Monthly Archives: June 2007

Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw Merlot 2005

Price: $3
Maker: Charles Shaw Winery, Napa County, California
Varietal: Merlot
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 12.5%
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Charles Shaw WinesTrader Joe’s Charles Shaw Merlot 2005, aka Two Buck Chuck, isn’t a fantastic wine. But there’s a reason why 300 million bottles of Chuck have been sold – this Merlot is light, simple, fruity, and accessible to casual wine drinkers. It doesn’t have much of a nose, and it’s light-bodied for a Merlot. The flavor is plummy, with some oak and spice in the finish.

If you are willing to spend five or six bucks for a bottle of wine, you can find a better Merlot than this one. But, for three bucks, or just two in California, this is OK plonk. According to WinoDailyNews, Charles Shaw Merlot 2005 won a gold medal at the 2007 New World International Wine Competition. Pitumbo.com gave it thumbs up, too. Go ahead, risk a few bucks, and let us know what you think.

Peachy Canyon Incredible Red Zinfandel 2005

Peachy Canyon Incredible RedPrice: $10
Maker: Peachy Canyon, Paso Robles, California
Varietal: Zinfandel
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 13.9%
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Peachy Canyon Paso Robles Zinfandel 2005 – “Incredible Red” – is a simple crowd-pleasing red wine. It’s aroma is berries and more berries. The flavor has tart cherry and blackberry notes, with some oak and mild acidity in the finish. It’s medium bodied, and not really a big, complex Zin. Despite that, its fruit-forward nature will appeal to many, and we think it’s a nice selection for a picnic or outdoor party.

The winemaker says,

Even though the Incredible Red has grown in production, I still make it with the same ideas and style as our smaller Zinfandel lots. The 2005 vintage is very exciting and youthful. This wine has a medium body with the same light tannins. The visual presence is a beautiful crisp ruby color. Aromas consist of sweet cherries, blackberries & raspberries. There are nice black currant flavors along with brambly briery fruit. Enjoy this everyday Zinfandel throughout the next few years.

The blogosphere has mixed opinions. Quaffability thought the wine was “light and agreeably fruity, but also shows some plonky vegetative notes…” Ken’s Wine Guide scored the wine as 85.5, and thought Peachy Canyon Incredible Red was a “good value for those looking for a practical red wine choice.” Budget Vino proclaimed it “a Zin for all occasions,” noting that despite being “thin,” it was also more versatile than many Zins. The Vintner’s Daughter thought the Peachy Canyon Zinfandel was, “exactly what I needed to remind me how much I love Zins.”

Clearly, this is a wine that evokes subjective responses – try Peachy Canyon Incredible Red Zinfandel 2005, and let us know what YOU think!

WSJ: Boxed Wine Actually DOES Last for Weeks

Just about every box wine maker indicates on their packaging that the wine won’t spoil for weeks after opening. Most claim a month, and some even longer periods. Now, the Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher of the Wall Street Journal have put those claims to the test, and the news is good for box wine fanciers. In Boxed Wines Face The Six-Week Challenge, the WSJ Tastings duo describes how they tested box wines for freshness over aging periods of up to a month ad a half.

Their procedure was fairly straightfoward. Each week for a total of six weeks, they opened boxes of Fisheye Chardonnay and Fisheye Shiraz, and then stored the boxes in their refrigerator. Then, they did a blind taste test of the wine from all twelve boxes to see how the wines had fared during their various lengths of post-opening storage. The results were heartening:

The Chardonnays, on the whole, continued to taste pleasant enough but a bit harsh. Three smelled and tasted notably sulfuric. All tasted of pineapple — sometimes sweet pineapple and sometimes watery pineapple. One was clearly the best. It tasted riper, fresher and cleaner than the rest. This turned out to be the newest box, the one we had just opened. But our second favorite was the wine we’d opened the third week of the experiment, and our third favorite was the very first we’d opened, all those weeks before. Overall, the boxes we opened first and last were the best; the boxes opened in the middle weeks were the ones that tasted and smelled less fresh. But none of the boxes tasted oxidized or obviously off. We’ve tried some wines by the glass at tony wine bars that tasted far more over the hill.

