Very inexpensive wines could be taxed out of existence in the UK, if proposed changes to alcohol taxation are implemented. Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson wants to cut down on binge drinking in the UK, which he feels has reached epidemic proportions.
His report said the new pricing strategy would set a minimum price of 4.50 pounds ($6.30) for a bottle of wine; a minimum of 14 pounds ($19.70) for a bottle of whiskey, and a base price of 6 pounds ($8.50) for a six-pack of beer. From Cheap booze blamed for British binge drinking
While no doubt there is some price elasticity for alcohol consumption, to me it seems unlikely that a nation's drinking habits would be changed dramatically even by these Draconian changes. Instead, I'd expect other spending areas to be curtailed and the politicians who supported this concept to be voted from office at the electorate's earliest opportunity.
In the US, $3 wines are common, if not extremely good, and sometimes prices can be in the $2 - $2.50 range for brands like Charles Shaw and Oak Leaf. As in the US, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are rarely the alcohol of choice for binge drinkers, but wine lovers will pay the price.
Maker: Winking Owl Vineyards, Modesto, California
Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, artificial cork
Alcohol: 12.0 %
Our Rating: 6 out of 10
Winking Owl Cabernet Sauvignon is a non-vintage offering aimed at the market niche popularized by Two Buck Chuck from Charles Shaw Wines. Unfortunately, it matches the price but misses the mark on quality. The bottle of Winking Owl Cab I tried was thin in color and flavor; in general, it was one big earthy off-note, and most of it went down the drain.
I'm hoping that I just got a bad bottle - others have reported more success with this inexpensive brand. The Drank Tank says, "And if there is one thing we are missing in the USA that they do have in Europe, it’s CHEAP wine that doesn’t make you ralph. Thank you Aldi for this piece of Europe. WINKING OWL is absolutely the best value wine I’ve ever had." Perhaps Winking Owl can use "Doesn't Make You Ralph" as their new tag line. Crumbs to mark the path comments, "super great value red... excellent & smooth...maybe new favorite." I saw some favorable forum postings, too. I like inexpensive reds as much as the next blogger, and I find it hard to reconcile the plonk I tasted with what everyone else seems to be saying about this Cab. I guess for $3, I can afford to try another bottle.
I did find one review that was closer to my own assessment, posted by Kathleen Purvis of McClatchy Newspapers:
Awful aroma, nasty flavor. "I'd say it's corked, but it had a plastic cork."
Winking Owl Vineyards seems to be an exclusive brand of the Aldi supermarket chain, which seems to be trying to stage a small-scale emulation of Trader Joe's with their inexpensive house brand wines. If you are looking for an ultra-low priced wine, we'd suggest Oak Leaf Cabernet Sauvignon as a somewhat better alternative.
Maker: Oak Leaf Vineyards, Ripon, California
Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, artificial cork
Our Rating: 8 out of 10
We've been hoping for a Two Buck Chuck beater to emerge, and it looks like Oak Leaf Cabernet Sauvignon may be it. This non-vintage offering is sold by Wal-Mart, and seems to be aimed squarely at the Charles Shaw wines sold through the much smaller Trader Joe's chain. The nose is a rather unprepossessing mix of oak and vanilla. The flavor has lots of cherries and raspberries, along with vanilla. The finish is oaky with prominent tannins. Overall, this Cab is simple and juicy. It has a nice finish for a cheap non-vintage wine. There's an unusual residual berry flavor, almost perfumy, that lingered on the tongue.
Overall, Oak Leaf Cabernet Sauvignon beats its $3-range competition like Two Buck Chuck and Tisdale. It's all relative, of course. None of these are great wines, but to my taste this is the most drinkable one of the bunch. Plus, it has the advantage of widespread distribution via Wal-Mart.
Everyone acknowledges that there is a lot of subjectivity in wine tasting, but it turns out that more expensive wine really DOES taste better, even when it's the same stuff in the cheaper bottle. Neuromarketing notes in Why Expensive Wine Tastes Better that neuroscientists at Stanford and Caltech found that wine that the drinker thought cost more activated the brain's pleasure center to a higher degree than the exact same wine with a cheaper price. In short, the identical wine tasted better with a higher price tag. I suppose that's one reason why Charles Shaw wines (aka Two Buck Chuck) can win a blind tasting competition, but rarely scores rave reviews in wine publications.
