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.
Barefoot wine review 2018: Rich Red Blend shows Big Wine at its best, while Barefoot Bubbly does just the opposite
Nothing changed with the Barefoot wine review 2018 from the 2017 version. The brand remains maddeningly inconsistent — no guarantee that its products will taste the same from year to year. This is a huge problem, since Barefoot is non-vintage wine and there aren’t supposed to be vintage differences. But E&J Gallo makes so much of it (almost 20 million cases, more than the production of almost every winery in the U.S.) that quality control, apparently, is not what it should be.
The Rich Red blend is not as sweet as the Cupcake Red Velvet — closer to the Bogle Essential Red. Look for the cherry, chocolate, and vanilla flavors that are the hallmark of these wines, but also notice the tannins. Yes, tannins in a sweet wine, in an attempt at balance. And it mostly works. And yes, there is a tremendous amount of winemaking going on to get that not especially wine-like combination of flavors. But no one pretends Barefoot makes terroir-driven wines.
The less said about the Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee ($8, purchased, 10.5%), the better. When it’s right, it’s an enjoyable bottle of cheap sparking wine that’s easy to recommend. When it’s wrong, as it was this time, about the only thing you can do is pour it down the drain. My experience: It’s 50-50 whether the wine will be drinkable. This time, the Barefoot Bubbly was flat, and barely popped when I took the cork off. Was this a winemaking problem? Was this a supply chain problem — stored in a hot distributor warehouse after sitting in a hot truck after sitting in a hot supplier warehouse? Either way, it was a waste of $8 that I could have spent on a Spanish cava.
This year, I tasted the Barefoot sweet red ($6, purchased, 10.5%) and sauvignon blanc ($6, purchased, 13%), and the difference between the two illustrates my point. The first is Big Wine at its best – a well-made sweet red that isn’t too sweet, too fruity, or too dirty, and a wine I would buy for someone who likes sweet red. The sauvignon blanc, on the other hand, was thin and almost reedy – a sign of poor quality grapes chosen because they were cheap and not because they added anything to the wine.
The Barefoot sweet red smells like cherry grape juice, but there isn’t much cherry left when you taste it. What fruit there is resembles grape Nehi, but not in a bad way. In this, there’s less acidity than grape juice, and no tannins, either, even though the wine would be better if it had more of the first and some of the latter. That would give it more balance and a brightness that the best sweet reds have. The irony? The the sweet red approaches balance anyway, and even the Big Guy (who tasted the wines with me) was impressed with its quality. The sweet red is California appellation and non-vintage.
The Big Guy was especially annoyed with the sauvignon blanc ($6, purchased, 13%), given that it takes a lot to ruin sauvignon blanc. But that happened here – this was thin and annoying and unripe, and nowhere near Bogle or McManis. It smelled almost grassy, as California sauvignon blanc should, but that was it. In this, I have rarely tasted a well-made Barefoot sauvignon blanc. The wine was non-vintage.
Finally, a word about the stickers most Barefoot wines carry boasting of medals. Ignore them. Most Barefoot wines are non-vintage, so when the sticker says the wine won a medal in 2012 (sweet red) and 2014 (sauvignon blanc), the wines with the sticker almost certainly weren’t the wines entered in the competition.
Reviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month
• Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee NV ($10, sample, 11.5%): One of the most frustrating things about reviewing wine is consistency of the product. I’ve written glowing reviews of this wine, but when I tasted the most recent sample, it was almost flat and devoid of flavor and character. Is this a flaw with this specific bottle of wine? Is it a problem with the current “vintage?” Or is it a problem in the supply chain, where the wine sat in a warehouse or delivery truck? I think the last, since I’ve had this problem with sparkling wine from many producers at many prices over the past 18 months. This is one of the disadvantages of non-vintage ones; you don’t know how long it has been sitting and getting worse.
• Domaine de la Chanteleuserie Cuvée Alouettes ($17, purchased, 12%): This red wine, from the French region of Loire, is an excellent example of what the Loire can do with cabernet franc – red berry fruit, freshness, graphite, spice, and length. It’s clean through the palate with surprisingly soft tannins. Highly recommended.
• Ridge Geyserville 2014 ($35, purchased, 14.5%): This California zinfandel red blend isn’t anywhere near ready to drink, and needs at least another year (if not longer). Until then, look for ripe black fruit and a lot less of the style and elegance that Ridge is known for.
• Château Lafleur de Haute-Serre 2014 ($10, purchased, 13%): This French red, made with malbec from the Cahors region, is not what I’d hoped given that it’s from Georges Vigouroux, a fine producer. It’s just ordinary, 1970s style wine with too much unripe fruit and a rusticity that isn’t as much charming as annoying.
The Barefoot wine review 2016: an interesting pinot grigio and a pinot noir that isn’t very pinot noir-ish.
The Barefoot wine review 2016 goes a long way toward explaining why the market for wine that costs less than $10 has been eroding for a couple of years — save for Barefoot. These wines are professional and technically competent, but more importantly are made for specific groups who know what they like and will buy what they like.
The pinot grigio ($10, purchased, 12.5%) is more like pinot gris, with sort of soft lemon fruit and more acidity than I expected. This is not a tonic water pinot grigio like similarly priced Italian wines; instead, the Barefoot straddles the line between the two styles. It’s also sweet – not moscato or white zinfandel sweet, but with a touch of residual sugar that you’ll notice on the back of your tongue. There is lots of winemaking going on here, but the result is drinkable, especially if well chilled and of you don’t mind the sweetness. The pinot grigio is American appellation and non-vintage.
