Monday, April 23, 2007

Ali vs. Frazier

I like perusing the wine selection in Costco. In their premium bin they actually have some very nice wines. Though the selection changes daily, you can always count on finding Dom Perignon, BV Georges de Latour, and even an occasional nice Bordeaux like Chaueau Haut Brion – for the bargain basement price of $250 a bottle. For the most part, however, their selection is heavy on California wines, and that's fine.

A while back I saw something I had never seen before, or even imagined was possible: a Kirkland Bordeaux. Kirkland, if you've ever bothered to notice, is the Costco house brand. That's right; Costco is bottling French Bordeaux under their house label. Ummm…

After I stopped laughing and managed to convince Costco security that I, a) wasn't a threat to their clientele, and, b) had money, I took a closer look. By God, that's what the label really said. “2003 Kirkland Signature Pauillac Bordeaux.” “Signature”, no less! Oo-la-la!

But who would buy Costco brand Bordeaux? Costco Bordeaux is a little like a Ronco space shuttle. It doesn't sound like such a great idea. I'm really not sure what market segment they were shooting for, but they hit the “snotty wine columnist looking for something to bash” market right on the head. “I gotta get me some of this!” I thought to myself. But at $25 a bottle, I restrained myself from buying a whole case, and left the store with a single cherished bottle.

For those of you who don't know, the Pauillac (pow-YAK) is probably the single most famous wine-making region of Bordeaux, of France, and therefore of the world. It's home to names that even you have heard of, including Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Dark, intense, cabernet sauvignon grapes are the primary ingredient in Pauillac Bordeaux. Snazzy – and expensive – stuff. Did that sort of pedigree run in the purple juice of Chateau Kirkland? I didn't know, but I was going to find out.

To make it interesting, I decided to do the classic face off: French Bordeaux vs. California cabernet. I had my Bordeaux; for my California cab challenger, there was only one place to go: Trader Joe's. I mean, really, what better wine to take on the Costco house brand than the infamous Two Buck Chuck? So I scored myself a bottle of 2002 Charles Shaw California Cabernet Sauvignon and headed home.

I couldn't wait to pop open these bad boys, but I figured I'd do this right. So I got out a couple of decanters and poured each bottle into its own decanter to breathe. I still promise to do a column on decanting (someday) but the short version is that letting the wine breathe for several hours in a decanter allows it do develop flavors and aromas. It's particularly effective on very complex wines, but it works even on the cheap stuff. OK, maybe not on Carlo Rossi Hearty Burgundy, but on most reds it's well worth decanting. Just trust me on this, OK?

So, I decanted the wines, but decided to have a small taste right out of the bottle, like your average Chateau Kirkland and Charles Shaw buyer would do.

Let's just say that they were both hideously vile. The Two Buck Chuck had the aroma of dust and strawberries and was very bitter on the finish. The Kirkland wasn't any better; if anything it was even more bitter. Undrinkable. 0.5 stars for both. Blech!

But after three hours both wines had “evolved” considerably.

The Kirkland had developed a slight and pleasant earthiness on the nose, with hints of blackberry and raspberry. Nice. On the palate it had lost the bitter finish, but it was replaced with really huge dry mouth-puckering tannins. Ouch! And that was about it. Not much fruit…not much anything. Nada. Zip. Bupkis. That was a hell of a long way to go for nothing. I was expecting to either discover an amazing bargain or (much more likely) a spectacularly nasty concoction more suited to spraying on cockroaches than to washing down a nice steak. But nothing? A big letdown. 1.5 stars.

The Charles Shaw fared better. The dust was gone from the nose, leaving clear red fruit notes. On the palate it wasn't particularly deep or complex, but I don't know what the heck you're expecting for $1.99. Mild fruit, balanced tannins. A bit hot on the finish, but not objectionable. Amazingly, this was an OK wine. I rate it “drinkable when there is absolutely nothing else to drink”. 2.5 stars.

Actually, the Charles Shaw cab was SO good (or at least sufficiently better than godawful) that it has inspired me to review the entire Two Buck Chuck line, which I think includes the cab, a merlot, a shiraz, a chardonnay, and maybe even a sauvignon blanc. Look for that in a future column. In the meantime, I'm taking suggestions. Any subjects that you want me to expansively expound upon with a dazzling display of educated erudition? Any wines that you'd like me to taste (sorry – I already did Thunderbird)? Let me know.

Oh, and by the way, if you want to see me doing the Costco vs. Trader Joe's taste off, you can watch it at: .

No comments: