all at the table!

Sadly for you dear reader, this wine is likely unobtainable for you right now. I was made in very limited quantities by “Tasting with Tom” host Tom Leykis earlier this year and I believe this vintage has sold out. It was available directly, and via a few retailers in California, but I imagine it is either completely sold out, or only available through some serious effort. But fear not, I have heard that another batch is in process, so keep an ear out for it on Tom’s podcast, or join his mailing list to get news about the next release.

Some Lunchtime Drinking: Cameron Hughes Lot 527 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

I’ve had a lot of life changes over the past few years. Many of them were the cause of my lack of wine-blogging, some of them were the cause of me wine-blogging again. A move from one state to another. My kids growing up, and leaving home. A serious illness. The most significant change of all however was the end of my relationship with the person you have all gotten to know as “Mrs. Barbarian.” It was a rough time… for both of us. After a few years of being apart I started dating again, and have been seeing a real fiery testa rossa, who shares my love of tasting good things.

One of those things was this bottle of Pinot Noir from Cameron Hughes. A steal at $13! I’m not usually a fan of Pinot Noir. Pinots are like Porsches, they can be awesome, or they can be awful, but they are almost always expensive. A good, cheap Pinot is about as common as a good, cheap Porsche. But this one is quite good, and indeed cheap, thanks to our negociant friend Cameron Hughes.

We enjoyed it over an evening and better yet, lunchtime the following day where we noshed on fruit, some nice cheeses, and cured meats.The wine is a classic California Pinot, with a light color and a refreshing flavor. Really quite good and Testa Rossa herself said it was a favorite. She loves Pinot Noir, so stay tuned for more reviews provided she doesn’t dump me.

My only issue with this wine was the cork, which dove into the bottle as soon as I pressed the Screwpull into it.

Cellar Treasure: Walter Clore Private Reserve Columbia Crest 2003 Red

This bottle has been laying about my family’s cellars for well over a decade. First in my father’s basement, and eventually mine, as my folks sold the family home earlier this year and the goods were distributed among the kids as they downsized. My sisters laid claim to the furniture, I grabbed the wine. As I unpacked the wine into my cellar, I noted some amazing bottles ranging in vintage from the 1960s through the 2000s, as well as some more “pedestrian” wares. I may choose to highlight the amazing under some new category here soon, but meanwhile here is one from the middle ground. It is a red blend from Columbia Crest, which is one of the older Washington state wineries. A Bordeaux style blend, it was aged in French oak for two years before bottling, which means my father had it for at least ten years in his cellar before it came to me. I’ve poked around online and this wine seems to sell around thirty dollars when new, so perhaps my father paid mid-twenties back in the day? So not a big budget wine really. So how did it fare in 2016? REALLY well actually.

I’m no sommelier but I imagine if I kidnapped one, tied them up in my basement, blindfolded them and let them taste this wine they’d say it was from France. That typical “barnyard” nose that you find with a Bordeaux beauty, along with the complex flavors. I drink a lot of Washington wines. A lot. I’m in a bunch of wine clubs from Washington wineries and they keep me supplied with a stead stream of stuff from Walla Walla and the Columbia Valley. This wine is nothing like them… at all.

Those clever Washingtonians.

Smart Bombs and Cellar Treasures: Cameron Hughes Lots 444 & 469

Smart Bombs of the Wine World

Twenty-some years ago we all watched astounded on CNN as a war halfway around the world displayed some shocking technology: The Smart Bomb. Our grandfathers dropped dumb bombs on each other, and it resulted in entire cities being destroyed when the actual target was a bridge, or a factory. The classic “kill a fly with a bazooka” scenario. Over time, physicists and engineers developed munitions that became smarter and smarter; heat-seeking, video-guided, laser-guided, etc. So that by 1990 we were watching bombs fall from tens of thousands of feet and go down chimneys.

Like many scientific discoveries, some of the best happen by accident. I think I may have stumbled upon the smart bomb of wines. I talk about Cameron Hughes‘s wines a lot. Mostly because they are by far, the best values in the wine buying world. Mr. Hughes is a negociant, not a wine maker per se, but a seller of other producers wines, excess inventory, distressed inventory, etc. He offers all sorts of wines that are generally excellent, but at frankly amazing prices. On average I’d say the typical CHWine offering is a $50 to $150 bottle (if it were in its original guise) being sold for $15 to $40. Cameron himself seems to have a sweet spot of expertise, and that is Napa Valley Bordeaux-style wines. Mostly Cabernet Sauvignons, but also into the Merlots, and Bordeaux style blends (what has come to be called Meritage). Cameron Hughes has a particular nose for both great deals, and great Napa valley wines. (He sells wines from all over the world, and I have had great results with all of them. I’m just saying his particular expertise and specialty is Napa Valley.)

So here is my sure-fire, four step, smart-bomb recipe for buying a great Napa Valley wine at a very low price:

    1. Find Cameron Hughes Wines. Either buy them direct from their website, at a retailer like Costco, or better yet, do like I do and join their wine club, which gets you additional discounts.
    2. Buy anything that they offer from Napa Valley made from Bordeaux grapes. In descending order: Cabernet Sauvignon, Meritage, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot (I haven’t seen any Napa Malbecs, Carmeneres, etc yet.)
    3. Cellar them well from two to five years. Mind you, I haven’t been able to amass a deep enough cellar stock to stretch them beyond that five year mark yet. So maybe even longer if you can.
    4. Drink!

