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cheap wine

The Five Day, $3 Wine Challenge: The results

$3 wineThe good news is that the five $3 wines that I drank with dinner last week were mostly OK, and the horror stories that I heard proved to be ? for me, anyway ? unfounded.

Which is also the bad news. Most wine, even $10 wine, is going to taste reasonably consistent from vintage to vintage. Yes, these wines were OK ? and a couple were more than that ? but that ?s no guarantee they ?ll taste that way again if I do this again next year. And, unfortunately, none of them made me jump in the air and fall back down with excitement, ready to re-do the $10 Hall of Fame. Dull is probably a better adjective.

More details on the challenge, as well as my analysis and a few suggestions for the retailers who sell these wines are after the jump:

First, the challenge. Each night last week, I drank a $3 wine with dinner to attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? I tasted five chardonnays sold at leading retailers in the United States:

? Two-buck Chuck ($2.99), the Trader Joe ?s private label. This was the weirdest tasting of the five, with lots of tropical fruit (banana even) and very little chardonnay character. It wasn ?t bad, in the sense I had to pour it down the drain, but it wasn ?t enjoyable, either. My guess is that there was a lot of very ripe fruit in this.

? Three Wishes ($2.99), the Whole Foods private label. I expected most of the wines to be burdened with badly done oak (chips, probably). In fact, three of them didn ?t taste of oak at all, and the oak in the Three Wishes was quite well done, assuming you like that style of wine. I don ?t, so it wasn ?t my favorite.

? Winking Owl ($2.89) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere). My favorite ? a straight-forward, 1990s-style jug chardonnay with apple and pear fruit and varietal character for those who remember Glen Ellen. It ?s not as well done as something like Bogle, but it does the job for $3 and I would it buy again.

? Oak Leaf ($2.97), the Walmart private label. This was the sweet one, probably a couple of percentage points over the line that separates sweet from dry. Again, not awful, but nothing I would want to drink again.

? Cul-de-Sac ($2.96), a private label for Texas ? H-E-B, one of the largest grocers the country. This was sort of sweet, in the way Kendall-Jackson was in the 1990s (stuck fermentation?), but also tasted like chardonnay.

Worth noting: I didn ?t list alcohol levels for the wines, most of which were around 13 percent, since several of the labels seemed inaccurate. The Winking Owl, for instance, was listed as 11.5% and sweet (the back label had a sweetness chart), but it wasn ?t sweet. Not even Aldi is sure, apparently: the wine on its website is not the current vintage. The Oak Leaf, which was most definitely sweet, had one of the highest alcohol percentages, so it probably wasn ?t accurate either.

Incredibly frustrating: None of the wines had a screwcap. Why did these need a cork, even an artificial one? A quality corkscrew is going to cost more than the wine, and I defy anyone who markets these brands to tell me that they need a cork to preserve some sort of romantic wine image. It ?s just $3 wine.

In the end, the quality of the wines didn ?t bother me as much as how boring they were, and this quickly turned into a school assignment and not wine drinking. By the fourth night, I was not looking forward to tasting another wine, something that almost never happens.

In addition, most of the wines did not taste like they did the last time I drank them. I had the Cul-de-Sac about a year ago, and had to pour it down the drain ? bitter and unripe. The Two-buck Chuck, two years ago in Santa Fe, was much more chardonnay like than this version. This, more than actual quality, is the biggest problem with $3 wine ? the consumer doesn ?t know what they ?re getting from bottle to bottle, and buying wine should not be like playing roulette.

Hence this suggestion: Why make varietal wines? Why not make the best $3 wine possible, using whatever grapes are available, be it French colombard or a blend? This would require a change in marketing, given that consumers have been trained to buy the best known varietal wines like chardonnay and merlot, but it would almost certainly produce more consistent and better quality wine.

Which should be the goal, shouldn ?t it?

Wine of the week: Leonce Bocquet Chablis 2012

Leonce Bocquet Chablis 2012$15 Chablis. That is a value. That tastes like Chablis.

Let me repeat that, to demonstrate how practically giddy this wine made me: $15 Chablis. That is a value. That tastes like Chablis.

Because, frankly, it ?s rare to see $15 Chablis, even more rare when it ?s a value, and more rare again that it tastes like Chablis. Affordable Chablis ? chardonnay from the Chablis region of Burgundy in France ? doesn’t get much better than this.

