Does the continuing popularity of $3 wine, which isn’t all that tasty, tell us more about the wine business than the wine business wants to know?
Five times I’ve tasted $3 wine to see if wine drinkers can survive on ultra-cheap wine. Five times, the answer has been no – and the wines have tasted worse each time I have done it. So why do these wines still exist?
Welcome to the deep, dark dirty secret of the wine business — and which is rearing its ugly head this year: We buy wine on price, and if the price is low enough, nothing else much matters. Despite all of the hoopla about premiumization and trading up, $3 wine exists because people buy it. And we buy lots and lots of it.
Trader Joe’s has sold more than 83 million cases of Two-buck Chuck since the wine debuted in 2002, about 4.6 million cases a year. That would make the Charles Shaw brand the 10th biggest winery in the country by volume in 2020 if it actually existed. And, surprisingly, that total is closer to No. 9 Jackson Family and its ubiquitous Kendall Jackson chardonnay, than almost anyone could imagine.
It’s also worth noting the success of E&J Gallo’s $7 Barefoot, which is estimated to sell $1 billion worth of wine this year, about 18 million cases, That would make it the fifth biggest brand in the country if Gallo didn’t own it. And, when we parse the data, isn’t the popularity of White Claw and the rest of the hard seltzers about price? Why would someone buy flavored spritzy water with a bit of booze if it wasn’t cheap? Like Two-buck Chuck, they’re certainly not buying it for the sensual experience.
The other thing that fascinates me about $3 wine? That its adherents take it as a personal affront when I criticize it. How can you be such a snob? they ask (and not always that politely). We’ll ignore for a moment that I may be the least snobbish person in the wine business. What matters is that they need affirmation that buying on price is OK, because that’s the exact opposite of the way the wine business works.
And in this, they miss the point of my criticism. The first rule – and really the only rule – for wine is to drink what you want, but be willing to try different things. They can drink as much crappy, thin, and watery wine as they want. What does it matter what I think, as long as they enjoy it? So should the question they ask not be what I think, but if they really enjoy it?
This week’s wine news: Barefoot wine sells some 18 million cases a year, which is no doubt why Google likes it so much. Plus, a look at on-line wine sales and more news about artificial wine
• Big, big Barefoot: How much wine does Barefoot sell each year? How about 18 million cases? That would make it the fifth biggest producer in the country if it wasn’t owned by E&J Gallo, which is the biggest. In this, the various Barefoot brands could account for as much as 2 ½ percent of all the wine sold in the U.S. each year. Is it any wonder, then, that Google sends so many people who are searching for Barefoot to the blog? Or that three Barefoot items were in the top four of the most read blog posts in 2019? That Barefoot is thriving while the rest of the wine business is heading downhill speaks volumes – if anyone in wine is willing to listen.
• If Amazon can’t. … : One of the great puzzles in the wine business is Internet sales. Supermarkets in particular would love to do it, but three-tier makes it much more difficult than selling razors and mattresses, two categories that have been able to embrace e-commerce. Notes consultant Zac Brandenberg: “But neither market presents anywhere near the opportunity that beverage alcohol does. Wine alone is a $70 billion market with less than one percent commerce penetration — signaling an enormous untapped opportunity for retailers and wineries.” But how do supermarkets do that, when Amazon failed three times? Brandenberg suggests using the Internet for local delivery, just like the local Kroger, Wegman’s, and Albertson’s do for food. The cost could be enormous, but he says he expects retailers to do what needs to be done because the profits would be so immense.
• Hold the grapes: The company has a new name, but it says it’s ready to give the world wine made without grapes. Hence, an Italian-style sparkling wine made with a combination of ethanol (the alcohol bit), assorted flavors, and caramel color and beta carotene for color. Interestingly, the latter can oxidize, which would mean fake wine can go off just like real wine. We covered the story on the blog almost three years ago when the company was called Ava, but the questions remain. Why does the world need this?
Barefoot wine review 2019: The cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay have a dollop or three of residual sugar, but otherwise taste like they should
This is the 12th Barefoot wine review I’ve written, and one thing is as aggravating today, for Barefoot wine review 2019, as it was 12 years ago: No screwcap. Why E&J Gallo, Barefoot’s owner, still uses a cork closure on most of its labels is beyond me. The only time these wines are “aged” is after they’re opened, when they sit in the refrigerator for another day. A screwcap would make that kind of aging so much easier.
The Barefoot wine review 2019 features the non-vintage cabernet sauvignon ($5, purchased, 12.5%) and the non-vintage chardonnay ($5, purchased, 13%). Both, save for a dollop or three of residual sugar, are among the best Barefoot efforts in years. Yes, that’s damning with faint praise, given the quality of the wines in many of the previous reviews. And their sweetness left that dried out feeling in my mouth for 20 or 30 minutes after tasting. But that Barefoot varietal wines taste like their varietal is worth noting. Put a couple of ice cubes in the glass, and the wines are certainly drinkable, if too simple and not very subtle.
The cabernet tastes of dark berry fruit (boysenberry?), and there are soft tannins, a certain acidity, and restrained fake oak. No chocolate cherry foolishness here, though the sweetness gets more noticeable with each sip and may annoy wine drinkers who expect cabernet to be dry.
The chardonnay, ironically, is less sweet than the cabernet. Take away the sugar, and it’s a pleasant California-style chardonnay — almost crisp green apple fruit, that chardonnay style of mouth feel, and just enough fake oak to round out the wine. There’s even a sort of finish, which was about the last thing I expected. Once again, though, the sweetness gets in the way — would that Barefoot had the courage of its convictions to make a dry wine dry.
This week’s wine news: The New York Times’ Eric Asimov takes on sweet red wine, plus wine helps a pension plan go belly up and Barefoot reaches 20 million cases
• An unlikely review: The Times’ Eric Asimov, who makes no secret of his disdain for Big Wine, discusses three top-selling Big Wine products in a recent Times’ wine school column. His comments about E&J Gallo’s Apothic and Constellation Brands’ The Prisoner and Meomi are almost as priceless as as the comments readers left. It’s also worth noting that the wines are sweet reds – Apothic more or less labeled as such, and the other two hiding sugar behind a dry red wine label. As such, there are three of the most contentious wines among those of us who do what Asimov does.
• How to make a million in the wine business: Dallas’ police and fire pension fund almost went broke last year, and only tremendous sacrifices by the cops and firefighters – who weren’t responsible for the collapse – saved the system (which is a story for another day). The point for the blog? The pension system was so badly mismanaged that it had investments in wine real estate. How is that mismanagement? Because the first rule of the wine business is this very old joke: How do you make a million in the wine business? Start with two million.
• Only 20 million cases: Barefoot, also an E&J Gallo brand, has grown to 20 million cases – or about one bottle for every drinking age adult in the U.S. That’s a mind-boggling statistic. The story from the Shanken trade news site is mostly puff (boxed wine is hardly an innovation in 2019), but it’s worth reading to note how important $7 Barefoot is to the health of the U.S. wine business. We can talk about premiumization all we want, but if Barefoot was a winery, it would be the fourth biggest producer in the U.S.