We sampled the Shirazes next. Once again, none of them was obviously oxidized. The difference among them was that a couple tasted vibrant and alive — these were wines we would take to a picnic ourselves — while others had the same basic tastes, but they’d lost life and seemed somewhat dull and flat. In any event, none of them tasted as sweet, alcoholic and heavy as many jug wines on the market and even many under-$20 wines in bottles.

When we checked the bottom of the boxes, it turned out that our favorite Shiraz had been opened in week No. 4 and our second favorite had been the very first cask we opened. Our third favorite was the freshest box. Once again, it appeared that the boxes from the fifth and sixth weeks — those open for one week and two weeks — were the most problematic. Call it a dumb period.

So, the bottom line: It’s true. The wine really does keep for six weeks. It has its ups and downs in your refrigerator, but it will keep fine. Would we keep a box of wine in our refrigerator for six weeks? Well, no. Today, there are so many interesting, affordable wines on the shelves that we’d rather taste several wines than one wine in a big box. That said, the FishEye Shiraz, at the equivalent of $4 a bottle, is a perfectly nice wine for a party this summer — and, yes, if you have any left over, you can keep it around until the dog days of summer without it turning hairy.

We can’t say that we’re surprised, though we’ve never kept a box around for six weeks. Storing even red wines in the refrigerator if the storage time is likely to be many weeks is no doubt a good idea. Another tip is to avoid introducing air into the plastic bag that collapses around the shrinking wine inside the outer cardboard box – see Beware the Burp.

All in all, we give big kudos to Gaiter and Brecher for putting their previous less-than-satisfactory experiences with box wines aside and conducting a fair and realistic test. Coverage like this can only help boxed wine gain credibility, and encourage wineries to put ever-better product in convenient bag-in-box packaging.

Napa Victory a Problem for Cheap Wine

I caught a story on NPR yesterday, EU Agrees to Protect Napa Wines’ Good Name, that confirmed that Napa Valley wine makers will finally get satisfaction in the European Union. A text story on the same topic is, Napa Vineyards Gain Special Status:

Just like the protected regions of France’s wine country, at long last, the wineries of Napa now have their own protected region as recognized by the European Union. We joined the celebration at the German Consulate today to learn what this means for Napa’s 400 wineries…
The geographic indication, or G.I. status, has another impact. From this point forward, no company in the European Union can register Napa Valley for wine. The E.U. is an important market for wine exports. Fifty-two percent of all California wine goes to the E.U., about one-fourth of that is from Napa Valley.

What’s good new for the fine wine makers of Napa Valley may prove problematic for U.S. makers of cheap wines. Low end jug wines from Gallo and box wines from Franzia, among many others, feature names like “Burgundy” which is also a geographic indication with restricted use in the E.U. It’s likely that pressure will mount on these terroir poachers to either use wine from the region indicated (unlikely) or change their labeling (unlikely without a fight).

Here at Box Wines, we don’t think seeing some of the “Hearty Burgundy” and similar labels disappear would be any great loss. In fact, if the plonk disappeared completely it wouldn’t be missed (except, perhaps, by penniless college students and the occasional bargain-seeking party animal. (The main risk we would see is to the reputations of the varietals used in those wines if the labels are changed to a varietal designation.) Virtuall all of the better boxed wine seems to be compliant with accepted geographic designations. A quick scan of the boxes we’ve encountered in the last year shows that almost all use varietal labeling. The Free Range Red Bordeax and Free Range White Bordeaux are exceptions, but they really do originate in the Bordeaux region of France.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I think there will ultimately be restrictions on U.S. winemakers that prevent using geographic labels inappropriately, but there may be either “grandfathering” for existing labels or at least a phaseout period of some years.

The Freakonomics of Restaurant Wine Prices

Why do restaurants mark up wine so much, and why doesn’t the percentage markup taper off as the wine gets more expensive? This is the question raised in the Freakonomics blog in Question of the Day: What’s Up With Restaurant Wine Prices?:

…the markup on wine is extremely high, and progressive.