It’s not so much that the pinot noir ($10, purchased, 13.5%) doesn’t taste like pinot noir. You can say that about a lot of pinots that cost less than $25 and are made more like cheap red blends. Rather, my sense is that the goal was to make a wine that tastes like the kind of wine that people who don’t drink much wine think red wine should taste like. Yes, a complicated sentence, but it means that the pinot noir is a little rough and not smooth in the way many wine drinkers describe wine. Plus, the tannins are surprisingly noticeable and not well integrated, something that almost never happens with a Barefoot wine. The pinot noir is American appellation and non-vintage.
Finally, a word about the price of the wine, which was almost 50 percent higher than it should have been – $10 instead of $7. I bought both bottles at the same supermarket where I buy Barefoot every year for the review, and that was the price. Call it premiumization or grocery store pricing or whatever, but it means the wines are that much less of a value given the higher price.
It’s not so much that Barefoot is No. 2 in U.S. wine sales, and poised to pass top-selling Franzia in the next year or so. Or that Barefoot’s sales grew by 5 ½ percent last year, out-pacing the entire U.S. wine industry (to say nothing of its competitors). Or that, at 18.1 million cases, it would be the sixth biggest winery in the U.S., the 15th biggest brewery, and the second biggest craft brewery.
What really matters is that Barefoot has done all of this in little more than a decade, and with almost no help from the Winestream Media or traditional wine marketing.
• Scores don’t matter; none from the Winestream Media showed up on the first page when I did a Google search for Barefoot scores.
• Advertising doesn’t matter; when is the last time you saw a Barefoot ad?
• Even retailers may not matter. Has Barefoot become the ultimate grocery store wine, plucked from store shelves by consumers without any advice, words of wisdom, or assistance from an employee (not that any exist to answer questions in a grocery store)?
In this, Barefoot may be the first Information Age brand, marketed almost entirely by a word of mouth that has been amplified by texts, Facebook recommendations, and whatever else people use to tell a friend what they like in the 21st century. What does it matter that Eric Asimov, perhaps the best wine critic in the world, doesn’t review the brand? Who needs him when a couple of your BFFs text you that the wine is cheap, super tasty, and smooth?
Which is the point in this post where someone, loudly and angrily, will proclaim: “But Barefoot doesn’t taste any good!”
And it’s the point where I say, “Good to whom?” Karen Carpenter’s music makes me crazy, but she sold more than 100 million records and one of her sappiest songs is in the Grammy Hall of Fame. I love the Ramones, but Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy sound like so much bad guitar playing to a lot of people (probably most people, if the truth be known).
Does Barefoot taste like Grand Cru Burgundy? Nope, but no one says it does. Does it taste like the kind of wine a critic or an experienced wine drinker would like? Nope, but they don’t drink it, do they? Barefoot is a technically competent, if not very interesting, wine that is sold to people who – and this is what almost no one but the Gallo family understands – the wine business has scared away from buying anything more demanding. You don’t need to understand winespeak or to know what an appellation is to enjoy Barefoot. It comes in a bottle, not a box, and all you need is $7 and a glass. What’s wrong with that in a wine world with $350 wine openers?
This approach may have helped Barefoot become the first national wine brand, sold throughout the country the same way Heinz ketchup and Tide detergent are. I try to visit grocery stores whenever I travel, and Barefoot has been in all of them, whether a tiny Brookshire’s in very rural East Texas, a convenience store on the Gulf Coast, or a Safeway in downtown San Diego.
Those of us who love wine shouldn’t see those 18 million cases as something to complain about or to make fun of, the way too many of us did with white zinfandel. Rather, it’s an opportunity to show people who already drink wine how much more is out there that they might enjoy. Because isn’t that what wine should be about – each of us helping each other find something fun to drink?
The Wine Curmudgeon will soon start the second year of his Champagne boycott, and I can’t say I’ve missed spending lots of money for wine that — as terrific as it can be — is almost never a value. With that in mind, here are my annual New Year’s sparkling wine suggestions, focusing on affordable bubbly that also offers value.
• Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee ($10, sample, 11.5%): Every time I taste this California sparkler, and I taste it a couple of times a year, I’m always stunned at how well made it is. Even though it’s charmat, a less sophisticated production method than methode champenoise, the bubbles are still tight and the wine isn’t flabby or too sweet. Look for crisp apple fruit and a little creaminess, and serve well chilled.
• Fantinel Prosecco Extra Dry NV ($15, sample, 11.5%): The Champagne boycott has forced me to spend more time with Prosecco, and I’m glad I did, discovering wines that were neither too soft or too simple and demonstrating again one should taste the wine before judging it. The Fantinel, though it’s labeled extra dry, is not appreciably sweeter than many bruts, and it features a flowery aroma and well done tropical fruit.
• Mistinguett Cava Brut NV ($12, sample, 12%): Yet another Spanish bubbly that is simple but well-made and well worth the price. It’s got some sort of lemon-lime thing going on, but not too sweet and with a refreshing pop to it. Probably a little more Prosecco like than most cavas, but not unpleasant in the least.
• Pierre Boniface Les Rocailles Brut de Savoie NV ($15, purchased, 12%): This cremant from the Savoie region (cremant is French sparkling wine not from Champagne) is made with jacqure, altesse, and chardonnay, so regular visitors know I would like it just for the two odd grapes. But it shows a touch of sweetness, some fresh white fruit, and a very intriguing minerality. It probably needs food, which you can’t say about most bubbly.