Wine snobs may scoff, but cheap wine is the backbone of the industry.
Bottles that cost less than $7 account for 70 percent of California wines sold, according to a recent publication from the Wine Institute, a winery advocacy group.
Two out of three bottles sold in the United States are produced in California, so that’s a lot of inexpensive wine.
People aren’t afraid of it anymore, nor do they care what the neighbors think. Trader Joe’s first squelched the shame of quaffing budget bottles with its wildly popular Charles Shaw ("Two-Buck Chuck"). They also introduced the surprisingly pleasant $3.99 Purple Moon merlot earlier this year, but it sold out fast and store employees say they’re having trouble getting more.
Three Thieves zinfandel — an actual screw-cap jug o’ wine containing a party-sized bottle-and-a-half worth — has caught on among the young and trendy.
And now Target, the unofficial headquarters for affordable chic, is getting in the game with the stylish Wine Cube, the iMac of bag-ina-box wine. It holds the equivalent of four bottles and comes in chardonnay, merlot, pinot grigio and shiraz. They claim it stays fresh for up to six weeks in the fridge.
The only problem is, lowpriced wines are no bargain if they’re undrinkable. So I asked two local wine experts to attend a blind tasting at my house and give me their impressions of a few of the low-cost libation sensations on the market. The tasters were Brent Shinyeda, a sommelier at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar in Chandler, and Rich Moe, manager of Kazimierz World Wine Bar in Scottsdale.
They knew the wines were on the low end of the price range, but nothing else. I poured the Wine Cube and Three Thieves into regularsize empty bottles and put everything into brown bags. I asked them to describe the flavor profile and rate them from A+ to F, with A+ being one of the best wines they’d ever had and F being utterly undrinkable.
While none was an awardwinner, none induced gags, either.
Charles Shaw 2001 merlot ("Two Buck Chuck"): $2.99 for 750 ml at Trader Joe’s stores Valleywide Rich: Light-bodied with medium-ripe cherries; "a good salmon wine." Grade: BBrent: "It’s not bad." A little eucalyptus and bright fruit. Grade: C
"French Market" 2002 merlot:
$2.99 for 750 ml at Trader Joe’s Rich: Lots of earth; zingy, underripe fruit, toasted vegetable and herbaceous notes with a sharp finish. Grade: C Brent: A lot of smokiness in the beginning; it’s seen a lot of wood; dark berry notes. "This one would be better with food; the first one (Charles Shaw) would be better to quaff." Grade: C+
Three Thieves 2002 zinfandel:
$9.99 for 1 liter at Cost Plus stores Valleywide Rich: "This one’s crazy — it’s got so much fruit on the nose." Also picked up a little dust and spice. "I think it’s really cool. A great bang for the buck." Grade: B
Brent: "Doesn’t wow me." Woody nose, lacks dimension. "You know that tingle you get when you drink bad orange juice?" Felt it on the sides of the tongue. Grade: D
Wine Cube 2001 merlot (Trinchero Family Estates): $15.99 for 3 liters at select Target stores
Rich: Pretty nose, but onedimensional. Grapey on nose, dryer finish. Gets better as it opens — has more herb and spice; a potpourri smell. "My least favorite so far." Grade: CBrent: "Had nice balance. It showed through on the oak but balanced out with the fruit. Nice tannic structure; a nicely made wine." Hints of cedar or cigar box. Grade: B
Chilean Collection 2003 cabernet sauvignon-merlot: $2.99 for 750 ml at Trader Joe’s
Rich: "Definitely the biggest wine we’ve tried. A fair amount of alcohol and nice, strong tannins on the back." A balanced wine with big, overripe fruit. "I would totally buy that." Grade: B+
Brent: "I think it’s overextracted." Smoky, oaky notes on front, but too much fruit tannin, which gives a lot of "pucker" at the end. Grade: D
Of the five, I gave Three Thieves the highest mark, a solid B. My least favorite was the Trader Joe’s Chilean Collection blend, which got a D+ due to its burned-match aroma, flat finish and off-flavors once it opened up. I put the others in the C range — not bad for wines that cost less per bottle than a Starbucks grande mocha.
Shinyeda’s favorite, the Wine Cube merlot, was Moe’s least favorite; Moe’s favorite, the Three Thieves zinfandel, was one of Shinyeda’s least favorites. Which goes to show there’s no right and wrong when tasting wine; it’s all about what you like.
Tasting of the week
Sample about 60 zinfandels during "Zin Fest!" 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday at My Wine Cellar, 5030 E. Warner Road, Phoenix. $25, includes wine, complimentary Riedel glass, Honey Bear Barbecue feast and live music. Call for tickets. (480) 598-9463. Cabernet at Tar-jay?
First upscale home accessories, then designer togs, now wine at Target? Why yes, they rolled out wines at SuperTarget nationwide in October 2003, and now Arizona is a test market for vino at regular Target stores.
Locations at 1818 Baseline Road in Tempe and 16825 E. Shea Blvd. in Fountain Hills, along with two in Phoenix and one in Tucson, are selling a wide selection of popular budget brands like Kendall-Jackson, Fetzer, Rosemount and more. Prices range from $4.49 for Sutter Home white zinfandel to $43.99 for Veuve Cliquot champagne.
Master sommelier Andrea Immer, the spokeswoman for wines at Target, helps consumers with tags that give a basic flavor profile of some of the wines and tell you what to pair with them. Examples: Gallo of Sonoma chardonnay with buttered popcorn; Columbia Crest merlot with mushroom and Jack cheese omelets.