Along with the great disappointments of history-such as the tower of Pisa's failure to stand up straight or Columbus' abortive voyage to Cathay-count The Washington Post's tasting of domestic red jug wines.
So much had been expected. Too much, evidently. As a group they were sweet, in some instances sticky sweet, and lacking in character.
To some extent the fault lies in our own inverse pride in American winemaking. Scuffing our toes in the dirt before French oenophiles and their fellow travelers in this country, we say: "Sure California varietals have a way to go, but you can't beat our jug wines."
To a greater extent, though, the fault lies with the winemakers. At a casual glance, the wines look beautiful. They may lack aroma, but they seldom smell unpleasant. When sipped casually with food, only a few of them will taste offensive.
It's all camouflage-although frosting might be a more appropriate term, since the characteristics of most of these wine are masked with sugar. A careful survey of 16 jugs purchased at a local retail store revealed that a number of them had lost any freshness they may have possessed and most had disagreeable amounts of astringency or tannic acid lurking under the mellow surfaces. So great was the sum of the residual sugar in this group that sticky fingers and glasses had to be washed well at the conclusion of the tasting.
If this judgment seems harsh, consider the opportunity that is being missed. There is an enormous demand for white wine in this country. The best grapes are in demand for varietals or premium blends and prices are high. Despite this situation, California continues to turn out white jug wines of considerable quality. Three of the top four spots in a tasteoff between imported and domestic white jug wines held earlier this year went to california brands.
There is less demand for domestic red wine than for white. Fine red grapes of distinguished lineage have been readily available during recent harvests at reasonable prices. Some of them could be included in blends of the jug market. In fact, maybe some of them are. But those who market wine apparently believe that the public doesn't find red wine very palatable. Rather than allowing roundless to emerge through vinification and aging, they prefer to mask tannins and the harshness of youth with residual sugar.
Commercially this concept appears to work. Much has been said of the maturing of the American wine drinker, and much is said in wine shops and restaurants about the public's desire to buy only "dry" wines. But the majority of the red wines in this sample could hardly be called dry. Tasted without such diversions as conversation or food, individual flaws stood out.
All the wines were tasted "blind," meaning until scores had been tabulated and comments recorded. Unlike the European red jug wines sampled previously, all the domestic wines were in the now-standard 1.5 liter container. The prices cited in the chart that accompanies this article represent a 50-cent average retail spread. In certain shops any wine may be more or less than that amount; if the price is less, it represents a bargain.
The score is an average of the scores of the panel of 10 tasters. It is based on a scale that awards 20 points to a "perfect" wine. Comments represent a cross-section of reaction and in some instances will be somewhat contradictory.
As there was a tie for 6th place, seven rather than six wines, as originally announced, will move on to a final tasteoff with the imported jug wines. Seven imported wines will be included as well. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Doug Chevalier-The Washington Post; Chart, 16 Domestic Red Jug Wines