John McAfee, a noted eccentric person and occasional fugitive, recently proclaimed on Twitter that his sommelier challenged him to drink a $700 bottle of Cabernet as well as a bottle of $1.63 wine he purchased in bulk, called “Primal Sludge.” He found that the cheaper bottle was the better wine, “hands f*cking down.”
My Sommelier challenged me to drink a bottle of wine that Hilton Hotels sells for $700 per bottle and compare it to "Primal Sludge" which we buy, in volume, for $1.63 per bottle. It was a no contest. After downing a bottle of each, Primal Sludge won, hands fucking down. pic.twitter.com/FzkPqXYvQC
— John McAfee (@officialmcafee) October 22, 2018
McAfee may have been tweeting under the influence, but his findings are well in line with my own. I have not been so privileged as to have tasted “Primal Sludge,” but have had many samples of low-quality, high-volume wine in my career. I too find them barely discernable from the grotesquely expensive “luxury” brands that have made California wine country one of the most expensive tourist destinations in the country.
Shafer “Hillside Select,” the $700 bottle McAfee is pictured up-ending in his victorious tweet, is the flagship Cabernet Sauvignon for one of the wealthiest wineries in The Napa Valley. A bottle commands one of the highest prices in the country, and contains some of the least impressive juice available in the marketplace.
The wine is manipulated to please a market that has deep pockets, but knows very little. It is a fruit bomb whose deep flaws are masked only by the absurd amount of new oak and screamingly high alcohol percentage. At 15.5 percent alcohol by volume, this red wine has far more in common with dessert wine than a nuanced red table wine.
What it does have is brand recognition. It preys on consumers who want a recognizable wine bottle on their table at a steakhouse, but has nothing to offer to someone with an interest in well-made wine.
None of this is to say that there are not incredible, life-changing wines that cost a lot of money. Even in The Napa Valley, several winemakers are still interested in making a quality wine, like my favorite, “Quintessa” (a bottle from 1994 averages about $400 on a New York City wine list).
Certainly, a high price does not dictate high quality, and there are many affordable wines for every palate. A price tag like that of “Hillside Select” should mean that the wine is in higher demand than it is in supply, which is why older, coveted vintages of Champagne, Burgundy, and Barolo break records at auctions.
Many of these wines are well worth a $700 investment (or more), and I don’t recommend washing them down with “Primal Sludge.”
Ellie is a certified sommelier from The Court of Master Sommeliers. She helped run several successful wine programs in NYC, DC, and LA before leaving the industry in 2017.