Most of us like name brand products - especially when it comes to food. How often do we drive to different grocery stores to buy our favorite coffee or coveted snack item? Occasionally, I’m tempted to buy a store brand or private label option, attracted by the value and the hope it will taste as good as the name brand I trust, but past disappointments make me skeptical, and more often than not, I move on to the usual suspects to fill my market basket. I admit, my brand loyalties run deep, so I was particularly skeptical when CTbites decided to review 4 bottles of a new discount wine, branded under the label Ninety+Cellars. Yes, images of another Two Buck Chuck sprang to mind, but after our tasting and some research, I am convinced that the Ninety+Cellars is a distinctive label in its own right and it is now available in CT.
For the past 2 1/2 years, Kevin Mehra, founder of Latitude Beverage Company, has been buying the oversupply of premium finished wines at a discount and selling them under the label Ninety+Cellars. The name is derived from his initial research, contacting only those wineries whose wines had received a rating of 90 or higher from a major publication or gold medal honors from a respected wine authority. Mehra was “surprised that many world class wineries had excess wine inventory available for sale.” And, a concept was born.
Unlike a private label wine, which would be sourced as grapes and produced specifically for that label, Ninety+Cellars wine is sourced from exceptional wineries that simply put more wine in bottles than they sold to retailers. A premium wine maker can’t afford to tarnish its brand image by selling its wine at a discount, but they do need to move the wine out of their cellars to make room for new vintages. Latitude Beverage Co. solves the winery’s excess inventory problem and protects the brand by purchasing their finished wine and selling it under the Ninety+ label. The wine is given a lot # and sold on-line or at select retailers in 21 states. The number of cases in each lot vary, based on the size of the winery’s overrun; once a lot is sold out, that wine is gone. According to Mehra, “We are buying a winery's best and most highly rated finished wine, which they would normally sell under their own label. Wineries are willing to work with us because they either produced more than they needed or sales have slowed. In return, they are promised complete anonymity, which we take very seriously.”
We tasted 4 wines: 2 whites and 2 reds. The only information we had from the front of each bottle’s label was the type of grape, the appellation and country of origin, the lot # and the vintage. With each bottle, we found the wine to be both of high quality and very characteristic of it’s grape-sake. After writing our own tasting notes, we turned to the tasting notes on the back labels and found they confirmed the flavors we identified. In addition to these accurate Tasting Notes, the back labels include a Story, which provides some detail regarding growing conditions and aging. We found the Pinot Noir to be exceptional and enjoyed the Pinot Grigio and the Merlot. While the Riesling was our least favorite, this was due more to the grape than the quality, and the wine was true to its label’s description. Overall, we felt each wine delivered what is promised on the bottle.
Mehra told me he sources wine from the best varietals, the best regions, and the best winemakers, dealing only with wineries and intermediaries that have excellent reputations. “We think only selecting wines that are well-structured enough to earn a 90+ rating in the first place is a great place to start, even though it doesn’t guarantee that every customer is going to like every wine. Our goal is to build an enduring brand that people can trust.”
Given the current economy, Mehra is finding more high end wineries with higher inventories and consequently, lower prices. The company receives dozens of samples each month, which are tested by an internal team of tasters. If they like a wine, they take a bottle to a wine buyer, people Mehra believes are best qualified to judge the quality and value of a wine, as they taste dozens of wines daily. The wine is also sent to a lab for chemical analysis to check for impurities. If they decide to move ahead with the purchase, an original bottle is kept as a standard for comparison to the final shipment. Once past this rigorous assessment, the wine is given a lot number and made available to consumers. Without the usual overhead required to produce, market and sell wine, the company passes on the cost savings to retailers and consumers. Ninety+Cellars wines typically retail for less than $15 per bottle.
The website is easy to navigate and purchasing is simple (I bought the Pinot Noir). Each lot is described with the vintage, appellation, country, the Ratings Pedigree, the original retail price vs. the discounted price ($43.99 vs. $16.99 for the Pinot), The Story and Tasting Notes, the number of cases purchased, user reviews, and a video clip of a wine merchant’s tasting. There are currently 11 lots listed on the site: 5 whites and 6 reds. You must order a 6 bottle minimum, but mixed orders are fine. Ordering a case of 12 bottles (OK to mix) will waive the delivery charge and net you a 10% discount.
As of August 30, the Ninety+Cellars brand is available at Stew Leonard’s in Norwalk and Danbury, Val’s Putnam Wine in Greenwich, Three Seas Liquors in Stamford, Vintage Fine Wines in Wilton, Georgetown Liquors in Georgetown, Fairgrounds Wine in Danbury and Wine Emporium in Shelton, or on-line at www.ninetypluscellars.com.