Sunday, January 28, 2007

The $10 Threshold

This is my last week torturing myself with cheap wines. For the most part, it’s been money – and wine – down the drain. But I’ve learned that there’s a major difference between the really, really, really cheap stuff (less than $4 a bottle) and the really, really cheap stuff ($4-6 a bottle). But it gets a bit less clear when moving from the really, really cheap stuff to the just-one-“really” cheap stuff ($6-10 a bottle). Some $9 wines weren’t significantly better than the $4 stuff.

Of course, to a wine snob like me, there’s a certain “duh” factor involved in a statement like that. For us wine snobs, $30 is the threshold where we start to think that we might occasionally find a decent bottle of wine. That’s why there are two types of wine snobs: rich ones and broke ones. If you drink two or three bottles a day like I do, it really starts to add up!

For normal people and people with other kinds of drug habits, 30 bucks a bottle is a bit steep. For them, you hit a big psychological threshold when the price of a bottle goes from $9.99 to $10.00. “Whoa! There’s an extra digit there! I don’t know if I’m willing to pay $10 - $10!!! – for a bottle of wine! It better be damn good!”

People expect that extra penny to make a big difference – and wine makers know it. With that in mind, I myself was expecting to finally drink some decent wines this time around by picking bottles in the $10-15 range. In order to maximize my consumer-spending dollar, I decided to take a trip to Costco; the over-sized home of over-sized boxes of over-sized food sold to over-sized Americans.

Given my limited funds (yeah, I’m one of the broke wine snobs), I decided to only get three bottles, and I decided to pick wines that I thought had a pretty good chance of being worth it.

Andrew Murray 2005 Tous les Jours Central Coast syrah ($12.69)
Andrew Murray is the label that Sideways made famous. On the nose, a decent mix of dark blackberry fruit and a bit of earthiness, but overall the nose was a bit weak. On the tongue it had a faint but pleasant perfuminess to it. However, the fruit was not very strong and the wine was a bit hot on the finish, with a fairly strong taste of alcohol. A decent, drinkable wine, but a bit on the simple side and a bit disappointing. 3 stars.

Rodney Strong 2003 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($10.99)
This wine was recommended to me by a friend whom I consider to be a connoisseur of cheap wine. Pretty darn decent nose right out of the bottle. Really heavy dark blackberry fruit, with a lot of spiciness. Very impressive for the price. The first taste packed a real whammy of tartness, but that faded quickly, giving way to solid spicy fruit and decent tannins. A solid effort. Revisiting the wine after it had been open for about an hour was a mistake. Suddenly, tons of oak leapt out of the glass, followed by an off, almost metallic finish. This is one wine to avoid decanting. 3 stars.

Chateau Souverain 2003 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($14.99)

This one was right at the top of my price range (and probably $18.99 anywhere but Costco), and by God, it was the only one to really come through. Solid dark fruits on the nose like you expect with a Cabernet. On the palette, really just yummy compared to the swill I've been drinking. This was the first wine I'd tasted in weeks that actually had some complexity and structure. Hallelujah, brother! And it just got better the longer it was open, developing more complexity and deep flavors. 3.75 stars.

Now that my crusade is complete, I have no idea what to write about next week. But fortunately, I have a whole week – and 15-20 bottles of wine – before I have to do anything about it.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Moving up or Just Costing More?

If you've been following this column you know that I'm on a crusade to discover the price point where I will actually get to taste a decent wine. To my amazement, I actually came close last week with that drinkable little Woodbridge merlot. If that keeps up and I hit pay dirt this week, I may chuck all of my Bordeaux in the trash and switch to stuff that's a tenth the cost!

I'm really getting into this cheap wine thing. Don't ask me why – the wine snob in me is cowering in a corner sucking his thumb and crying quietly – but the idea of trying a bunch of cheap wines and maybe finding a diamond in the bargain bin has me all hot under the collar. Plus, I get a "reason" to pop four bottles of wine in one night. The downside is that I usually don’t remember much of the tasting the next day and have to make up a bunch of BS to keep my editor happy. Whatever.

Anyway… on with the tasting!

This week I bought four wines that you should be able to find at any grocery store. I picked mine up at Cost Plus.

Blackstone 2005 Monterey County Chardonnay

This wine didn’t actually have a whole lot of aroma – a bit of butter, but not much else. On the palette, it was actually almost flavorless, but, boy, it sure did go down smooth. They finally made something flavorless that has 13% alcohol! Served cold, you could get pretty happy on this stuff, but if you’re actually interested in wine, give it a miss. Honestly, the Gallo chardonnay I had last week was just as good. Pathetic. $8.99. 2 stars.

