At first sip, jug white wine -- pale, bland, often innocuous -- doesn't impress you as something that could cause a revolution.
But it has.
The outsized half-gallon and gallon bottles (giving way to 1.5 and 3 liter sizes) have been a major factor in a change in drinking patterns that has led Americans to almost double their per capita wine comsumption in the past 15 years. (It now stands at about seven quarts a year.)
Jug white wine is sipped before dinner in place of cocktails. It finds its way onto the dinner table as well (usually in a carafe, if there are guests) and serves as the "house" wine of most restaurants. It is mixed with soda water, fruit surups, such as cassis, or sloshed into punch bowls to make summer coolers.
It's drunk. But seldom is it tasted.
Restauraterurs buy it by price, only. They change brands with less hesitation than they change tablecloths. Home consumers often chill it to the point where nuances of taste or almost any defect is hidden. They mask the flavor by mixing it, or simply unilize it to wash down food.
There are, it should be scknowledged, reasons for not becoming too worked up over generic jug wines, white or red:
They are blends of grapes, though the nature of the grapes and the formula of the blend are not revealed on the label. Because jug wines are produced in great quantity, these grapes usually are chosen more for their yield value than their quality.
As they are intended for large-scale consumption, the wines are intentionally belended to be bland. A wine with character may please the winemaker and a few connoisseurs. but it will displease some people as well. Once dissatisfied, they may turn to a rival's wine. The jug producer wants a consistent product that will build brand loyalty. Better to bore the consumer than surprise him.
Production costs have to be kept down because price competition is intense.
The other side of the coin is the remarkable achievement of California's winemakers in producing what many professionals feel is the world's best-quality vin ordinaire .Modern technology, particularly cold fermentation for the whites and sterile bottling, has helped insure clear, handsome wines with a minimum of bacterial contamination. Market research and scientific testing have led to blends that rarely are displeasing; whose worst crime is that they are "inoffensive."
The public likes jug wines and has been buying them in record mumbers. They account for a substantial majority of all the wine drunk in this country.
Thus, a tasting of domestic jug white wines.
The category chosen was "chablis," a generic name, as opposed to varietal names such as chenin blanc or chardonnay. These domestic "chablis" seek to capitalize on the reputation of the Chablis region of France, which produces highly prized, dry white wine from the pinot chardonnay grape. The domestic jugs are not kin, though they are drier than two other generic categories, "rhine" and "sauterne." Wine buffs fume at the misapplication of the geographic names and some American producers have begun to use the term "white" instead.
The results and reactions to specific wines are summerized elsewhere. A panel of 10 men and women assembled at The Washington Post to taste 16 wines blind, which means no one know the identity of the wines until scoring had been completed. A scale that awards 20 points to a "perfect" wine was used, with the score shown representing an average among the panelists.
All the wines were purchased at a District retail store, Continental, and the prices shown are shelf prices at that store. They may be higher or lower elsewhere.
Among the general observations made during the testing are several anyone planning to purchase jug wine should consider.
With a few exceptions, scoring was quite close; so close that price should be a factor in buying decisions. For example, Cribari's Mountain White, while not the leading wine, won general approval and cost less than any other. It clearly represents good value for money. Look at the size on the container. Only one, Sebastiani, was in a half-gallon. But the difference in capacity (nearly 14 ounces) makes the Sebastiani -- or any other half-gallon jug -- cheaper per ounce than a bottle-to-bottle price comparison would indicate.
The wines were dry, drier than imagined. This lends weight to the theory that not only are Americans drinking more wine, but they are less inclined to drink wines with considerable residual sugar. Those with a touch or more of sweetness were Italian Swiss Colony, Taylor, Gallo and C.K. Mondavi.
All the wines were low in acid, though some were dry enough to be judged bitter in taste or aftertaste.
Taylor's new California Cellars wine, which has been compared with Almaden, Sebastiani and C.K. Mondavi in a controversial advertising campaign, was distinctly sweeter than the others, but the wine itself was judged to be well balanced and well made.
The color gamut ran form nearly clear (Gallo, Cribari) to deep gold (Taylor). One wine, Winemaster's White Burgundy, was amber in color, smelled off and, after sampling, was eliminated from the tasting as a bad bottle. At least two other gave hints of deterioration. This shoul serve as a warning to buy jug wines from stores where turnover is rapid and indicates the folly of trying to put jug wines away for further aging. If treated properly, jug white should have a year or more of shelf life, but they are not intended to be long lived wines and should improve only marginally -- if at all -- in bottle.
While there were distinct differences in color, flavor and body, the wines were largely, in the term one taster employed, asexual. Appearance was their strongest quality, bouquet was probably the weakest and many of the wines tasted quite different than they looket or smelled.
All that being said, the bulk of them were relatively easy to drink and should fill limited expectations quite well. CAPTION:
Picture, no caption, Photo by Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post; Table, 15 Domestic White Jug Wines