A visitor left a comment the other day in the first $3 wine challenge post: “Hey, it cost less than $3. So what did you expect?” Hence this post, because even though a cheap wine doesn’t cost much, that doesn’t mean it has to taste cheap:
? Varietal correctness. Cabernet sauvignon should taste like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay like chardonnay, and so forth. Otherwise, what’s the point? Should we just have two gigantic Big Wine vats, one red and one white, and everything can come out of that?
? Value for money. No, a $3 wine isn’t going to taste like a $100 wine, and I don’t expect it to. I do expect it to offer value and to be the best $3 wine it can be. Otherwise, what’s the point? If we just want cheap crap to get drunk on, then we can drink Thunderbird and Night Train.
? An honest effort from the producer. The wine business’ cynicism is what keeps wine from being more popular in this country, and too much cheap wine proves that point. Producers make junk like the $3 challenge wines, or this wine club plonk, because they’ve taught Americans — like the man who left the comment — not to expect anything better. Or, even worse, the wine business knows most wine drinkers don’t know any better, think the $3 swill is OK because it costs $3, and are too confused to figure out what’s going on.
All of which is a horrible way to sell anything, and especially horrible for something that’s as much as fun as wine. Can you imagine what would happen if the car business worked that way? Which, as it happens, the car business once did, and the result was the very flammable Ford Pinto. One day, perhaps, the wine business can give us cheap wine as satisfying as today’s cheap cars (like my much beloved Honda Fit).
Until then, I’ll keep expecting more than they want to give us.
You won’t need a pile of money to buy these wines.
In which the Wine Curmudgeon puts his money where his mouth is. Each night next week, I ?ll drink a $3 wine with dinner and attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Are the claims made by producers like Fred Franzia and the various anti-critics true, that most of us can ?t tell the difference and that it doesn ?t matter if we can?
Last year, when I did five $3 chardonnays, the results were mixed — mostly OK, but we expect more than OK from our cheap wine. This year, I’ll drink six merlots (yes, I know that’s one more than the days, but I’ll figure out the logistics). First, to do a red wine, and second, because merlot is the easiest red wine to make. It has fewer problems with tannins, and there shouldn’t be a problem finding quality fruit. All six wines were purchased in Dallas:
? Two-buck Chuck ($2.99, 12.5%), the Trader Joe ?s private label that was the first and remains the most famous of the very cheap wines. It ?s a California wine from the 2012 vintage.
? Three Wishes ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. It carries an American appellation, which means it ?s non-vintage and at least three-quarters of the grapes used to make it were grown in the U.S.
? Winking Owl ($2.89, 12.5%) from Aldi but may be available elsewhere. Also American and non-vintage.
? Yosemite Road ($3.99, 12%), a private label for 7-Eleven. The label says red blend, and is probably close to merlot. Yes, it’s $1 more, but I haven’t reviewed a Yosemite Road in five years, and this seemed like a good time. Also American and non-vintage.
? Oak Leaf ($2.97, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Also American and non-vintage.
Again this year, all the wines but the Two-buck Chuck are made by The Wine Group, one of the Big Six and whose brands include Cupcake. And none of them have a screwcap, which I can’t even begin to understand. Why would anyone want to pay more for the tool that opens the wine than the wine itself?
The 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.
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.
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.
? Virgina wine gets big name: That would be the same Steve Case who founded the original America Online, and turned it into an Internet powerhouse as important in its day as Google is today. Almost everyone who used the Internet at the turn of the century had an AOL email address. Case wants to buy Sweely Estate near Charlottesville, which gives Virginia a true big name, deep pockets investor. Why is that important? Because regional wineries are traditionally undercapitalized. Case, who made a bundle when he merged AOL with Time Warner in a $350 billion deal in 2000, has the cash to take the Virginia winery to the next step — improve the quality of the wine and do increased regional and then national distribution, which is something most non-California wineries can't afford to do. This is just another example of how Virginia is starting to challenge New York and Missouri as the top regional wine state in the country, while Texas, once considered a player, is taking giant steps backward.
? Geyser Peak bankruptcy? Lew Purdue at Wine Industry Insight (behind a pay wall) reports that Geyser Peak and its corporate parent, Ascentia Wine Estates, may be close to bankruptcy. If true, it would be among the biggest casualties of the wine industry recession. Geyser Peak, which produces quality grocery store $10 wine, has had three corporate parents over the past couple of years, as the biggest wine brands have been buying and selling labels in a furious effort to appease stockholders and reduce expenses in the wake of flat sales.
? More $3 wine: Fresh & Easy, the West Coast high end convenience chain, is expanding its line of $3 wines. Called Big Kahuna, the wines have been the retailer's best seller since their introduction in 2007. Fresh & Easy will sell cabernet sauvignon, merlot, rose, shiraz, tempranillo, sweet white and crisp white for about $3. Consider that $3 wine is now a staple of some of the country's biggest and most prestigious retailers, including Walmart, 7-Eleven, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods, and you'll begin to see a pattern emerging. Unless, of course, you're in the mainstream wine business, and desperately need to sell overpriced $15 wine whose only attribute is a cute label.