The best wine isn't always the most expensive | Blessed Is The Pour | Indy Week
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The best wine isn't always the most expensive 

I recently was browsing the racks at a nearby mall where the rows of freshly plumped cashmere sweaters and neatly cut tweeds in autumnal hues made my mouth water. And though I relish updating my fall wardrobe, the season's cuddly offerings got me yearning to try my luck on a new cabernet sauvignon.

With my shopping motor revved, I crossed the six-lane highway to the nearest Total Wine to find something new and fancy. When it comes to clothes, I know better than to pay full price for the shiny pieces that the merchandisers spread out to drive traffic at the start of the season. You're much more likely to find me at the end-of-season sales picking up bargains. I usually employ a similar strategy when it comes to wine: Buy the best wine you can for the least amount of money.

On the evening in question, though, something went awry. I don't know if it was the slight chill in the air or that my shopping engine had kicked into high gear, but by the time I cozied up to the tasting table in the center of the store, my defenses were down. The young man pouring the tastes was perfectly polite, but the look in his eyes told me he longed to be watching football with the parade of folks hustling 12-packs out the door. He recommended a cabernet sauvignon called Cult. At $24.99 per bottle it was an excellent bargain, he said.

I took a sip and it seemed OK, but it's hard to tell much from a thimble's worth of wine served in a plastic mouth-rinse cup. He also poured me a bit of the Kinneybrook cab, priced at $19.99. Seeing as how I had some wine-loving friends stopping by on their way through town soon, I put both bottles in the basket and skipped toward the register, feeling smart about my purchases.

It was a short-lived buyer's high.

My wine-loving friends and I sat down the following Saturday after a harried, grab-some-tacos, feed-the-kids, get-them-in-the-bathtub and put-them-to-bed evening. Dinner had offered no opportunity for wine, so we waited until the noises from upstairs died down and poured ourselves some cab.

Cult turned out to be no bargain. It's a non-vintage cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, and although Wine Enthusiast awarded it a robust 90 points, we couldn't tell why. It had the mouthfeel of skim milk and no discernable nose save straight-ahead alcohol. Very little fruit spoke up in the taste. It failed to distinguish itself. One online taster noted that Cult fared better after getting a lot of air. We abandoned the bottle at half-full, but even after this one sat open for a day, the lasting impression was of ink with a tannin chaser.

Fortunately, we had the Kinneybrook, a 2009 cabernet savignon from Sonoma County. The mouthfeel was sturdy but not stifling, like curling up under 300-thread count cotton sheets on a still-warm, late summer night. The nose was full of warm fruit, and the first sips unfolded subdued plum and cherries with hints of pepper and clove. The finish was gentle and just a bit woody. It was a rare find, we thought, since it seemed perfectly sippable without food, but could have easily partnered with traditional cab fare like grilled meats or stuffed mushrooms. Where the Cult had seemed worth about a third of its $25 price tag, we agreed that we would have paid $10 to $15 more for the Kinneybrook.

A difference of $5 might seem inconsequential, but when you think about how you shop for almost everything else in your life, it's actually quite huge. Thank goodness the $20 bottle is better. Just imagine all the money I'll be saving this season.

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