The $5 wine tasteoff

This story ran in the Star-Telegram newspaper in Fort Worth in January. I put together a panel of six ordinary wine drinking consumers, and we tasted eight wines that cost less than $5 a bottle and then discussed whether they offered value.

The story elicited some of the most heated comment of any newspaper piece I’ve ever written, and that includes my political stuff. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), much of the comment wasn’t favorable. One reader told me that the story was a joke, that I should be ashamed to call myself a professional, and that only someone who knew nothing about wine could recommend something that was sold at Walgreen’s.

In this, that reader (and the others who felt the same way, though with less vitriol) were showing just how much the wine business has warped American consumers. If it isn’t expensive, if it doesn’t have a good score, and if it doesn’t have status, then it isn’t worth drinking. You don’t even have to taste it first.

Tom Johnson, a regular visitor here, has a fine post at Palate Press that asks why wine blogs aren’t more popular, and I think the reaction to this story is part of the answer. Too many wine blogs don’t interest wine drinkers; they interest wine snobs, and there aren’t as many of the latter as there are of the former.

I can’t send you to the Star-Telegram story, because the link has expired. But I’ve posted a version of the story after the jump, minus a Texas wine that isn’t available nationwide, so you can judge for yourself:

Cheap wine is all the rage in the wine business, and it’s not just because of the recession. National and regional retailers, as well as the biggest wine producers in the country, have been pumping out wine that costs $6 or less a bottle for almost a decade, trying to duplicate the success of Two Buck Chuck.

Two Buck Chuck is the nickname for the Charles Shaw wines that sell at California-based Trader Joe’s for $1.99 to $3.49 a bottle, depending on store location. Trader Joe’s has sold more than 400 million cases of Two Buck Chuck, which accounts for all the competition it’s facing these days.

There are no Trader Joe’s in the Fort Worth-Dallas area, but there are plenty of what the industry calls ?extreme value ? or ?super value ? wines. So we put together a tasting panel of six ordinary wine drinking consumers ? no wine geeks here, but people who actually taste wine before they judge it ? to decide if wine that costs less than $5 a bottle is worth it.

We picked a cross section of eight super value wines, four red and four whites, and asked the panel: Would they buy it for themselves? Would they buy it to serve to others? Did it taste like they thought it would? No wine got six votes, but a couple got perfect zeroes. In a second vote, two wines tied for best of the tasting ? The Rene Barbier Mediterranean White from World Market and Southern Point Chardonnay, sold at Walgreen’s.

Absent are 7-Eleven’s $4 Yosemite Road, which is pretty much sold out since its launch last fall, and discount grocer Aldi’s store brands; Aldi is supposed to open 25 stores in the area later this year, but none are here yet.

Several points from the the tasting:

? The panel mostly thought that the wines offered value for what they cost. This didn’t necessarily mean they thought they were great wines, but that they weren’t disappointed by the quality.
? It’s more difficult to make a good cheap red wine than a good cheap white wine. The white wines, even among those on the panel who usually drink red wine, fared better than the reds.
? The panel’s judgments paralleled mine, which didn’t surprise me. Ordinary consumers aren’t nearly as dumb as the wine business thinks they are.

Rene Barbier Mediterranean White
? About the wine: This is a white blend made with Spanish grapes, and usually does well in these sorts of tastings.
? Cost/availability: $4.99 at World Market
? Would you buy this wine for yourself? 4 votes
? Would you buy this wine to serve to others? 2 votes
? Does this taste like you expected it to taste? 5 votes
? Professional opinion: My favorite wine, with good citrus fruit.

Southern Point Chardonnay
? About the wine: A California chardonnay that was the surprise of the tasting.
? Cost/availability: $2.99, exclusively at Walgreen’s
? Would you buy this wine for yourself? 4 votes
? Would you buy this wine to serve to others? 4 votes
? Does this taste like you expected it to taste? 4 votes
? Professional opinion: Much better than I thought it would be, and it wasn’t that much less interesting than solid $10 chardonnays like Bogle.

Target Cube Pinot Grigio
? About the wine: California pinot grigo that comes in a 1.5 liter box, the equivalent of two bottles
? Cost/availability: $9.99 for the box/about $5 a bottle, exclusively at Target
? Would you buy this wine for yourself? 2 votes
? Would you buy this wine to serve to others? 2 votes
? Does this taste like you expected it to taste? 5 votes
? Professional opinion: I’ve never been a fan of the Target Cube wines ? they’re always a little thin, as this one was.

Paul Valmer Chardonnay
? About the wine: California chardonnay that was one of the biggest disappointments ? no one liked it.
? Cost/availability: $4.99, sold exclusively at Whole Foods
? Would you buy this wine for yourself? 0 votes
? Would you buy this wine to serve to others? 0 votes
? Does this taste like you expected it to taste? 0 votes
? Professional opinion: I had not tasted this wine in several years, and was genuinely surprised at all of the off, bitter flavors.

Wine 4 Grilling Red
? About the wine: This California red blend, made with zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, comes in a 3-liter box ? the equivalent of 4 bottles
? Cost/availability: $15.98/about $4 a bottle, sold exclusively at World Market
? Would you buy this wine for yourself? 2 votes
? Would you buy this wine to serve to others? 0 votes
? Does this taste like you expected it to taste? 4 votes
? Professional opinion: I’d thought I’d like this wine, but it was too fruity with an unpleasant charred, oaky flavor.

Oak Leaf Merlot
? About the wine: California merlot that is Walmart’s version of Two Buck Chuck; several Oak Leaf wines have won medals at wine competitions.
? Cost/availability: $2.97, sold exclusively at Walmart
? Would you buy this wine for yourself? 3 votes
? Would you buy this wine to serve to others? 1 vote
? Does this taste like you expected it to taste? 4 votes
? Professional opinion: I liked this wine better the panel did, if only because it tasted like California merlot. That’s difficult to do at this price.

Glen Ellen Old Vine Zinfandel
? About the wine: California zinfandel from one of the country’s best-known jug wine producers. This was the best-rated red wine.
? Cost/availability: $9.99 for a 1.5-liter bottle/about $5 bottle, widely available
? Would you buy this wine for yourself? 5 votes
? Would you buy this wine to serve to others? 5 votes
? Does this taste like you expected it to taste? 5 votes
? Professional opinion: Did it taste exactly like zinfandel? No, but it was close enough.

One thought on “The $5 wine tasteoff

  • By Morgan - Reply

    The Oak Leaf Shiraz isn’t bad either. A little thin on the fruit, but ok for the price.

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