Tag Archives: merlot

Results: The fourth $3 wine challenge 2018

$3 challenge 2018
Does this guy know how lucky he was not to drink wine with me last week?

The $3 wine challenge 2018: The wines were awful again — how can anyone drink this junk?

The worst part of the $3 wine challenge 2018 is that I wanted to like these wines. I wanted to find something that cost $3 that tasted like wine and that I could buy and enjoy.

Fat chance.

Like last year, and the year before, and the year before, the wines were mostly hideous. This group was made to resemble grape juice with alcohol. Think Welch’s — an overwhelmingly grapey aroma, a little less sweetness, tartness instead of acidity, watery and thin, and without the tannins that every wine should have. These are wine for people who don’t like wine.

Which the producers understand. The bottle — with a cork, for crying out loud — cost more to produce than the wine itself. This should tell you how much appearance matters, and how little quality counts.

The $3 challenge 2018

I drank a $3 merlot with dinner every night last week to attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Or are the ultra-cheap wines just cheap, without any redeeming enological value? Each of the wines was purchased, and all but one was American and non-vintage.

Two-buck Chuck merlot 2014 ($1.99, 12.5%). The Trader Joe’s private label had the blueberry aroma it should have had, though a little forced. Very fruity, with sweet berries, plus unexpected tannins. They weren’t especially natural (liquid tannins, perhaps?), but at least they were there. Surprisingly drinkable and merlot-like, and the only one that tasted anything like wine. But not as well made as the Black Box merlot, which is about the same price.

Three Wishes merlot ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. How can a retailer that prides itself on quality sell something this wretched? Smelled like expensive grape juice, and tasted like it, too. No tannins, no acidity, and a dirty chocolate fake oak taste on the finish.

• The Winking Owl merlot ($2.89, 12%) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere) had a thick and heavy taste, even though it was surprisingly light in color. Smelled like merlot, with some blueberry, but that was as palatable as it got. There was noticeable residual sugar, even though the wine claimed to be dry; the usual missing tannins; and battery acid-style acidity.

Oak Leaf merlot ($2.96, 12.5%), the Walmart private label was more of the same — the Welch’s grape juice approach, both in aroma and taste; so of course, no tannins. Plus, and oddly, it was a little heavy in the back. A very annoying effort.

Bay Bridge merlot ($2.99, 12.5%), the Kroger private label and sold at Kroger, Fred Meyer, and Kroger-owned banners. This, as it usually is, was the worst of the five. Smelled like blueberry Kosher wine, and a little tinny for good measure.  Charred chocolate from the fake oak (oak powder?), plus a little varnish-like taste in the fruit.

More on the $3 wine challenge:
Results: The third $3 wine challenge 2017
Results: The second $3 wine challenge 2014
Results: The first $3 wine challenge 2013

cheap wine

The fourth, almost annual, $3 wine challenge

$3 wineYou asked for it, so the Wine Curmudgeon will endure. I’ll drink $3 wine with dinner every night next week to see if ultra-cheap wine matters

Each night next week, I’ll drink a $3 wine with dinner; can they offer quality and value for so little money? I don’t do this to break new enological ground, given how crappy most of the wine was in the first three $3 challenges. But this remains one of the most popular features on the blog, and I regularly get emails asking me to do it again.

So once more unto the breach, dear friends (and I wish I had his sword). Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Or are the ultra-cheap wines just cheap, without any other reason for being?

The details about the first three $3 challenges are here, here, and here. This year, it will be five merlots (all purchased in Dallas):

Two-buck Chuck merlot ($1.99, 12.5%). The Trader Joe’s private label was the first — and remains — the most famous of the very cheap wines. It’s a California appellation from the 2014 vintage, and made for Trader Joe’s by Bronco Wine. The price surprised me; it has been $2.99 for a couple of years.

Three Wishes merlot ($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 anywhere in the U.S. (though most probably came from the Central Valley in California). It’s made by multi-national The Wine Group, which is best known for Cupcake.

