Rather, I offer perspective from the consumer side. This is crucial, I think, because winemakers, faced with the difficulties inherent in winemaking, sometimes don’t have time or the the motivation to understand there is another perspective. If they like oak, the wine gets oak. even if the wine doesn’t need it. If they like Bordeaux-style wines, they make Bordeaux-style wines, even if the grapes aren’t suited for it. The term for this is tasting room palate, and it’s to be avoided at all costs.
My thanks to Matt for letting me share this with his winemaking community, because I don’t think it’s something they hear very often.
The genesis for this post came from the Lifehacker website, which occasionally does wine items that make me want to throw something at the computer screen. The various authors mean well, but usually just recycle urban legends and wine myths that have little to do with wine in the 21st century.
The most recent was an item that claimed you could determine wine quality from the quality of the label. Just rub it, and if the label has raised lettering or if it feels like more expensive paper, then the wine is safe to buy. Otherwise, the wine is more than likely swill. There is some truth to this, in that producers sometimes put more expensive labels on cheap wine to entice the consumer. I have a label here, from a $10 wine from a multi-million case producer, that has raised lettering. The wine? No better or no worse than most $10 grocery store wine.
But to say that label quality has anything to do with wine quality is foolish (and Lifehacker was called on it by more than one commentator, including me). What determines wine quality? What’s in the bottle — and not what’s on the bottle, how the bottle is made or how it’s closed, or even if it is a bottle. The key to quality is finding producers who understand that and who spend their money on the wine and not marketing the wine. And you can’t find those producers by rubbing labels; you have to drink wine.
Keeping that in mind, here are three more myths about wine quality that come up all too often:
• Screwcaps: I still hear, almost 20 years after screwcaps became common, that they’re a sign of inferior wine. If that’s true, then I guess the only good wine in the world still comes from France. Because the screwcap myth is that outdated.
• Punt: That’s the hollow space on the bottom of the wine bottle, and it’s supposed to be a sign of wine quality. Two-buck Chuck (and most $3 wine, in fact) doesn’t have a punt. But most producers still use punts not because it makes their wine better, but because it’s easier — given how the bottle manufacturing process works — than switching to punt-less bottles.
• Legs: Those are the lines that form on the side of the glass, and are caused by the alcohol and sugar content of the wine. More alcohol means more legs, but doesn’t mean better wine. This myth probably dates to the mid-20th century (or even earlier), when most great wine did come from France. In those days, the exceptional vintages, which were usually warmer, yielded riper grapes that produced higher alcohol wines. Hence, equating legs with better wine.
It’s not enough to advocate cheap wine; consumers need to know how to tell the difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply. The Wine Curmudgeon was reminded of this yet again when I struggled through the 2014 five-day, $3 wine challenge, where the producers cared more about price than they did about quality.
The knock against cheap wine used to be that it couldn’t be made well. That hasn’t been true for at least two decades, but the argument has remained the same. Much of the blame for this rests with producers, who have been content to use improvements in winemaking and grape growing to make palatable wine, but not much more.
Call it, as one retailer told me, the wine equivalent of fast food. It fills the hole, and that’s all the consumer thinks it’s supposed to do. Ironically, this means value isn’t as important as it should be. Two Jack in the Box tacos for 99 cents are both cheap and a value, but why would you eat them unless it’s 2 a.m. and you’ve been drinking all night?
Wine should be more than that. Otherwise, we might as well drink light beer — same buzz, fewer calories, and just as cheap. Hence, how to tell the difference between cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply:
• Is the wine varietally correct? Does the cabernet sauvignon taste like cabernet sauvignon, the merlot like merlot, and so forth? Or have all the varietal differences been taken out, in favor of making a smooth wine?
• Is it interesting? Most boring cheap wine tastes the same. The reds have lots of sweet fruit, some fake oak, and a minimum of tannins and acidity — another way to get to smooth. Chardonnay made this way tastes of vanilla and apple sauce, riesling is sweet and nothing more, and pinot grigio has a dollop of sweet white fruit and a vaguely turpentine flavor. An interesting wine is the opposite: You’re eager for the second sip, and you taste things that you make you smile.
• Does the label seem like it got more attention from the producer than the wine? After you’ve tasted the wine, does the it taste as cute or clever or hip as the label implied it would taste? Or is it just ordinary grocery store merlot?
