As an old Jethro Tull fan, I’ve always been enamored of the group’s classic 1971 album Aqualung, a work of true genius and master musicianship. Among the album’s interrelated tracks, “Cross-Eyed Mary” was a real standout for me with its opening line “Who would be a poor man, a beggar man, a thief –if he had a rich man in his hand? And who would steal the candy from a laughing baby’s mouth if he could take it from the money man?” Those lyrics flashed through my head when I learned of the brazen grape thievery conducted by Napa Valley’s Jeff Hill Vineyards. (Read the New York Times article).
The Times article gives the full scoop, but here’s the story in a nutshell: Jeff Hill Vineyards was a small, well-regarded Napa winery that was hemorrhaging money and likely headed for bankruptcy. In October 2013, Mr. Hill’s vineyard crew was hired out to assist in neighboring vineyards at harvest, including the celebrated Howell Mountain Vineyard owned by Del Dotto, a small-batch, prestigious Napa producer whose Cabernet retails for $195.00 a bottle. Allegedly, instead of delivering all of the harvested grapes to Del Dotto’s winemaking facilities, several loads were mysteriously diverted to Mr. Hill’s winery.
What Jeff Hill planned to do with those premier grapes is a not really a mystery — make wine with the stolen fruit and charge a pretty penny for it. Desperation apparently breeds questionable behavior; maybe selling his “Napa Cab” for $95 a bottle would have forestalled almost certain bankruptcy if he could pull it off. But thanks to a sting operation, Mr. Hill was nabbed before his imposter wine hit the market.
The thieving ways of Mr. Hill brings us back to Tull’s “Cross-Eyed Mary.” If Jeff Hill was the thief in the lyrics, could VinoDuo find other California cabs to stand in for the three other “men” in a blind Napa taste-off? Could Gary, Lisa and their wine-savvy friends tell the difference between a prestige Napa cab (rich man) a lower-priced cab from neighboring Sonoma (poor man), and a “mystery” bottle of Napa Cab from a négociant, who buys excess fruit and wine from multiple growers and produces/bottles wine of unknown provenance (beggar man)? Of course, négociants don’t actually beg for grapes, but they go from vineyard to vineyard seeking the best leftovers and the lowest prices.
Sheathed in brown paper bags labeled A – D, and with no discernible markings, these four wines were put to the test:
- 2010 Trinchero Mario’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon – rich man
- 2012 Miro Cellars Cloverdale Park Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma) —poor man
- 2011 Cameron Hughes Lot 500 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon—beggar man
- 2011 Jeff Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – thief
Wine from two different valleys and three different years is not exactly kosher for a horizontal tasting, but then, we’re not Robert Parker…just two amateur wine lovers. So there. And where’d we get the Jeff Hill Cabernet? From our friends at online wine retailer InVino, who snapped up several cases of of Hill’s inventory at a bankruptcy auction for cents on the dollar. When Gary read about InVino’s own legal wine “theft” in the Times, he immediately called owner Tony Westfall—with whom VinoDuo already did business—and ordered a ½ case of the Hill Cab for $30 a bottle (down from $96.00 when Hill was in business.)
The object for our blind tasting was to pick out which wine was the rich man, poor man etc., with extra credit for identifying the most expensive.
Napa Cab Blind Tasting
The blind tasting winners? Tasters #1 and #2 correctly identified all four wines and also won the extra credit for guessing Trinchero as the highest priced bottle. Although, technically, the Jeff Hill Cabernet would have been the most expensive pour if he hadn’t blown everything and sold his inventory for pennies. Other observations? Great Napa cabs are readily identifiable and likely worth the money—the Jeff Hill and Trinchero stood out as the superior wines. However, at $38, the Miro Cellars Pine Mountain from Sonoma is a far better deal: a big, food-friendly Cab without the Napa label or high sticker price. And under the category of “you get what you pay for,” the Cameron Hughes Cab, with its mystery origins, was universally panned by our tasters.