Tag Archives: Pappy Van Winkle

Why I Don’t Use Scores


My 60 Second Wine Reviews are a regular feature that give me a chance to geek out about various wines. But while I deliver a “Verdict” at the end of each review, I also leave a glaring omission.

I don’t give a numerical score.

It’s not that I’m morally opposed to using the 100 point scale popularized by Robert Parker and Wine Spectator or the 20 point scale favored by Jancis Robinson and UC-Davis. In fact, I regularly look at scores by those publications and use them as tools in researching wines.

But I think they’re useless for me to give out.

A 7 Point Scale

When I first started using CellarTracker, I got into the habit of rating wines numerically but soon discovered a disturbing trend. While in theory I had 100 points to divvy out, in truth, I was really only working on a scale of 87-94.

If the wine was well made but not my style, 90-91 points. If it had some issues then 87-89. For wines I really liked it was 92-93. If it blew me away then a 94.

For some reason I just couldn’t rate anything above 94 because I felt like there was always the potential for something else to come along to raise the bar—even though I’ve enjoyed some amazing wines over the years.

The 1996 Chateau Margaux? 94 points.
The 2010 Angelus? 94 points.
The 2005 Quilceda Creek? 94 points.
The 2012 Chappellet Pritchard Hill? 94 points.
The 1970 Taylor Vintage Port? 94 points.
The 1996 Champagne Salon? 94 points.

This is not a slight on any of those wines and they all deserved the much higher scores they got from professional critics. But for me, even though I richly enjoyed them and felt that I got more than my money’s worth with each, there was still that mental and emotional barrier that didn’t want to go higher than 94 points.

Painting by EGrützner. Sourced from Ketterer Kunst Auktion: 402, 14.05.2013, lot 699. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark

Trust me, I’m a professional drinker.


It’s silly but isn’t trying to quantify numerically all the nuances of wine a fool’s errand anyways?

And truthfully when it comes playing the fool (and doing it well), we can’t all be a Falstaff, Stanczyk, Claus Narr or James Suckling.

I Rate With My Wallet

And I believe that most wine drinkers do the same.

While we might sometimes indulge our inner Robert Parkers with scoring, I would wager that most of the time when we evaluate a wine, we judge it on if we got enough pleasure to merit the cost of what we paid. It’s human nature to expect more from a $100 bottle of wine than a $10 bottle and that is the approach I take with each wine I taste.

I view the cost of each bottle as a potential investment in pleasure and I seek a solid return on my investment.

94 points but well worth splurging on to try at least once in your life.


And it is my investment as my wife and I personally buy more than 90% of the wines (and whiskeys) that I review on this blog whether it be the 2006 Petrus, 20 year Pappy Van Winkle, Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé or the Groth, Pegau CdP, etc. A few times even at restaurant mark ups!

Now some wines like the 2007 Poisot Romanée-Saint-Vivant and the wines featured in my Walla Walla Musings post, I do get to taste at tastings open to industry/media and I often get my tasting fees waived at wineries for being in the industry–but with each wine I always default back to the question of “Would I pay $$ to purchase this wine?”

If I’m tasting it blind and I don’t know the cost, I ascribe a price point that I feel would be good value if I was buying the wine.

But unlike Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, James Suckling and the like, I’m not trying to be a professional wine critic or consumer advocate. I’m just a geek who likes to drink.

I rate wines on my personal scale of if I think they’re worth spending money on because ultimately that’s what I’m interested in–do I want to buy this wine (again)? Just as other folks have their own personal tastes, people also have their own personal scale of value.

That’s perfectly fine and, frankly, is the reason why I put the “Verdict” section at the very bottom of each review. My opinion is just my opinion and, besides, it’s really the “Geekery” section where you’ll find the good stuff anyways.

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Petrus — The Super Bowl of Wine

I finally got a chance to try one of my bucket list wines–a bottle of 2006 Petrus from Pomerol. My wife and I originally bought it for our early December wedding anniversary, but then I got a cold, so we shelved that idea.

We were going to open it up for Christmas Eve, but another cold hit. So we decided to hold off till we both were 100% healthy and entirely on point with our tasting sensibilities before cracking into this baby. My tasting notes (and whether I think it is worth the cost) are below after a bit of geeking.

The Geekery

What makes Petrus, Petrus?

As Clive Coates notes in Grands Vins: The Finest Châteaux of Bordeaux and Their Wines, the phenomenon of Petrus as a cult wine for Bordeaux lovers is a relatively new creation. As recently as the post World War II years leading up to 1955, the wine merchant Avery’s of Bristol had exclusive rights to buy up virtually all available allocations of Petrus–which it usually did–but would struggle to find buyers.