? Do you want to buy it again? Not, “I’ll buy it again because it’s cheap and tasted OK,” but “Wow, that was really good. I want to share this with all my friends.” This is not an easy concept for most wine drinkers, who are so happy to find a wine that doesn’t offend them that they convince themselves that the wine is better than it is.
• Did the winemaker make an effort, or just go through the motions? And no, you don’t have to be a wine geek to figure this out. Crappy writing is crappy writing, and you don’t need a PhD in English to see the difference. Shoddy clothing is shoddy clothing, and you don’t need Vera Wang to tell you why. All you need to do is to pay attention to what you’re drinking, something else we’re afraid to do because it’s wine, and we’ve been told we don’t know enough to have an opinion.
I wanted to find a wine among the six — five $3 merlots and a $4 red blend — that I could enjoy without reservation and use as another example in my campaign to help wine drinkers understand that price is not the most important thing about wine quality. One was OK, one was undrinkable, and the rest were as brainless as bottled ice tea. With so much quality cheap wine in the world, and sometimes for just a dollar or two more, why do so many people buy these, often making a special trip to do so?
When that analysis comes from someone who has spent 20 years trying to say nice things about cheap wine, it means there’s very little reason to drink them.
I drank a bottle of wine with dinner five nights last week to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? I tasted five merlots and a red blend from leading retailers in the United States. Each wine but one was non-vintage with an American appellation:
• Two-buck Chuck ($2.99, 12.5%), the Trader Joe ?s private label, 2012 vintage and California appellation. Call this the Miller Lite of the tasting; drinkable, with some berry fruit, but thin and not very memorable. It’s probably $3 worth of wine, but it raises the question of why you’d go to Trader Joe’s just to buy it. It’s not that much more of a value than most $6 or $7 grocery store merlots.
• Three Wishes ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. Not offensive, but nothing more than that. Some dark fruit, but thin and the poor quality of the fake oak showed through. Not much in the way of tannins, either, and this wine needed tannins to balance the oak.
• Winking Owl ($2.89, 12.5%) from Aldi but may be available elsewhere. Real wine that mostly tasted the way it was supposed to taste — some berry fruit, fake oak that wasn’t annoying, and proper tannins. This is not top-quality merlot or even $10 merlot, but compared to the rest, it was right bank Bordeaux.
• Yosemite Road ($3.99, 12%), a private label for 7-Eleven. This red blend is one of the best sweet reds I’ve ever tasted, and a terrific value if that’s what you’re looking for. It wasn’t as sweet as a poorly-made white zinfandel, and there was fruit flavor (red berries?) to go with the sweetness. The catch, of course, is that the wine does not say anywhere on the label that it’s sweet, and the alcohol percentage indicates a dry wine. As noted before, this is dishonest and cheats consumers. Producers have an obligation to say if it’s sweet, and putting the words jammy, velvety, and soft on the label is not good enough. In other words, I wasted my money.
• Oak Leaf ($2.97, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Almost a carbon copy of the Three Wishes, but with enough unripe fruit to give the wine an old-fashioned, this is what we used to drink from France in the 1970s feel. However, since this is the 21st century and there is no reason for that kind of wine to exist, it’s not a selling point.
• Southern Point ($2.39, 12.5%), the Walgreen’s private label. I had high hopes for this wine, given how well the drug store chain’s chardonnay did in a tasting several years ago. However, it was one of the worst wines I’ve drunk in a decade, combining poor winemaking and poor quality fruit. It didn’t taste like merlot, but like a cheap, alcoholic wine cooler without any fizz. This is the kind of wine that I have been fighting against for 20 years, but somehow still seems to get made.
Because the customers always write, and the Wine Curmudgeon always has the answers in this periodic feature. Ask me a wine-related question by clicking here.
Hey Wine Guy: I would think alcohol is alcohol is alcohol, and a buzz is a buzz is a buzz. However, I seem to experience what I will call a “lighter” buzz from wine, which dissipates more quickly than a buzz from other alcoholic drinks. Do you think that’s possible? Have you heard it before? Have you experienced it? Sober as much as possible
Dear Sober: The difference is food. Yes, one drink — whether spirits, beer, or wine — should affect everyone the same way (allowing for size and gender), but we don’t drink spirits, beer, and wine the same way. Cocktails are bar drinks. Beer is a TV drink. Wine, though, is a meal drink, so we drink it more slowly and the food we’re eating helps absorb the alcohol in a way bar nuts and nacho-flavored Doritos don’t. It’s the difference between a bottle of wine over a couple of hours with dinner as opposed to four beers during the first quarter of a football game. That’s something that those of us who judge wine competitions understand. Even with spitting, we can get as light-headed on a morning’s worth of wine as with four or five shots in a bar, because the object is to drink, not to enjoy ourselves.