Yellowtail 2005 Shiraz
As soon as I saw this bottle, I knew I had to buy it. Not only was it easy on the wallet at $5.99, it’s the one wine every single person on the planet has had. On the nose it wasn’t very impressive; a bit oaky and slightly sour, but not horrible. On the palette this was easily the most interesting wine of the bunch. Very floral and perfumy, in a very pleasant way. Smooth. You typically expect an Australian shiraz to have a lot of fruit and pepper, but this one didn’t. Bottom line: this was the only wine I didn’t pour down the sink afterward. 3 stars.

Ravenswood 2003 Vintners Blend California Zinfandel
Ooh… “Vintners Blend”. That must be the good stuff! Actually, “Vintners Blend” is the cheapest stuff Ravenswood makes. “Vintners Blend” is pure marketing for people who know nothing about wine. Yeah, I’m talking to you. Ravenswood is famous for its Zins, but this ain’t one it’s famous for. Too much charred oak on the nose, and bit cooked tasting. Bleech. $6.99. 1.5 stars.

Columbia Crest 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
I’d never had a Columbia Crest wine before. As a California wine snob, I figured that this was just cheap wine, and why drink something from Washington when I could drink something from California that was probably just as bad. Amazingly, this wine had no aroma whatsoever. I mean, even the really cheap stuff smells like something, even if that something is lighter fluid and carpet cleaner. When I buy a bottle of wine, I want it have some sort of smell. Anything will do. But try as I might, I couldn’t suck any smell out of this. The taste was no great shakes either; a bit of oak and some faint fruit. A pass. $8.99. 1.5 stars.

What’s the story here? With the exception of the Yellow Tail, these wines were actually worse than the cheap crap I drank last week. And most of these wines cost about twice what the Woodbridge and Sutter Home cost. Damn! I need to do a better job making up the garbage I put in this column.

Next week: I ask for a raise because I’ll be moving up to the $10-15 a bottle stuff. Ooh-la-la.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Moving Up in the World

Why am I doing this? I keep asking myself that. I actually went out to the grocery store and bought a shopping cart full of cheap wine. I mean, the Franzia and Boone's Farm were bad enough, but I bought a whole basket full of Woodbridge, Sutter Home and Gallo wines as well. That's just plain humiliating for a wine snob like me. It's like Brad Pitt getting caught buying low-grade crystal meth in some alley in downtown Oroville. A guy like that, you'd think he could afford the good stuff - and have a taste for it. Thank God no one recognized me!

Even worse, now I actually have to taste them. The sacrifices I make for this column simply boggle the mind.

Fortunately, I prepped myself for the task by spending a weekend tasting wine in Lodi. Poor Lodi , the butt of Credence Clearwater Revival songs and any number of jokes about hick valley towns. But, based on my wine tasting experiences last weekend, it deserves every joke and every slight tossed at it. Never have so many bad wines been served to so many people in such a small town. But it was a good experience because it lowered my expectations to such a level that I might actually feel blessed to drink Gallo.

Gallo Twin Valley Chardonnay (non-vintage)
After the huge oak bombs that I had in Lodi, this was actually a semi-refreshing change. Cheap chardonnays are known for two flavors: butter and oak. Interestingly, this wine actually bucked that trend. Though it definitely had some oak, it didn't crack me over the head with a two by four. Don’t get me wrong, this wine weren’t nothing special, but it weren’t hideous neither. Actually, for the price – and to my astonishment – this wine was actually drinkable. 2.5 stars.

Woodbridge 2004 California Merlot
I’m not a merlot fan, and not because of the movie Sideways. I couldn’t care less what some actor spewing some piece of dialog says. But the fact is that merlot makes some of the wimpiest, “blah” wines in California, pathetically generic stuff that could be anything and tastes like nothing. Sure, merlot makes some of the best wines in the world, but in California, it’s hard to know what you’re getting until you taste it.

Well, this little wine actually puts out – relatively speaking. Sure, it’s got a fair amount of oak to it, but nothing obnoxious or over the top. But peeking through that (and its low class pedigree) is a wine that almost – almost – has some real character. Again, a stunner. 2.5 stars.

Sutter Home 2002 California Cabernet Sauvignon
I’m not sure what the deal was with this wine. They tend to push the vintages on these cheapo wines pretty fast. Two years is about as much lag time as these producers can handle (partly for marketing reasons, but partly because their wines begin to self-destruct after a couple of years in the bottle. Chateau Latour this stuff ain’t.). This wine was a 2002 and must have been collecting dust on the store shelf for at least two years. And it seemed to be showing signs advanced age. It wasn’t actually bad; it just lacked any sort of character or body. A weak, but not seriously flawed wine. 2 stars.