While there is some evidence of winemaking at the estate dating back to the 1750s, the first recorded mention of Petrus can be found in the 1837 notebooks of the merchant house Tastet and Lawton. Here the estate was owned by the Arnaud family and considered the third best property in Pomerol behind Vieux Château Certan and Trotanoy. In pricing, it fetched far less than the top estates of the Medoc and only a third of the top estates of St. Emilion such as Ch. Belair. But its reputation for quality was soon to be discovered, as David Peppercorn noted in his work Bordeaux. At the 1878 Paris Exhibition Petrus won a gold medal–becoming the first wine from Pomerol to earn such an achievement.

The fortune (and pricing) of Petrus began to change in the 1920s when its owner, M. Sabin-Douarre, started selling shares of Petrus to the proprietor of his favorite restaurant in Libourne, l’Hotel Loubat.  The restaurant’s owner, Madame Loubat, continued purchasing shares from Sabin-Douarre until she was the sole owner of Petrus.

The Loubat and Moueix Era

When my wife and I were in Bordeaux, we drove around for at least 40 minutes through Pomerol trying to find Petrus. We kept passing by the property. It was so unassuming and not what we expected.

Stephen Brook notes, in The Complete Bordeaux, that at this point Petrus was being priced on par with the Second Growths of the Medoc. However,  Mme. Loubat wanted everyone to know the high quality of Petrus and began demanding higher prices.

In 1943, she hired Jean-Pierre Moueix as the sole agent in charge of not only distribution of her wine but also production. Soon Petrus was never priced below the acclaimed Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ estate of Cheval Blanc. It was also beginning to rival the First Growths of the Medoc.

Moueix started out owning Ch. Fonroque in St. Emilion before beginning his négociant business–mostly to help sell his estate wine. When Mme. Loubat passed away in 1961, she bequeathed Moueix a single share of Petrus while splitting the rest between her niece and nephew. Over the next few years, Moueix gradually bought out Loubat’s heirs and assumed full ownership of Petrus by 1969.

Today the Moueix family owns several estates in Bordeaux including Trotanoy, La Fleur-Pétrus, Hosanna, Latour à Pomerol, La Grave, Lafleur-Gazin and Ch. Lagrange in Pomerol; Ch. Bélair-Monange and Clos La Madeleine in St. Emilion as well as Dominus, Napanook, Othello and Ulysses in Napa Valley.

The Blend (or lack thereof)

While historically Petrus has kept a small parcel of Cabernet Franc on the property, they have been gradually replacing them all with Merlot. The 2006 vintage I tasted was 100% Merlot.

Why So Expensive?

The grounds of Petrus with vineyards to the right. The weather was gorgeous the week we were there, with it only raining on our last night, so we didn’t get to experience the muddy clay sticking to our shoes.

Petrus certainly has distinctive and unique terroir.  Wine writer Oz Clarke describes it in his work Bordeaux as “…one of the muddiest, most clay-clogged pieces of land my shoes have ever had the ill luck to slither through.”

Petrus sits on a “button-hole” of blue muddy clay which covers a subsoil of gravel that is followed underneath by a virtually impenetrable layer of hard iron-rich crasse de fer. The soil is around 40 million years old compared to the 1 million-year-old gravel soils surrounding the Pomerol plateau. The dense, hard smectite clay causes the vine to struggle as its roots cannot penetrate deep.  However, the soil amply retains moisture. This trait becomes invaluable during warm years and dry summer months when the risk of hydraulic stress is high. As Jeff Leve of The Wine Cellar Insider notes, there is no other wine producing region in the world that has this soil structure.

There are about 50 acres of this unique soil in Pomerol.

While neighboring estates like Vieux Château Certan, La Fleur-Pétrus, La Conseillante and L’Evangile have some parcels featuring this terroir, Petrus is the only estate exclusively planted on this soil with 28+ ha. Additionally, Petrus is located on the top of this gently sloping button-hole which allows for better drainage during wetter years.

The vines of Petrus are relatively old with some parcels dating back to 1952. The root systems of other parcels are even older because of (interestingly enough) the 1956 frost that devastated the Right Bank. It killed nearly 2/3 of Petrus’ vines. However, Mme. Loubat refused to replant completely and instead attempted the untested technique of recépage. She ordered her workers to graft the new vines onto the established root-stock. The move was criticized by viticulturists and other estate owners who thought that these vines would only produce for a few vintages. However, decades later these vines are still viable.