The important aspect of these findings is that people aren’t rationalizing on a survey, i.e., reporting that a wine tastes better because they know it’s a lot more expensive. Rather, they are actually experiencing a tastier wine.
This is indeed the key point. It's easy to imagine a wine novice being given a glass of wine and told it was one of California's finest wines, costing $100 a bottle, and being too intimidated to say, "Gee, this tastes about like the $5 Cab I bought at the supermarket..." - even if that's what he's thinking. To the contrary, the researchers found that, according to the brain scans, the expensive wine really DID taste better to the subjects.
In an earlier post, Wine Label Makes Food Taste Better, we talked about how a wine's apparent origin (California vs. North Dakota) shaped diners feelings not just about the wine itself, but about the entire dining experience.
I'm sure we'll see more research in the future that demonstrates the subjectivity of wine tasting and how the wine drinker's actual experience is shaped by preconceived notions about the wine. While very experienced wine tasters may well be more objective, the vast majority of wine drinkers do not have the experience and skill to dispassionately analyze the wines they sample.
Obviously, price isn't the only factor that influences the perceived taste. The perceived origin of the wine is clearly important, as shown by the California vs. North Dakota study. Presumably, other label characteristics will prove to be important too - the perceived prestige of the winery, past experience with a brand or varietal, third party ratings, etc.
This is fascinating research that shows why wine is such an interesting, and occasionally controversial, topic.
Maker: Charles Shaw Winery, Napa County, California
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Charles Shaw Nouveau Valdiguié 2007 is a novel offering from the Charles Shaw Winery, the Two Buck Chuck folks. Departing from the typical Merlot and Cab, this wine incorporates the rarely seen Valdiguié grape. This wine was apparently well regarded more than a century ago, but fell out of favor as grapes which produced higher quality wines became more widely adopted. Some vineyards labeled wines of this varietal "Gamay Noir" for many years. I assume that this Valdiguie is the newly relabeled Charles Shaw Nouveau Gamay Beaujolais offered in 2006.
This wine is fairly light in color, an attractive ruby red. The aroma is mostly cherries, and the flavor is simple and fruity as well. Cherries and raspberries are the main things notes, with a very light acidic bite at the end. While not really sweet, this wine seems closer to fruit juice than most reds.
Of the Charles Shaw red wines, I'd probably opt for the Two Buck Chuck Cab. I didn't care for the 2003 much, rating it a 7, but the 2005 was a bit more balanced. That's not to say that Charles Shaw Nouveau Valdiguie 2007 won't appeal to anyone - if you are looking for a soft, simple, very fruity red this wine might appeal.
We couldn't find much love for this wine in the blogosphere. Vinicultured thought it was, "watery and cheap, off-balance, and 'out of whack'”, while Adventures in Hippietown termed it "gross." We might not go quite that far, but it's safe to say that this wine would be preferred by wine drinkers at the fruity and fun end of the spectrum.
We've reported on the stunning win of Charles Shaw Chardonnay at the California State Fair, where the wine (popularly known as Two Buck Chuck) took the Best in California and Best in Class awards. Some might consider that an example of how an unbiased blind tasting can find a deserving bargain wine to be superior to much more costly wines. The LA Times, though, calles it a "gaffe."
The Charles Shaw win may sound crazy, but wine industry insiders familiar with the organization and structure of competitions aren't surprised at the results. Dozens of wines at each competition win gold medals, double-gold medals, best-of-class awards and other hyperbolic distinctions. And there are dozens of competitions around the country, making it possible for any wine, even Two-Buck Chuck, to win prestigious-sounding awards.
"I can see how it happens, giving Charles Shaw a double-gold, particularly with Chardonnay," says Gary Eberle, owner of Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. He judges at three competitions a year. "You are sitting there as a judge, you've tasted two flights of 10 Chardonnays that are very austere -- and I like those wines -- then a wine comes along with a touch more fruit, a little more rounded, and it stands out. And you hang your hat on it as a judge." (From Wine competitions: a few gaffs [sic], a lot of golds.)