So what ?s the catch? Because, as regular visitors here know, the Wine Curmudgeon always expects a catch. In this case, it ?s that the Bocquet ($15, purchased, 12.5%) may not be as available as I would like. It ?s not exactly a private label, but it ?s close enough. Which means that if the wine is in your market, it ?s likely to be at only one retailer.

If you can find it, buy some and expect steely acidity, a touch of lemon fruit, and more complexity than one expects in a $15 white Burgundy. It was a bit thin in the back, but, on the other hand, it wasn ?t too fruity or too tart in an attempt to cover up that thinness. And did I mention that it only cost $15?

Private label wines, value, and quality

We ?re in the middle of a tremendous price war in Dallas, where retailers are selling some wines more or less at cost. Segura Viudas, one of my favorite cavas, is $6 ? about half of what it cost here a year ago (and about what it costs in Spain).

Yet the retailers don ?t seem especially concerned that they ?re giving away wine. Items like Segura Viudas are loss leaders to get customers into the store; once they ?re in, they can switch them to brands with better margins ? and, increasingly, these brands are private labels. In fact, private and store label wines, which are sold exclusively at one retailer, are perhaps the most important development on the retail side of the business over the past couple of years.

Some retailers, like Trader Joe ?s and Total Wine and More, focus almost exclusively on private label, but national grocery stores and regional chains are doing them as well, tucked onto the shelf next to the Kendall-Jackson, Yellow Tail, and Barefoot.

The question, then, is whether these private labels offer value and quality, or if they ?re just dodges to sell wine that consumers wouldn ?t normally buy. The answer, sadly, after the Wine Curmudgeon ?s recent private label experiment (unscientific, but worthwhile nonetheless) is that more and more, private labels are becoming the latter.

Consumers have long known that private label is not quite as good as the national brand ? the ketchup doesn ?t taste quite like Heinz and the peanut butter doesn ?t taste quite like Skippy. But they buy it anyway, because they ?re willing to trade quality for price, and the store brands are cheaper than the national brands.

In wine, the equation is more complicated. A traditional wine retailer ?s business is based on the premise that better wines are always more expensive, so any foray into private label sticks to that line. Kroger ?s private labels, for example, don ?t try to undercut the national brands, and you can’t even tell which are which on the shelf. However, more retailers are junking that approach in favor of ?this wine is cheaper and just as good ? or even better. ?

The most obvious example is Trader Joe ?s and Two-buck Chuck, which Two-buck Chuck ?s maker, Fred Franzia, insists is just as good as any bottle of pricey Napa wine. I ?m not quite sure anyone believes him (or that Franzia even believes it himself), but, as a marketing approach, it has been incredibly successful.

Total Wine, with 82 stores in 13 states, has taken this one step further. It identifies its private label wines as such, which almost no one else does, and displays them next to the comparable national brands ? complete with little cards under the wine, or shelf talkers, that say that its private labels are cheaper and better (or as much as it can without running afoul of federal regulations).

Are Total ?s private labels cheaper and better? Or is this just a cynical ploy to prey on consumers who can tell the difference between ketchups but who can ?t tell the difference between wines? I ?ve argued for years that the wine business is not as interested in educating consumers as it is in selling them wine, and it ?s easy to see how this could be part of that. Given how confusing wine is to most of us, our first instinct is to trust whatever the store says. They ?re not going to lie about their product, are they?

One distributor I asked, who doesn ?t have Total in his state, is convinced that the chain is counting on the consumer ?s ignorance. My experience, in the short time Total has been in Dallas, has been much the same. Their private labels are less expensive, but you can also taste the difference ? and not in a good way.

Case in point: Victoire Champagne Brut Prestige ($20, purchased), which the shelf talker claimed was half the price of branded Champagne and just as Champagne-y. I ?ve done this long enough to know that this is all but impossible, but I also pride myself on my open mind. Besides, what if it was just like Champagne at half the price?

The Victoire wasn ?t, and it wasn ?t even as well made as $20 cava or French cremant (or many $10 cavas, for that matter). The Big Guy tasted it with me; he took a couple of sips and asked if I had anything else to drink. The wine had little structure, and tasted more like apple juice mixed with club soda than sparkling wine.

No wonder it ?s easier to buy ketchup. Or that it ?s more popular than wine.