There is a mind-boggling selection of imported jug wines on the shelves of local wine shops. "I get all of 'em," said one retailer. "My customers have a lot of fun trying them out."
The word "fun" didn't spring to any lips last week as a dozen persons gathered at The Washington Post for a tasting of 17 imported jug white wines. "Pleasant" was the most positive descriptive term used.
Although these imports account for only a small percentage of total U.S. wine sales, there are fully as many -- if not more -- labels to choose from than among domestic jug wines. There is a confusing array of bottle sizes and shapes as well, although that should end soon because a law that standardizes bottle sizes went into effect Jan. 1. Future shipments from abroad of fullsized bottles will have to be in.75, 1, 1.5, 3 or 4-liter containers -- the same sizes now being used by American winemakers.
The wines, eight from France, eight from Italy and one from Spain, had been purchased at retail shops and were tasted "blind," meaning no one knew their identities until after the sampling was completed and scores were tallied.
Some had corks, some came with screw tops. Although there was difficulty merchandizing screw-top bottles from abroad when they first came on the market, the cork's function is more esthetic than meaningful. Corks are deemed essential in aiding fine wines to age. But the generic wines one finds in jugs are intended to be drunk quickly and have little aging potential.
In the tasting the French entries handily outdistanced the Italian. However, some knowledgeable members of the wine trade contend the very opposite result might be obtained if the subject of the tasting was red jug wines instead of white. They feel that despite modernization of equipment and bottling techniques, many tradition-bound Italian vintners tend to leave white grapes on the vine until they are almost overripe, then age them too long between fermentation and bottling -- producing wines that seem dull and flat when compared to their French counterparts.
In general, the European products seem to have a higher acid content than do domestic jug white wines. But, as one taster observed, "When the acid is strong, that's all you taste. There is no complexity, no redeeming charm." To counter that, there is a feeling within the trade that although California and Germany were the pioneers in producing stable, dependable quality bulk white wines, Italian and French winemakers are catching on fast.
Some of the European wines were tart to the point of being bitter, at least without the accompaniment of food, as might be the case if they are drunk in the place of cocktails.
Vin ordinaire is a way of life in Europe, of course. But much of the everyday wine consumed there has been considerably inferior to what is being exported to the U.S. One merchant reported that he was offered a choice of wines for his jug line representing a broad spectrum of price. "I could have bought the same presentation (label, bottle shape and wine color) at half the price I did," he said. "Quality depends on the shipper and the importer and on how much they respect the palate of the consumer."
Because large quantities of grapes are used, the character of these generic wines can vary from year to year and even from batch to batch. Or the shipper may decide to change the "formula." The same is true of domestic jug wines.
The availability of the imported jugs has increased dramatically over the past five years, owing to several interacting factors.
In the early 1970s, the prices of quality chateau wines from France shot up. This forced those with a European wine orientation to look elsewhere for their everyday drinking and, at the same time, meant merchants could import generic wines and sell them at prices high enough to make a profit. Also, younger Americans were becoming interested in wine. They turned out to be much more concerned with value than worship of classic labels.
Some of the first jug wines to succeed here, such as La Fleur and Chantefleur, were imported by small, independent East Coast firms, not large national wholesalers. They saw an opportunity and seized it. Meanwhile large European growers and cooperatives sensed a trend toward drinking less wine -- but of better quality -- in their own countries. There was ample motivation to modernize and streamline operations.
The "establishment" was not far behind, to the point that today it is possible in some cases to find several competing "brands" from the same producer.
All this competitive activity has led to at least one disturbing practice. Often a new brand will be introduced at a bargain-basement price. Then, as its popularity grows, the price is raised. When a point is reached where sales fall off, the price drops, only to creep up again when sales pick up.
For those wedded to one brand, it is wise to look around before buying to see how the price compares to its competitiors.Conversely, the price on a new arrival may be artificially low. At the higher end of the scale, it is worth checking to be sure a varietal jug isn't as good or an even better buy. (It should be noted, however, that the varietal jug used in The Post's tasting fared badly. A varietal label should be an indication of origin but it is no guarantee of quality.)
The prices listed in the accompaning chart were those at the stores where the wines were purchased. There may be significant variations elsewhere. Scoring was done on a scale that would award 20 points to a "perfect" wine. Comments are summarized from those made by the tasters. In some cases, where the reactions are contradictory, there were significant differences of opinion.
The six highest-scoring wines will return for a taste-off with the six domestic jug whites that scored highest in the tasting reported in the Food Section on Jan. 4. The comparisons will be published on Feb. 1.