Calling your wine brand “90+ Cellars” is a bit like a guy wearing a T-shirt that says “I have the biggest…”. It’s asking for trouble. When Kevin Mehra founded the brand he knew that he was bound to get called on such an audacious move. Recall that most major wine scoring systems in the world follow the system started in the 1970s by Robert Parker based on scoring wines on a 100-point scale. The wine departments of stores from Costco to Sigel’s to Centennial put tags (called shelf talkers) in their stores advertising the scores that the wines achieved in publications like The Wine Advocate, The Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast, and The International Wine Cellar. For most consumers, 90 points has become a magic score as the number pretty much guarantees commercial success. A score of 90 or above is awarded to less than 5% of the wines offered for sale.
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Of course, scores are at best a shorthand and totally inappropriate to judgments specific to an individual palate. Take them as advisory rather than gospel. Their value is that if you have a limited budget and limited time you can’t sample everything and a reliable taster can get you better value for your hard-earned dollar.
90+ Cellars doesn’t have a single vineyard or make a single bottle of wine. They are closest to a négociant, to use the French term, in that they buy wine and re-label it with their own name. 90+ Cellars’ wines may or may not have scored 90 points. In some cases they have, and the producer has a few tens of thousands of cases unsold and doesn’t want to put them on the market for fear of pushing the price down and debasing the brand. Or, the producer has a new vintage to sell and wants the old one off the shelves. In other cases, the wine has not scored 90 points but comes from a producer who regularly scores 90 points for that wine, and it passes a taste test. Under both scenarios, 90+ Cellars sells the re-labeled wine at a much lower price point than the original. Most of their wines sell for less than $15. They keep prices down not only by buying opportunistically but also by maintaining a lean supply chain. They only distribute to a few, high sales states and target a few large retailers. In Dallas, for example, their wines are sold exclusively through Sigel’s. Due to the way they buy, they don’t have the same wine to sell each year. For example, the 2008 Malbec is likely from a totally different producer than the 2009 Malbec. For this reason each wine has a “lot number” on the label to identify it.
The past five years have been a propitious time for such a business model. The world has been awash with high quality wine as large harvests have met drastically reduced consumer demand at the high end. 90+ Cellars has been a lifeline for many cash-strapped small wineries. Mehra thinks that the wine will still be available when the wine market recovers. Time will tell…
With those caveats, I decided that 90+ Cellars needed to be held to the standard they profess. I asked them to provide, at their expense, four wines to D that they regarded as most worthy of their name. With them, I wanted to devise a taste test that would be free of arbitrary definitions of what constituted a 90 point wine (i.e. my palate). So, first I assembled five expert palates into an Expert Tasting Panel (ETP). Their scores, as well as mine, would provide six separate opinions of what it means to be a 90 point wine. Second, I got the ETP members to bring other 90 point wines available in Dallas stores and sold for around the same price point as 90+ Cellars’ wines (these wines were all purchased at retail) and had roughly the same age. That meant that we, as a group, knew that every wine except one in a flight had definitely achieved 90 points. Third, I arranged for the tasting to be blind (i.e. the bottles were covered with brown bags and labeled A,B, etc.). That eliminated label bias.
The result was four flights, three wines per flight, and six tasters. The tasters had to score each of the three wines in each flight on a scale from 0 to 100. The prices shown below for the 90+ Cellars wines are their MSRPs. ET stands for “Expert Taster”. The winners for each flight are shown in bold. Here are the results.
|NAME||PRICE||Me||ET1||ET2||ET3||ET4||ET5||AVERAGE||WHO RATED IT?||SOURCE|
|FLIGHT 1: SAUVIGNON BLANC|
|2010 Margerum ‘Sybarit’,
Happy Canyon, Santa Barbara, California
|$ 19.99||87||85||85||80||79||85||84||Wine Spectator 91||Sigel’s|
Marlborough, New Zealand
|$ 12.69||90||70||87||87||85||90||85||Wine Spectator 91||Costco|
|2011 90+ Cellars, Lot 2,
Marlborough, New Zealand
|FLIGHT 2: CHARDONNAY|
|2010 90+ Cellars, Lot 40,
Dry Creek Valley, California
|2009 La Crema,
Sonoma Coast, California
|$ 17.99||89||90||92||90||88||88||90||Wine Enthusiast 93||Sigel’s|
|$ 12.99||80||80||90||88||85||85||85||Wine Enthusiast 92||Costco|
|FLIGHT 3: MALBEC|
|$ 14.49||80||85||80||–||85||85||83||Wine Enthusiast 91||Costco|
|$ 14.99||87||80||85||85||88||90||86||Wine Advocate 90||Sigel’s|
|2009 90+ Cellars, Lot 38,
Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina
|FLIGHT 4: CABERNET SAUVIGNON|
|2009 Ch. Ste. Michelle,
Indian Wells, Columbia Valley, Washington
|$ 16.99||88||90||85||90||90||90||89||Wine Spectator 90||Sigel’s|
Barossa Valley, Australia
|$ 19.99||80||85||80||85||83||87||83||Wine Advocate 91||Costco|
|2008 90+ Cellars, Lot 53,
Gran Reserva, Mendoza, Argentina
The results lead to several conclusions
- 90+ Cellars won two out of the four categories and placed second in the other two.
- 90+ Cellars was the least expensive in two of the four categories and the joint least expensive in a third.
- 90+ Cellars scored an average of 90+ points in none of the four categories. However, check out the scores given to the other wines. They are less than 90 on average in all but one case. Since these wines were selected because they had all scored more than 90 points we can conclude that the tasters on this panel were hard-arses. I estimate by about four points. That would put all 90+ Cellars wines into the 90+ category.
It looks to me like the results support 90+ Cellars claim to sell 90 point wines and to do so for less than the competition. I had started as a skeptic but these results impressed me. Of course, they have to keep this up!