Last January, when I waxed reminisicent about the original 1999 $10 Hall of Fame, I promised to tell the story behind several of the wines that made that list. Now, as I’m starting to put together the 2014 Hall of Fame (which will appear on Jan. 6, 2014), it’s a good time to share those stories — they’re after the jump.
The first thing to understand about wines is that they’re like rock bands. No matter how much sense it makes for a band to stay together forever or for a wine to never change, bands don’t and wines do. Labels get new winemakers, new owners, go out of business. That’s pretty much what happened to these.
Hogue’s fume blanc, a sauvignon blanc from Washington state, was the wine that convinced me that there was something to this cheap wine thing, and I wrote about it every chance I got. The wine still exists, on its third or fourth owner, but it’s nothing compared to what it once was.
The Hogue was so well done that it even got me out of a wine bar fight. This would have been the mid-90s; I was talking to several people about great cheap wine, spreading the gospel, when this heavyset, balding guy asked me what I knew about wine. He said he worked for a retailer, and it was obvious from listening to me that I knew nothing. If I was so smart, he said, I could name a great $10 wine off the top of my head. I said, “Hogue fume blanc,” and he paused. “Yep, that’s pretty good,” he said. “I guess you do know your stuff.”
Jaja de Jau, a French wine with a distinctive black label, was the other great cheap wine from those days. The brand is still around, too, but has morphed into a California-style wine made to please the so-called American palate. It’s OK, and has even shown up the blog a couple of times, but it’s not the same.
Back then, it tasted like the kind of wine you bought for a couple of francs at a tiny corner grocery store in Paris (yes, it was that long ago, before the euro), a red blend that was dark and simple and just a little fruity. I used to drink cases of it. The wine was imported by a company owned by Martin Sinkoff, a wine business legend, and who taught me a lot about wine (though he probably didn’t realize it at the time).
The Jaja was also nearly impossible to find in Dallas. I asked the distributor why, and his answer has stayed with me for 25 years: “It’s too cheap. No one wants to carry it because their customers will buy it instead of more expensive wine.”
It’s amazing how much smarter retailers are these days, isn’t it?