I have yet to be disappointed, but so far I have found the accuracy of this trajectory to be well over 96%. These latest two, Lot 444 2013 Napa Valley Meritage, and the Lot 469 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon were amazingly good. Lot 444 is sold out, but they still have 469 available at around $32. My normal pattern is to taste my way through the club case shipments that come to me a few times a year, and then if there are any standouts buy a few more bottles to lay down for a few years, ideally in a spot not within easy grabbing range. These Napa Valley wines that Mr. Hughes selects ALL seem to benefit from some cellar aging. They develop to be some of the best I drink out of that region, and once you reflect back on what you paid? It makes you feel like a genius.

Even if it is accidental.

Remembrances of Reckless Youth

Silver Oak Cabernet

I found this bottle in my recycling yesterday. I was making my quarterly trip to the dump to leave behind my collected bottles. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution required my presence at the County Courthouse, and I figured I’d swing by the recycling center at the county dump, as it is on the way. So I was filling one of those giant Costco vegetable boxes in the trunk of my car with bottles from the garage… and picked up this 2012 Silver Oak Cabernet. At an average price of $73.16 (according to an app on my phone) it does not fall within the realm of what this blog usually covers. Not even close. I did pick it up for a pretty good price (around $50 if I recall correctly) but that’s still out of scope. It was at a forgettable dinner at one of those restaurants whose view is far better than its fare. This particular evening even the view was obscured by clouds, so the sole highlight was seeing Silver Oak on the wine list at a hefty discount.

But it did trigger a long-dormant memory which I shared with my dining companions, and I’ll share with you dear reader…

Back in 1983/4 which was my Junior year in college, I was attending a large state University, which was over 500 miles from my parent’s home, so I didn’t see them all that often. By the time I had been in school for over two years, I’d developed a set of friends and activities that took me in directions away from my family for most breaks. I can’t recall if it was Thanksgiving, or Christmas break that year, but it was the final time that I actually made the drive there and back for the holiday. My appreciation of wine came to me honestly, via my father who has been a serious collector and drinker of fine wines for longer than I have been alive. My parents, bless them, have never had any hangups or overly strict rules about drinking for their kids. I can remember being offered wine with my dinners from a pretty young age. Mind you I didn’t like it, as kids palates are rarely up for the reality or sophistication of adult food and drink, so I usually passed. But as I grew to the adulthood I came to it with no taboos about booze. Contrast that to my fellow students in my Freshman year, where likely half of them came completely unhinged once out of their parental sphere of influence and control. The first semester of University was a non-stop party of sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, and of course cheap beer & booze. Ironically the town where my University is located was a “Dry” town back then. Yes, a vestige of post-prohibition religious control of local laws. A huge state University in a dry town… what could possibly go wrong? It is amusing to think back to those days, and the illusion (or perhaps delusion) that law and rule could somehow keep hormones and new-found freedom in check. The dormitories were segregated by gender (can’t say “by sex” because there was plenty of that going on!), alcohol was forbidden in these dorms, and you and to drive miles out of town to buy alcohol. (The edge of the “dry” part was clearly visible by the string of huge warehouse-sized, DRIVE-THROUGH liquor stores. You literally drove in, opened your trunk, told them what you wanted to buy, and they’d forklift it into your vehicle for you.) The dorms were basically sleeping/studying/drinking locations. My dorm room was on the ground floor, right by the back door. I saw all the contraband going in (booze, beer, girls), and out (girls mostly, very early in the morning and looking a lot less beautiful than they did going in.) I think by mid-terms of Freshman year a third of the students were beyond redemption with their GPAs and sent packing by Christmas… right back into their parental sphere of influence and control.


On my last post-holiday drive back to school, my wonderful parents gave me a parting gift: A case of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon.

Well, not a FULL case, but ten or eleven bottles. They told me that they’d had it for a few years, part of a multi case batch they acquired, and the bottles they had recently pulled from it were “off”… Not bad, but clearly declining from their peak. Having no recollection of the exact vintage; likely from the late 70s, all I do recall is exactly how thrilled I was to have this windfall of good stuff! I usually drank swill as a college student. Busch beer ($4 a case!) or Earnest & Julio’s “Hearty Burgundy” out of a jug. Landing most of a case of Silver Oak was like having that busty brunette be assigned as your lab partner.

I made the long drive back to school, with that case of Silver Oak bottles gently clinking away in the back of my VW Rabbit, me smugly smiling at the wheel… slowly proceeding at the strictly-enforced 55MPH speed limit. Having that back-door adjascent room made smuggling my contraband into the dorm a breeze. My memory of those wines is that all of them were amazing. Not a single one was “off” in any way. Only a couple of my dorm buddies were wine drinkers, but those guys descended on my room like locusts on Mormon settlers. No gulls came to save me. I hid a couple of bottles from the onslaught, but I doubt even those lasted until the end of the semester.

Je suis gormand.