The article notes that tasting is an imperfect science, and that many judges have minimal qualifications. Wineries often enter many competitions, and count on luck and random variations to pick up at least a few medals. And there are indeed plenty of medals to win. "In addition to the Charles Shaw, the judges considered 68 of the wines to be so extraordinary that they were awarded double-gold medals, meaning a panel unanimously agreed that the wine was gold medal quality. An additional 230 wines were awarded gold medals; 823 wines received silver medals; and 407 wines won bronze medals. In all, 10% of the wines entered in the competition received gold or double-gold medals, and half walked away with some kind of medal."
Admittedly, one doesn't often see wineries making a big point of their bronze medals. But at that one competition alone, almost 300 wines walked away with gold! Nearly 70 scored a double gold. So, the next time you see a wine bottle touting a gold medal or two, you might want to discount that as a major indicator of distinctive quality.
Do wine competitions actually make major errors? It seems inevitable that a small number of judges tasting dozens of wines in a short period of time will make a few poor decisions.
One reality is that the best wines may never get entered in the competitions - less costly wines are often entered in the hope of snagging medals and boosting sales.
The LA Times article reports that Andy Perdue, editor in chief of Wine Press Northwest, assembled a panel to taste 250 gold-medal winning wines. The panel found 15% undeserving of the gold medal status. While I suppose that this finding might give one pause about any gold medal claims, I think it can be viewed in a positive manner: 85% of the gold medal winners were independently verified as deserving. Presumably, even some of the 15% rejected by the review panel weren't that bad; the rejection might have been due to subjective preferences, bottle variations, etc.
My conclusion? Take the gold claims with a grain of salt, but if the wine is a gold winner in multiple major competitions, odds are it's actually quite a decent wine. If the odds of a gold medal wine being really gold quality are 85% for a single winner, I'd estimate the probability of a double gold (in two different major competitions) winner being gold quality go up to a percentage in the high 90s (97.5%, by my calculation). Of course, all wine competitions aren't equal, but multiple wins should usually be a good indicator of quality. Be sure to read the fine print, though, to see what was won where.
My advice: go for the golds, the more, the better.
The Power of Wine Labels. We probably didn't need more proof that wine drinkers' evaluation of wines is subjective and readily influenced by factors other than the actual characteristics of what comes out of the bottle. Now, though, we find that not only is the perception of the wine itself changed by what they think is the wine's origin, but even that of the entire meal and the restaurant where it was served. A study by Cornell University demonstrated the power of a wine label:
Forty-one diners at the Spice Box restaurant in Urbana, Illinois were given a free glass of Cabernet Sauvignon to accompany a $24 prix-fixe French meal. Half the bottles claimed to be from Noah’s Winery in California. The labels on the other half claimed to be from Noah’s Winery in North Dakota. In both cases, the wine was an inexpensive Charles Shaw wine.
Those drinking what they thought was California wine, rated the wine and food as tasting better, and ate 11% more of their food. They were also more likely to make return reservations.
It comes down to expectations. If you think a wine will taste good, it will taste better than if you think it will taste bad. People didn’t believe North Dakota wine would taste good, so it had a double curse – it hurt both the wine and the entire meal. “Wine labels can throw both a halo or a shadow over the entire dining experience,” according to Cornell Professor Brian Wansink (Ph.D.), author of the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. [From Fine as North Dakota wine.]
Another study tested 49 MBA students at a wine and cheese reception. The subjects given wine labeled from California rated the wine 85% higher and the cheese 50% higher.
It's amusing that they chose Charles Shaw wines (aka Two Buck Chuck) for the test, as it is perhaps the cheapest wine in the U.S. On the other hand, perhaps that makes it perfect for a blind test. Does anyone think that Charles Shaw Chardonnay would have won the top prize at the California State Fair wine competition if the labels had been shown to the judges?
This simple study has a lot of implications. It shows the uphill battle that winemakers face if their label or origin isn't perceived as prestigious or as connoting high quality. This is a particular impediment for boxed wines seeking to promote themselves as high quality products that are equivalent, if not better, than their bottled peers. The Cornell researchers didn't test this, but we have little doubt that had some diners seen the wine poured from a bottle and others from a box, the split would have been at least as dramatic as the California/North Dakota divide.