High Priced and Labor Intensive Viticulture

I wasn’t brave enough to go up and touch the building.

The Moueix family spares no expense when it comes to tending the vines, with severe yield restrictions of 32 to a max of 45 hl/ha (3 tons an acre) with some years going as low as 17.5 hl/ha. In contrast, many well-regarded estates frequently harvest at 60-70 hl/ha.

If inopportune rains hit close to harvest, Moueix will rent a helicopter to hover over the vines and dry them off. In 1992, they covered the entire vineyard in plastic sheeting to avoid excess moisture seeping into the ground. They wanted to avoid any chance of the rain plumping up the berries and diluting flavors.

Like with top Sauternes, harvest is done at Petrus on a berry by berry basis with vineyard workers manually picking the individual grapes off the vines. These 100% de-stemmed berries are then hand sorted with an optical sorter joining the process only since the 2009 vintage.

Limited Supply and Very High Demand

After fermentation and malo, the wine is aged in 50% new French oak for 18-20 months before going through a rigorous selection process. During this time the winemakers narrow the barrels down to only the very best that will go into the final Grand Vin. Anything that doesn’t meet the grade is sold off as anonymous Pomerol. It’s every Bordeaux insider’s dream to figure out where these “discard barrels” of wine go.

Here is where we ultimately get down to the most significant cost driver. Each year, the estate produces only around 2,500 cases (30,000 bottles) of a single wine.

I honestly don’t think they will ever make gummy bears from Petrus like they do with the 5 million+ bottles of Dom Perignon.

Compare this to the 31,000+ cases of Ch. Latour, the 10,000+ cases of Opus One or even the 5 million+ bottles of Dom Perignon produced virtually every year. The scarcity and high demand mean that so few people will ever get a chance to try this wine. Those that do, unfortunately, have to pay dearly.

The Wine

So how was it? I knew that this was a wine that really should’ve been holding onto for at least 15-20 years and, even then, given a good several hours of decanting. But this was more about sharing a moment with my wife.  So we popped it open when she got home and watched it evolve as we cooked and savored dinner.

Pop and pour

Medium intensity nose. Red fruits–plums, raspberry and a little earthy funk that is not defined but intriguing.

Palate has medium-plus acidity, very juicy and fresh, with medium tannins and medium-plus body. The red fruits carry through and then WHOA the mid-palate jumps with an assortment of spice that I will need some time to piece out. Minute and half long finish right now.

After an hour and a half in the decanter

Nose is now medium-plus intensity with the spice notes coming out more with a little herbal thyme. The fruit is also more rich deeper and dark–like Turkish fig and black currants.

The palate is still juicy with medium-plus acidity. The spices are getting a little more defined–making me think of Asian cuisine with tamarind fruit, star anise, coriander seed and pink peppercorn.

After 3 hours

Would St. Peter rob Paul to drink Petrus?

Still medium-plus intensity nose but a little tobacco spice has joined the party. Still has the mix of Asian spice with black currants and a smidgen of eucalyptus. Pretty remarkable how this keeps evolving. Truthfully, I can only imagine how much more evocative this would get if I had the patience and restraint to milk this out over several more hours.

The palate is still incredibly juicy with medium-plus acidity.  The wine seems to works against any desire to ration and be restrained.  The mouthwatering acidity makes you want to take another sip and then another. The tannins have gotten more velvety at this point. The finish has topped out at about 2 minutes with the cornucopia of spices being the last notes.

The Verdict

So is it worth $2600 (when I got it in November 2017) to now at $3000 a bottle?

Kinda.

It truly is a remarkable wine that enchants you as it continuously evolves in your glass. Not just hour by hour but sip by sip. It’s an experience that I’m quite pleased to have had but, at the same time, it is not necessarily an experience that I feel compelled to ever splurge on again.

As I mentioned in my reviews of the Samuel Adams’ Utopias and the Pappy Van Winkle 20 yr, a lot of the cost (and subsequent pleasure) for these Veblen goods often comes from the hunt to finally acquire them. For me, getting a chance to try a Petrus was a bucket list item–just as jumping out of an airplane and meeting Jancis Robinson is. It is always a thrill to check a bucket list item off.

I’ll also somewhat borrow an analogy from my Behind the Curtain post about wine pricing. In many ways, drinking a wine like Petrus is like attending the Super Bowl.

How much would you pay for one night of entertainment?

With only around 70,000 tickets for a single game each year, how many people in their lifetime get a chance to watch the game in person?