Dear Curmie: Why do restaurants, even chain restaurants, go through all the show about opening a bottle of wine, like letting me sniff the cork and presenting the bottle. It’s not like these are any great wines, and it’s not like the waitstaff knows what it’s doing. Annoyed and confused
Dear Annoyed: It’s all part of the flim flammery that is too much restaurant wine service, and especially in restaurants that sell wine because they have to and not because they want to. A fine dining restaurant does the presentation because that’s the best way to serve an expensive bottle of wine. They’ll show it, for instance, to make sure that’s what you ordered, because they don’t want to find out they’ve brought the wrong bottle (which happens more often than you’d think). They’ll let you taste the wine first because older wines do go off, no matter how expensive or well made. In other restaurants, though, they do it because they’re trying to give you value for the $8 bottle of wine that they’re charging $25 for, and that’s the only way they know how. Recently, a waiter started to do the presentation for a $10 bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc with a screwcap, and I told him not to bother. He thanked me, because doing it embarrassed him. And this was at a Dallas restaurant that actually cares about wine.
Wine Curmudgeon: How do you decide to review the wines that you review? Is there a plan? Or do you just wing it? I doubt someone pays you to review their wines, do they? Curious and curiouser
Dear Curious: No, no one pays me to review their wines, though it has been suggested by some who want a good review. I alternate red and white wines for the wine of the week, throwing in sparkling or rose when it seems like a good idea. Otherwise, the only rules are that the wine has to fit the concept of the blog — affordable and generally available (where availability is the bane of my existence as a wine writer). The latter means it might be in a grocery store; at the very least, you should be able to find it if you live in a city with quality independent wine shops. Also, save for the monthly mini-reviews, I usually don’t write about bad wine. There’s too much good wine to waste time on that.
The quality of cheap wine is better than ever, but that doesn’t mean that all cheap wine is worth drinking. Or, as the erudite Lew Perdue has noted: “Crappy wine holds back the wine market far more than any other factor.”
So how can you tell when cheap wine tastes cheap?
? Quality is not about style. Sweet wines should taste sweet; that’s their style, and whether they’re poorly made has nothing to do with whether they’re sweet. Dry wines that taste sweet are poorly made, no matter how many cases they sell. The Wine Curmudgeon doesn’t like alcoholic, over-the-top zinfandels, but that’s a style preference, not a reflection of quality.
? Bitterness, off-flavors, and green or unripe fruit, in both red and white wine. This is not nearly as common as it used to be, and is rarely seen in California anymore. But it still happens with imported wine.
? Missing tannins in red wine. The winemaker uses technology to remove tannins to make the wine “smooth,” because a focus group said smooth was a desirable quality without actually defining it. In this, tannins and tannic acid are perhaps the most misunderstood part of cheap wine. Quality red wine, at any price, needs tannic acid for structure and balance, and when the tannins are right you may not even notice them. But it’s usually too expensive or too much trouble to deal with tannins properly in $10 wine, which is why so much of it is astringent. So the winemaker takes the tannins out, and you get a flabby, boring wine.
? Fake oak. Again, this is not a style preference, but a winemaking decision, sometimes used to cover up poor quality grapes. If your chardonnay smells like Adams Best vanilla, then the oak is there because something else isn’t. Also, be wary of red wines that promise chocolate cherry flavors, also an oak trick. If producers could make $10 wine with those flavors, why would anyone need to buy $100 wine?
? Sweetness for sweetness’ sake. The best sweet wines have something to balance the sweetness, in the way that iced tea with lemon and sugar is balanced. They’re not supposed to taste like Coke. What made this $7 Sara Bee moscato so enjoyable was not that it was sweet, but that it had a little orange fruit and some bubbles to complement the sweetness. Sweet wine that is just sweet is as about as cynical as winemaking gets.
The Wine Curmudgeon can rant and rave all he wants, but restaurant wine service remains one of the biggest problems facing wine drinkers. It’s just not the overpriced wine, but the rude staff and the lack of training. Which is why it’s time to get help from those well-known arbiters of wine etiquette, The Muppets. Because if a waiter acts like this to Kermit and Miss Piggy, it’s no surprise that too many restaurant wine types are treating the rest of us the way they do.