This research also shows the importance of wines to a restaurant. Those restaurants that stick a small selection of mass-market wines on their menu as a seeming afterthought may be missing out - the study shows that the perception of the wine carries over to the entire meal and even impacts the probability of a diner returning to the restaurant.
Maker: Corbett Canyon Vineyards
Packaging: 3 liter box, twist spigot
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Corbett Canyon Chardonnay 2005 was a favorite in Wine Blogging Wednesday #31. Despite its modest price - ounce for ounce, it's cheaper than Two Buck Chuck from Charles Shaw except in California (where Two Buck Chuck really costs $2 a bottle) - Citizen Wine's blind tasting event picked the Corbett Canyon Chardonnay as one of the best whites. We're not big Chardonnay drinkers, but we finally decided to sample this wine. The nose wasn't overwhelming, but had cut grass and tart apple notes. On the palate, this wine was crisp and refreshing, with Granny Smith apple and mild pear notes leading into a slightly acidic finish.
Corbett Canyon may not be the finest or most complex Chardonnay available, but for under $10 for a 3-liter cask it's a steal. It's fine for party use or for glass-a-day drinkers who can't put much of a dent in a 750 ml bottle and hate to see wine spoil. I suppose the fact that a cheap Chardonnay can be fairly decent shouldn't be much of a surprise after Charles Shaw Chardonnay took top honors at the California State Fair wine competition.
Maker: Blackstone Winery, Woodridge, California
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Blackstone Zinfandel 2005 is a pleasant Zin after it has had plenty of time to breathe. Its nose has spice, smoke, and leather notes. It's a medium-bodied wine, leading with juicy currant and plum notes into a powerful, spicy finish. Do not forget to give this wine plenty of air - our first sips were quite discouraging, but it turned into a very likable wine.
Though labeled as a Zinfandel, there are quite a few different grapes making cameo appearances in this wine - it is composed of:
76 % Zinfandel
8 % Syrah
6 % Merlot
4 % Petite Sirah
2 % Cabernet Franc
2 % Malbec
2 % Barbera
According to the Blackstone Winery website,
Our Winemaker Select wines are fruit-forward, easy to drink, and food-friendly - perfect for everyday celebrations. The cornerstone of this portfolio is Blackstone's California Merlot, the number-one-selling domestic red wine in the United States at any price.
Can that really be true? I haven't seen a strong retal presence in my area, and it's hard to believe that it outsells Two Buck Chuck. This IS a nicer red than Charles Shaw wines, though, and I wouldn't hesitate to serve it for company.
On a recent trip to the metro New York City area (mostly New Jersey), I had a chance to (finally!!) visit a Trader Joe's in person. I'd long been aware of the chain from their well-known exclusive on Charles Shaw wines, aka Two Buck Chuck. Surprisingly, I completely bypassed the Chuck display and was entranced by the best selection of inexpensive and unique wines I've seen in ages. Regular readers of Box Wines know that I try to find great wine values - decent wines for everyday drinking, preferably below $10 per bottle though I do stretch the range at times. In my local shops, I've almost exhausted the available varieties - virtually all of the mass market brands tend to show up in all the stores, and, other than re-reporting on the same wines from different years, I've been reduced to watching for new introductions. I was stunned to find so many unique varieties at Trader Joe's. They had a few familiar brands, but many others that I haven't encountered at all. Amazingly, dozens of these were well under $10 per bottle.
The explanation lies at the Trader Joe's website:
Our Buyers travel to the far reaches of the globe in search of outstanding wines and beers we can sell at great prices. A visit to our store will reveal an ever-changing assortment of fine wines that are excellent values. Sometimes these wines come and go quickly - what you find today may be gone tomorrow, replaced with yet another terrific value vino.
I'm of the opinion that this isn't just hyperbole. I left with a case and some loose bottles, and could have filled up a few more cases with unique value-priced wines had I been so inclined. (Oddly, they carry no boxed wines at all, at least in the store that I visited.) So far, the couple of wines I've tried have been very nice. I'm envious of those readers who live close to a Trader Joe's. I'll keep reporting on my finds there - if YOU have a favorite Trader Joe's wine, feel free to add a comment!