Winking Owl merlot ($2.89, 12%) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere). It’s a California appellation but non-vintage, so 75 percent of the grapes came from California but from different harvests. It’s made by E&J Gallo, the largest wine producer in the world.

Oak Leaf merlot ($2.96, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Also made by The Wine Group, American, and non-vintage. The price is a penny less than the last time I did this.

Bay Bridge merlot ($2.99, 12.5%), the Kroger private label; sold at Kroger, Fred Meyer, and Kroger-owned banners. It’s American and non-vintage, and the third of these made by The Wine Group.

Wine of the week: Veni Vidi Vici Merlot 2015

Veni Vidi Vici merlotThe $10 Veni Vidi Vici merlot shows Bulgaria knows a thing or two about making fine cheap wine

The Bulgarian Veni Vidi Vici merlot was one of the most wonderful surprises in the history of the blog, an amazing $10 wine that disappeared from the U.S. after I wrote about the 2009 vintage. It was everything a great cheap Old World merlot should be – earthy, almost rustic, and with just enough fruit so you could tell it was merlot and not zinfandel.

So imagine my joy when I got an email from the importer saying the 2015 vintage was available in this country. And if this version of the Veni Vidi Vici merlot ($10, sample, 13%) is a little softer and not quite what the 2009 was, it’s still a terrific cheap wine.

The Veni Vidi Vici merlot remains a quality Old World style effort, where a little earthiness combines with fresh and not too ripe berry fruit. The oak isn’t overdone, and the tannins are merlot-soft. Drink this on its own, since it’s a red wine that’s light enough for summer, as well as with any hot weather grilled meat or barbecued chicken.

Finally, that this wine can be so well made and come from Bulgaria – hardly the center of the wine making universe – speaks volumes about how sad so much cheap California wine is.

Wine of the week: McManis Merlot 2015

mcmanis merlotThe McManis merlot is a revelation: California red wine that doesn’t taste like grape juice on steroids

My pal Dave Falchek, a fine wine writer, has insisted for the past couple of years that the McManis wines are better than my beloved Bogle, perhaps the last great California cheap wine brand. This year, the blog’s readers agreed with Dave, and McManis won the cheap wine poll. The McManis merlot shows why.

The McManis merlot ($10, purchased, 13.5%) was a revelation. And I say this not just because I don’t enjoy merlot, but because it’s almost impossible to find California merlot at any price that tastes like it’s supposed to. Too many are jacked up with so much sweet fruit and fake oak (yes, even the pricier ones) that they make me sigh and reach for a glass of Spanish tempranillo.

The McManis, though, tastes like merlot – blueberry fruit, just the right heft for merlot (not as much as cabernet sauvingon, more than pinot noir), and a little of the silkiness that I expect to find in New World merlot. Plus, the finish isn’t bitter or too short, and even shows a little earth.

Highly recommended, and headed for the $10 Hall of Fame this week to join the McManis petite sirah. Perhaps more important: It goes into my red wine rotation, the wines I buy regularly. It’s perfect for a Tuesday night takeout dinner, and can even hold its own if I feel like cooking.

Welcome to the club, McManis.

California wine trends: Is merlot in its death throes?

California wine trendsPinot noir isn’t necessarily the reason; how about sweet red blends?

Eight percent of the wine produced in California in 2013 was merlot, up from four percent in 1993. So why does it look like merlot may be on its way out as a varietal?

Think sweet red blends, the hottest California wine trend. There was no red blend category in 1993; in 2013, one out of every 7.4 bottles of California wine was a red blend, about 13.5 percent. That’s a staggering statistic, and speaks to the industry’s ability to give consumers new products on the turn of a dime. Who would have thought that about the tradition-bound wine business?

One can argue that I’m over-reacting, and that merlot is no worse off than cabernet sauvignon, whose share increased just two points in 20 years. But cabernet remains the most popular red varietal and the second most popular overall, and its U.S. sales (including imports) remain strong.