Ask yourself, how much of a premium would you pay for the privilege of attending a game that could very well suck (especially if your team loses)? And what are you really paying for but just a single night of an experience that is over after a few hours? How different is that from sharing a single bottle of wine?

My wife is a native Boston girl who was a Patriots season ticket holder during the crappy years. We finally went to Super Bowl in 2017 when the Pats played the Falcons.

Now compare that to how much you pay to attend a regular NFL playoff game, a regular season game, a college game or even your local Friday night high school game? Of course, you can argue about the potentially superior play of NFL players playing at the pinnacle of their profession but, likewise, you can debate the potentially superior terroir of Petrus, the craftsmanship of Pappy Van Winkle, the uniqueness of Utopias, etc.

The truth of the matter is–no one needs to attend the Super Bowl just like no one needs to try Petrus. There are a lot of great football games at all different levels. Likewise, there are lots of great wines at all different price points. Whether or not it is “worth it” is purely about how much the experience means to you.

For me, they were both worth it.

After attending the Super Bowl once and tasting Petrus once, I treasure both experiences. I am grateful that I had those opportunities.

But I don’t feel like I ever need to do either again. When I think of all the other things I could do for the same costs (travel, enjoy multiple bottles of Ch. Angelus, Ch. Palmer, etc.), I am content to happily check those things off the bucket list and move on to the next experience.

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60 Second Whiskey Review — Pappy Van Winkle 20yr

Some quick thoughts on the 20 year Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon.

The Geekery

Made in partnership with Buffalo Trace since 2002, Pappy Van Winkle traces its origins to 1874 when Julian Van Winkle moved to Frankfurt, Kentucky. Van Winkle began working as a salesman for W. L. Weller in 1893 before eventually becoming president of the Stitzel-Weller distillery. The Van Winkles continued distilling at Stitzel-Weller for several decades until Julian’s son sold it–with the distillery shuttering its door in 1992.

In his book, Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey, Fred Minnick notes that the “Pappy Craze” really didn’t start until the mid-1990s when Pappy Van Winkle received 99 points from the Beverage Tasting Institute and was named by Food & Wine as “American Whiskey of the Year”.

To build demand, Julian Van Winkle III instituted a policy of making fewer bottles than what he knew he could sell. Even today only around 6 to 7 thousand cases across the entire Van Winkle line is released each year.

While the exact mash bill is unknown, it is a wheated bourbon.

The Whiskey

High intensity nose. Huge mix of dried fruit–figs, black cherries, raisins. Then comes the spice and floral notes with a little chocolate malt ball action.

On the palate, the dried fruit carries through and brings a butterscotch richness that adds to a creamy mouthfeel. The whiskey holds its 45.2% ABV very well and doesn’t need any water or ice. The one glaring negative is how short the finish is. After around 20 seconds or so it’s gone.

The Verdict

By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia - Moroccan Dried Fruit and Nuts, CC BY 2.0, on Wikimedia Commons

Beautiful mix of dried fruit in the bouquet of this whiskey.

Like the Sam Adams’ Utopias and the cult wines of Napa Valley, this is one of those trophy bottles that you have to hunt down and pony up for. Was it worth it?

For the most part, yes. But also no. I’m glad I got to try this and the nose is incredible. While the smoothness and mouthfeel is enjoyable, the whiskey does literally leave you hanging with the abysmally short finish.

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Samuel Adams Utopias 2017– Is it worth the money?

It’s Fall which means it is “trophy hunting season” in the beverage world. While bourbon fans are salivating over the release of the Pappy Van Winkle line and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BATC), Beer Geeks have been waiting for their own fall time “cult releases” like the Bruery Weekday Stouts, the Goose Island Bourbon County line-up, Deschutes’ The Abyss and Surly Darkness. While there are anticipated beer releases throughout the year, every two years the fall release season gets a special kick with the release of the Sam Adams Utopias.

At around $200 for a 750ml bottle, the Utopias is far and away the most expensive of the “cult beers” and the question follows, is it worth the money?

The answer: It depends.

First, let’s talk about the 2017 Utopias itself. The 2017 release is a blend of several brews including a batch of Triple Bock that has been aged 24 years, a 17 year aged batch of Millennium, some of the previous releases of Utopias and bit of their Kosmic Mother Funk brew.