Depending on the place, wine by the bottle has at least a 200% markup, and that markup seems to be constant as the base-cost of the wine rises. This means that I will typically choose the $50 bottle over the $70 bottle, and definitely over the $120 bottle, even though the difference in base cost to the restaurant is maybe only $7 and $25. Had they offered me the bottles at $50, $60 and $75, I might have bought one of the more expensive ones, and (a) made the restaurant a larger profit at almost the exact same cost (not counting the added cost of having the more expensive inventory); and (b) been much happier, drinking the better wine, and more likely to come back.

We’ve wondered about this strategy as well. Rather than automatically tripling or even quadrupling the price of every bottle of wine in inventory, why not use a graduated approach? I.e., we can see the need for a hefty markup on a bottle that the restaurant gets for, say, $5 in case lots – after all, if you triple the price, the dollar margin is a mere $10 – and that bottle needs to be stored, opened, etc. just like a more costly bottle. But does it make sense to triple the cost of a $50 bottle? Might there be a point at which margin is maximized by a lower price to the customer resulting in more sales? For example, that $150 bottle might linger on the menu and get little traffic – at $90, it might sell many more bottles and still produce $40 in dollar margin each time.

The Freakonomics blog doesn’t have all the answers on this one, although the author points out that buying an expensive wine is often a status move (as in impressing your date) rather than an economic decision. There’s quite a bit of commentary on the post expressing alternate points of view.

One of the commenters at Freakonomics, jfwells, has a simple explanation for a flat markup policy: “My father is a restauranteur and I would venture to guess that the reason for a flat 200% mark-up on the wine is probably tradition more than anything else. Sure, they could calculate out how much more they could sell if they had a different scale of markups for different price ranges, but they are in the food business for a reason. They aren’t economists. Heck, most restauranteurs aren’t even very good business people. Half of all restaurants (non chain) go out of business in the first year.” That’s probably not too far from the truth (though I’d hope the national casual dining and fine dining chains actually WOULD employ an economist or two, at least on a consulting basis).

Because of high wine markups, we like the idea behind Philadelphia’s BYOB restaurants. We’d also like to see restaurants experiment with lower wine pricing to encourage more diners to drink wine. Often, even by-the-glass prices seem out of touch with reality. A restaurant may charge as much for a glass of low-end Aussie Shiraz, for example, as for a Bombay Sapphire martini. And quite a few casual dining chains seem to push all kinds of beer specials, but almost never run a wine promotion. Restaurants might be surprised at how much they could boost wine sales with a little effort to make wine affordable.

Who Ya Gonna Call? Dan Aykroyd Wines

Ex-Ghostbuster actor Dan Aykroyd is entering the wine market by partnering in a new venture based in Lincoln, Ontario to for the Dan Aykroyd Winery. The winery will showcase memorabilia from Akyroyd’s acting career. The venture is backed by Diamond Estates Wines and Spirits Ltd. of Toronto. This is no bottom-of-the-barrel effort. According to the Associated Press, the winery will produce everything from $14 mid-range wines to limited releases that will sell for more than $93 a bottle.

It will be interesting to see if this winery tries to play it straight, like efforts named for celebrities Greg Norman or Francis Ford Coppola, or whether they try to capitalize on Aykroyd’s quirkier acting roles. One limitation is that at least some of the iconic images related to Ghostbusters, for example, are the property of others.

We’re looking forward to tasting Akyroyd’s wines.

MariAna Pinot Noir 2004

Price: $8
Maker: MariAna – NOSIO, Mezzocorona, Italy
Varietal: Pinot Noir
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, artificial cork
Alcohol: 12.5%
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

MariAna Pinot Noir 2004 is from Venice, and I have to say that it’s better than any wine I actually had while visiting Venice last fall. The nose is quite mild with cherry and spice notes. The flavor is fruit forward but nicely balanced, with cherry, blueberry, and chocolate matched with a slightly peppery and acidic finish. As one might expect, as a Pinot Noir it’s a bit lighter than other reds, but there’s still plenty of flavor.