In fact, merlot trailed every category in 2013, including white zinfandel, which the industry gave up for dead years ago. The chart (click on it to enlarge) was compiled by Lew Perdue at the Wine Industry Insight website from information at this year’s Wine Industry Financial Symposium. It’s a revelation:

• Chardonnay, long the most popular California varietal, fell from one of every three bottles to one of every four.

• Chardonnay almost certainly lost market share to pinot grigio (13.1 percent) and moscato (9.8%), neither of which were in the 1993 numbers. Would anyone have thought 20 years ago that California would make more of those than merlot?

• Pinot noir, once thought to be nearly impossible to grow in California, was almost as popular as the red blends. This isn’t so much the infamous “Sideways” affect as it is to the way inexpensive California pinot noir is made – fruity and more like a red blend.

• The “other”category accounted for more than one-quarter of the wine produced in 2015, also staggering. Is our chardonnay and cabernet world changing so quickly that we aren’t noticing? The varietals included in the other category aren’t listed, but I assume it includes rose. In which case, the numbers may not be quite so surprising.

Much of this has to do with the change from the smaller and more traditional producers who dominated the market in 1993 to Big Wine’s control of production today. But that’s a post for a different time.


Cupcake wine review 2016

cupcake wine reviewA cabernet sauvignon that isn’t too bad, but a merlot that really isn’t necessary

The 2016 Cupcake wine review features the top-selling brand’s cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The cabernet surprised me; it mostly tastes like cabernet, and may be the best Cupcake wine I’ve tasted in the six years I’ve done a Cupcake wine review. The merlot? The less said, the better.

The California cabernet sauvignon 2014 ($10, purchased, 13.5%) smells like boysenberries, not unlike pancake house boysenberry syrup without the sweetness. It’s mostly dark fruit, but barely sweet at all in the way so many grocery store wines are jammed with sweet fruit. The mouth feel is surprisingly full, again not what I expected, and the tannins and acidity are pleasantly noticeable and in balance.

The catch is the finish, which involves some horrible fake oak that can best be described as tasting like cheap, bitter, poorly made cocoa powder. It stayed in my mouth despite my best efforts to get rid of it with repeated rinsing.

The California merlot 2014 ($10, purchased, 13.5%) was thin, bland, dull, and uninteresting. It wasn’t fruity or earthy (though there was a funky aroma that blew off after a minute or so) in the way that most merlots are one or the other. Even more surprising was that there wasn’t any finish, and there’s usually at least a crummy one on this kind of wine. But the merlot vanished the minute I spit it out.

Given how many grocery store merlots suffer from an overabundance of flavor and fruit, the merlot is hard to figure out. My guess? Just poor quality grapes, which may also account for the funky aroma.

For more on Cupcake wine:
Cupcake wine review 2015
Cupcake wine review 2014
Cupcake wine review 2013

Mini-reviews 87: Lindemans, Toad Hollow, Dancing Coyote, Mont Gravet

stockwine2Mini-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. This month, two whites you’ll enjoy and two reds you probably won’t.

Lindemans Bin 45 Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($6, sample, 13.5%): It’s not so much that this Australian red tastes like a $6 cabernet, with overly sweet black fruit and lots of fake chocolate oak. It’s that so many wines that cost two and three times as much taste the same way (albeit with better grapes).

Toad Hollow Merlot 2014 ($14, sample, 14.3%): Red from a once great California producer that tastes more like cabernet than merlot, complete with manly tannins. One fix? I put ice cubes in my glass, which toned down the wine enough so that it tasted like merlot.

Dancing Coyote Gruner Veltliner 2015 ($15, sample, 13%): California white is a well-made, varietally correct version of the Austrian sommelier favorite – which is saying something given the Wine Curmudgeon’s lack of enthusiasm for gruner. Look for citrus and peach and a crisp finish.

Mont Gravet Cotes de Gascogne 2015 ($10, purchased, 11.5%): This is yet another well made and value-drive French white from the region of Gascony, with lots of citrus and a clean finish. It’s not quite white grapey enough for me, but well worth buying and drinking.