Affordability and Value in Las Vegas’ Trophy Wine Jungle

I find it exhilarating digging through overpriced, top-heavy wine lists filled with $100-a-glass labels in search of affordability or value. I first remember getting that sensation 35 years ago, opening the Racing Form back in Brooklyn at Aqueduct Race Track looking for the day’s long shot. Garage sale hunters seem to chase a similar rush. Last week, I hunted the trophy wine list jungles of Las Vegas’ Strip hosting a group that featured our top, mostly female media sales professionals to three nights and two days of incentive travel; a just reward for their winning sales performances.

Mediocre experiences or travel snafus are not welcome options in the execution of incentive travel. While I am appreciatively reliant on a couple of very capable event planners, insuring fabulous restaurant and wine experiences is something I am stubborn to delegate. With intense gustatory focus, I planned three different and satisfying group dining experiences that featured notable cooking, caring service, and interesting wines at Mix, Tableau, and Aureole. Our Vegas trip winners spend most of their days in the luxury media business and while none are ultra-serious winos, they are a discriminating bunch, naturally comfortable rubbing elbows with top style and design taste-makers. They all recognize and appreciate good wine and food.

Excuses to retest and validate my “more-for-less” wine Karma, (read: how to ZAG when everyone else ZIGs), the beginning of each group meal finds me glued to wine menus in search of quality, value, and affordability. I am willing to substitute affordability for value, but refuse to sacrifice quality. I relied on the following criteria this week in Vegas:

1) Exciting picks I would relish drinking alone or with serious “wino” friends

2) One white and one red selection at each meal, respecting diner preferences for one or the other or both

3) A wine bill averaging $100 a bottle or less (i.e. one bottle could be $150 if the other is $50 or less)

My guess is less than 25% of the wines at Mix and Aureole sell for $100 and under while approximately 40% of the wines on Tableau’s list qualify. Here are the wines I picked at each spot and approximate wine list prices:

Monday Dinner: Mix

2007 Vieux Donjon Chateauneuf du Pape $135

Selene Sauvignon Blanc Carneros Hyde Vineyards 2008 $65

Tuesday Lunch: Tableau

2006 Robert Biale Vineyards Zinfandel Black Chicken Vineyard $98

2007 Talley Vineyards Chardonnay $65

Wednesday Dinner: Aureole

1988 Domaine des Baumard Savennieres Clos du Papillon$85

Vin de Pays de l’Hérault Haute Vallée du Gassac 2000 $95

These lists were packed with $250-$800 wines that had a 50/50 shot at being as rewarding or as deeply appreciated by our group. On the first night at Mix, the Vieux Donjon shined with the richness and good extraction that is characteristic of the 07 Chateauneuf du Pape vintage while carrying forward cherry and currant flavors combined with earthy and herbal aromas that wowed us all. The Selene Sauvignon Blanc was exotic in so many ways and showed richness that hinted at the wood it sat in, but also had a purity of exotic rich fruits, Asian influences, spice, and enough crispness and acidity to make this another head turning selection. I asked the sommelier if we ought to try something else as a third choice after finishing off a few of these bottles, but he agreed the wines would be hard to follow in this price range and with such pleasing response.

At Tuesday lunch, seemingly not the finest vintage for these Talley Chardonnays, crisp apple and citric qualities took center stage in a wonderful lunch wine that reflected Brian Talley’s Burgundian tilt. The showstopper here was the Biale Zinfandel. I remember once hearing that Black Chicken was the under cover phrase for Zinfandel during prohibition. This was anything but prohibition fare. The wine had aromatic dark berries flowing from the glassware, and sidestepped over-ripeness offering a rich velvet mouthfeel with good acidity and earthy aromas. Everyone loved this wine.

For me, the final night at Aureole turned into the ultimate wine experience of the trip. Our Languedoc pick had started showing the benefits of bottle age, leaving a bright red cherry flavor and dominating fruit aroma to complement the softening tannins and sweet woody flavor. The wine has become, in two words, elegant and exotic. It is a wonderful alternative to the Rhone Valley wines further north and at under $40 a bottle at retail, belongs in any collector’s cellar.

As amazing a wine for me was the Baumard. It is astounding to see what Chenin Blanc can do with 20+ years of bottle age. The wine retains its minerality and slate-like tones, continues to show good acidity, and combines it with advanced aromas and a rich mouthfeel that simultaneously represents and belies its age. A totally dry Chenin from Savennieres with more than twenty years of age for under $100 on a Vegas Strip wine list was as good as it got for me last week.

I strongly recommend all of these wines. And, if you are open to one more bit of advice from me, enjoy them with as deserving, tuned in, and colorfully warm personalities as I did.

Share Back: What recent wine list pick did you make that was of great Value, Affordability, and Quality?


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  • Thomas Matthews

    Who says there’s no value in Vegas? You certainly found some. What did you think of the e-wine list at Aureole? And how about the food?

    I would point out that Aureole has earned a Grand Award for its wine program, our top honor. Those are the places that deliver “the ultimate wine experience,” as you discovered.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator