A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou beside me," etc.Ah, but where has the romance gone? Jug wine is literally the base of the American wine world, a position for which we should show gratitude rather than contempt. Without jugs, the steady growth of table wine consumption in the '70s -- 10 percent a year -- would not have been achieved. Without improved quality and variety and the affordable prices of jug wine, the wine industry would not have had the sales volume to generate the profits to support the research to spur the interest of new drinkers. And new drinkers to progress to other wines, thereby benefitting everybody in the business.
Jug. An all-American word. Bob Thompson, in the Pocket Encyclopaedia of California Wines, defines jugs as: "A casual description of inexpensive wines packaged in containers larger than standard 750 ml. bottles." Where the Frenchman has his liter of "vin ordinaire," the American has his jug: a simple, no-mystique, no-fuss beverage. A supermarket item, to be bought with the other groceries.
Jugs, like other mass market items, suffer from trendiness. Advertising, brand image, price wars and retailer support play a large part in a jug wine's popularity.
As August slides toward Labor Day, Indian summer picnics and pre-season football, here's a look at some of the jugs available in Washington. After surveying local retailers, a selection of current favorites and recommended newcomers were presented to two tasting panels, one from the wine trade and one of regular jug-wine drinkers. It must be emphasized that the wines tasted were only a few of the many available. In addition, a few rules were set for the selection:
No jug could cost more than the equivalent of $2.99 per 750 ml. (Above that price, there is a wider selection of good wines in standard bottles.) All samples were in 1.5 liters, the jug size in which there is the widest variety, including the very competitive imports from Italy and France. And no roses were included. They may account for 20 percent of all American table wine consumption, but nobody in Washington is reported to drink them!
The Pick of the Panels:
Whites: the tasters found that the samples fell into three categories:
Party wines, defined as being light and fruity enough to drink throughout an evening: '79 Gambellara, Zonin, (Italian DOC), $3.99, and Taylor California Cellars Chablis, $4.29.
Food wines, dry, sometimes tart, showing better against food than on their own: Dourthe, Bordeaux Blanc (Bordeaux AC), $4.29, and Fetzer Premium White, $5.99 (a fruity nose, described as "typically Californian" by the amateur panel, belies the dry finish).
All purpose wines, the pick of the crop: Romarets, Robert Sarrau (France), $3.99 (a fresh, clean tasting, medium-dry, blended "vin de table").
Reds: there's less demand for reds as party wines. Most are drunk with food. However, the panels did like two that qualified as all-purpose: Romarets, Robert Sarrau (France), $3.99 (not as exciting as the white, but a well-made, light bodied and pleasant wine), and Sonoma Red Table (Northern California), $4.99 (smooth, medium-bodied, with more complexity and character than most wines in that price range.
For the future, look for some not so humble jugs. There'll be more California varietals, wines made predominantly from one grape, and more of the fresh light wines from Italy's northeast, Friuli, Allto-Adige and the Veneto.