The assortment of batches are aged in various barrels including bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace, Ruby Port barrels and white wine barrels from Carcavelos. A unique twist added to the 2017 release is the use of Akvavit barrels which previously held the Scandinavian herbal liqueur that is characterized by their caraway and dill flavors. After blending, the entire batch of the 2017 Utopias was finished in what the Sam Adams’ website described as “Moscat barrels, a wine known for its slightly smoky character”. Since usually Muscat and Moscato wines are not barrel aged–I’m going to take a guess that they are referring to Moscatel from either the Sherry region of Spain or the Portuguese region of Setúbal. Both are fortified wines that are barrel aged and, while “smokey” is not necessarily a primary note in their profiles, can see some subtle barrel influence.

The end result of all this work is a mere 13,000 bottles of 28% ABV “beer” that truly deserves the scare quotes around the word. With no carbonation and the ability to be nursed and savored in small pours over many years, it is hard to compare it any other beer.

And that’s were the question of Cost and Worth come in….


The peers to the Samuel Adams’ Utopias are not Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, Bell’s Hopslam, Boulevard’s Scotch on Scotch, Alchemist’s Heady Topper or other highly sought after brews that have folks driving for hours, camping outside stores and breweries just get a highly allocated bomber or pack. Rather, it is more apt to compare the Utopias to some of the bourbon trophies–the Pappys, BATC, Michter’s 10 yr Rye, the Orphan Barrels, Four Roses Limited Editions, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, High West’s A Midwinter’s Night Dram, Elijah Craig 18 & 23 yrs, etc.

And make no mistake, while many of these bourbons are tasty drams, for most people acquiring these is far more about the hunt than it is for the innate quality of what is inside the bottle. When something is made in such a limited qualities, the economic laws of supply and demand give way to the human desire for exclusivity and lust for Veblen goods. If only 1,461 bottles of the Eagle Rare 17 was made for the 2017 BATC release then only around 1,461 souls are going to get that “trophy”. How much is it worth to you to be one of those souls? How much is it worth to you be one of the folks who can share that trophy with friends and family?

That was my mindset when it came to the Pappy 20 year that I was able to “bag” a couple years ago. I was able to get it for around $230. I tried it and was…well underwhelmed.

My notes from that night:

“Good but not life changing” is the most apt description. It has a very lovely nose–candied apricots, vanilla, orange blossoms and some baking spices. In fact, I would say the nose is the best part. But the mouthfeel and complexity on the palate is just meh. The vanilla (LOTS of vanilla) carried through and takes on a sort of orange creamsicle character. But that’s pretty much it.

It has a fair amount of bite and heat for something that is only 45% especially when I compared it to how smooth the Old Pultney 21 and Glenmorangie Signet are at 46%. Last night after I had the Pappy, I tried the Girvan’s Proof Strength Grain Whiskey that was 57% and even that was smoother and more balanced.

Again, the nose is A+ but if I was having this blind and trying to guess the age and price point, I would be thinking a good quality 8-12 year American bourbon in the $60-80 range. In my honest opinion, it is no where near the $230 price—especially when you consider the vastly superior quality and complexity you could get in Single Malt Scotches for the equivalent price.”

Seriously, Fran’s is the best

That was over a year ago and even after sharing it very liberally with friends and family, I still have about a third of a bottle of the Pappy 20 left. Even after it is all gone, I honestly don’t see myself going through the effort to hunt for another bottle. Still, I don’t regret getting it or spending the money. It was a trophy and I can say that I’ve experience the success of the hunt at least once in my life.

So…..are you trying to say that you were underwhelmed with the Utopias, eh?

Actually, no. I quite enjoyed the 2017 Utopias. I was blown away with how much it tasted like a salted caramel–like Fran’s Chocolate level good. From a geeky and foodie perspective, it had my thoughts racing about what kind of interesting and delicious food pairing possibilities that one could do with the interplay of sweet and savory that is very well balance in the brew.
My notes:

The nose smells like a 20 year Tawny Port. Very rich and caramel with spices. The palate is oily and silky. Salt! It totally taste like a salted dark chocolate caramel.

Rolling it around your tongue you get a mix of both black cherry and tart red cranberries. There is a toastiness underneath almost like a baked graham cracker crust. It holds it heat fairly well for 28%. You can feel it with the weight and mouthfeel but there really isn’t any back end heat.

It was certainly a unique experience and, for me, being one of the 13,000 people that get a chance to experience that uniqueness and share it with friends and family make its worth the price. Will I be rushing to get another bottle when the 2019 release comes out? Maybe. It will honestly all depend on if I still have some of the 2017 left at that time.

But that’s me. I can’t answer the question of whether or not it is worth it for you or anyone else. Just like with the trophy bourbons. Some are worth it. Some may not be. But if you like the hunt and want that exclusivity then, by all means, Happy Hunting.

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