MariAna seems to be a brand of Prestige Wine Imports, though it’s not listed on their site. In fact, we found the Web just about completely devoid of information on this wine. That’s too bad, because MariAna Pinot Noir 2004 is a very pleasant wine, and, for my taste (which leans toward fruity but complex reds), is an excellent value.

Delicato Cabernet Sauvignon 2005

Price: $17
Maker: Delicato Family Vineyards
Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon
Packaging: 3 liter box, pushbutton spigot
Alcohol: 13.3%
Our Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Delicato Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 was another vaguely disappointing offering from a brand that proudly proclaims its list of gold medal awards. The nose is mild but spicy. The flavor is slightly reminiscent of some of the 5-liter box wines, with a slightly sweet plumminess and chocolate and a moderately spicy finish. The wine, in our opinion, doesn’t show much varietal character – we aren’t finding what we’d like to see in a good Cab. This is one that you might have to try for yourself, as the wine isn’t entirely unpleasant and may appeal to some.

We checked out the Delicato website, and while the latest Shiraz has garnered some favorable attention, we couldn’t find any awards for Delicato Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. Their notes talk about, “rich, well-developed flavors of cherry, blackberry and a hint of oak to compliment the fruit.” That seems rather unlike what we found in this particular box. Closer to our thoughts were those of Paxton at the Destination Unknown blog, who noted, “it’s missing the complexity that would be necessary to make it a good wine, though there is a dark plum flavor beneath the astringency.”

Concannon Stampmaker’s Syrah 2004

Concannon Limited Release WinesPrice: $12
Maker: Concannon Vineyard, Livermore & San Luis Obispo, California
Varietal: Merlot
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 9 out of 10

Concannon Stampmaker’s Syrah 2004 makes a great first impression – the bottle has a raised image of the vineyard gates, the label is foil imprinted and is further graced by an embossed grapevine. Fortunately, this wine isn’t all show. The nose is a powerful and exotic blend of licorice, clove, vanilla, and black pepper, with juicy berry notes in the background. On the palate, this Syrah is full-bodied and well balanced. The fruity blackberry and black cherry notes are well matched with toasty oak, and the finish is a long-lasting blend of spice and mild acidity. We liked this wine quite a lot.

So far, we haven’t gone wrong with a choice from Concannon – we also enjoyed their slightly less expensive Concannon Central Coast Merlot 2003 – although not a typical merlot, that was an interesting and flavorful wine. This wine is part of their “Limited Release” series, which features wines bottled in somewhat smaller quantities. We note that the 2003 vintage of Concannon Stampmaker’s Syrah took a “Best in Class” award at the California State Fair. We’re looking forward to trying other wines from this maker.

SKN – Screw Kappa Napa Merlot 2004

Screw Kappa Napa MerlotPrice: $13
Maker: 3 Loose Screws, Napa, California
Varietal: Merlot
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, screw cap
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Clearly, the marketing approach for the makers of Screw Kappa Nappa Merlot 2004 and its fellow SKN wines emphasizes not taking themselves too seriously. Rather than downplaying the potentially suspect screw cap, the brand revels in it. We’ve seen this wine in the $11 – 13 range, so it’s affordable but not dirt cheap. The nose was fairly typical, nice jammy berries with spicy overtones. The flavor had blackberry, cherry, licorice, and woody notes, with spicy oak in the finish. There was a not altogether pleasant sharpness in our bottle that air alone didn’t seem to cure. We found the wine drinkable and even interesting, but there are plenty of Merlots in the $5 to $10 range that appealed to us at least as much as this one.

We found inexpensive Merlots like Bohemian Highway Merlot 2004 and Forest Glen Merlot 2003 more to our personal taste. Nevertheless, we wouldn’t give up on the diverse wines of Don Sebastiani & Sons – we’ve had good luck with a number of their offbeat-labeled wines, and we’ll certainly keep trying them.