Sadly, these three wines were among the best I tasted this weekend, and that makes me a bit leery of recommending any of them. The best bad wine is still a bad wine after all. I’d only feel safe recommending these if you’ve been drinking Franzia or Almaden - you poor, poor soul. Amaziungly, these wines actually represent a huge, gigantic step up from box wines, and are worth every penny of it. I honestly never thought I’d hear myself say anything remotely like that. Writing this column brings me to a new low every week.

Next week I’m going to move up the scale to $9-10 per bottle wines – the stuff you might find in Cost Plus or Costco, and probably what you consider the “good stuff”. Some day, I’ll actually drink a real wine for this column. And you’ll all send me hate mail. Sigh.

You can see me taste this week’s wines at:

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Good Stuff

My editor is a very nice and thoughtful guy. So nice and thoughtful that he got me a bottle of wine for Christmas. A bottle of Thunderbird. No kidding, he really did. He even left the price tag on. $3.69. Nothing like a big spender.

A first, I thought, “ha ha, great joke!” But then I started wonder. Was he just being a wisenheimer or was he trying to send me a message? I mean, let’s face it, I’m writing this column for the Chico Beat – the operative word being “Chico.” Don’t get me wrong, Chico’s a nice place, but it’s hardly the most sophisticated city on the planet.

Maybe, I thought, my editor is trying to tell me to write my column at the level of our audience. Maybe I’ve been aiming too high with my fancy wine reviews and talk about how to spit properly. Maybe the people who read this column are spitting, but they’re spitting Copenhagen not cabernet. Instead of reviewing $20 bottles of wine, maybe I should be reviewing $12 boxes of wine.

So I bucked up my courage, headed to the nearest Stop ‘n’ Rob liquor store, and added some “popularly priced” wines to my collection of fine Bordeaux. Honestly, I felt like a complete hick when I brought my cart to the checkout counter, imagining the clerk (and everyone else in the store) sneering at me in derision. I slunk home to my single wide in shame and popped open these bad boys to soothe my hurt.

Thunderbird (Non-vintage) $3.69
At $3.69 for a standard 750ml bottle, the T-Bird is priciest stuff (per gallon) I tasted, and has the most alcohol at 17.5%. The aroma alone is enough to burn the hair off your chest, with overpowering waves of rubbing alcohol and citrus cleanser emanating from the bottle. This stuff smells like something you need a hazardous materials permit to buy. And that’s about how it tastes too. It hits you like cough syrup, dense, strong, sweet, and medicinal. In fact, this stuff probably makes pretty darn good cough syrup – at least after a few slugs you wouldn’t be feeling any pain. While the other wines left me confused as to what their purpose was, there was no doubt with Thunderbird: the purpose of this wine is to mess you up. 2 ½ barfs.

Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill (Non-vintage) $2.50
Boone’s farm is the wine you probably drank when you were in high school. I’d never had it before, and the first thing I discovered was that it’s fizzy! It tastes like strawberry soda, and I can see why this stuff is popular with high school kids. But it’s just so overpoweringly sweet that it’s actually difficult to drink and leaves behind a sickly sweet aftertaste. 1 ½ barfs.

Franzia Sunset Blush (Non-vintage) $10.99 – 5 liters
This wine is the bargain of the bunch: nearly seven bottles of wine for $11. This stuff is light pink like the Boone’s Farm. Not much aroma on the nose, but it hits you over the head with almost toxic citrus flavors when you first taste it, almost like biting into a grapefruit rind. After that, the flavor turns hideously sour and leaves behind a God-awful aftertaste. 3 barfs.

Riunite Lambrusco (Non-vintage) $2.99
Of the four wines I tasted, this was the only one that actually looked like a real wine. On the nose, this wine has an intriguing combination of raspberry fruit rollups and paint thinner, but the flavor is just vile. It was so sour that I thought the wine was spoiled, but it was also sweet – not in a good way like sweet and sour pork – but in a bad, bad, disgusting way. I can’t imagine that people actually drink this stuff. This was far and away the worst of the bunch – hard to believe, but true. 4 barfs.

You people actually drink this stuff?!?! My God, for a dollar more a bottle you can move up to stuff at least has some vague resemblance to real wine! Heck, for $1.99, you can drink Two Buck Chuck! Anything has got to be better than these over-sweetened, sour, citrusy booze bombs.

Look, I’m going to do you a real favor. Next week, I’m going to taste the next level up – the $4 a bottle stuff – and I bet we actually go from “barfs” to “stars” in the process.

If you want to laugh while watching me trying to down this stuff, go to