Browsing the wine aisle at a supermarket or convenience store can be disorienting for someone used to shopping at a fine wine retailer. Mass-market labels such as Barefoot, Yellow Tail and Cupcake are everywhere, rather than the smaller family-owned wineries more common to wine stores.
But what do they taste like? My recent notes on some of the nation’s best-selling chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons include a few positive words such as peaches, blackberries and minerals, but many more terms like machine oil, inner tubes and sewer gas. In short, if you buy wine based solely on price and wide availability, you might find a gem or perhaps something pleasant, but there’s a better chance you’ll be wasting your money, not saving it.
And these are the wines most Americans drink. According to Wines & Vines magazine's annual list of the 20 top-selling wine brands in U.S. retail stores, based on figures from market research firm IRI, Americans spent $670 million last year on Barefoot wines. Sutter Home was a distant second at $368 million. The list includes other familiar names such as Kendall-Jackson, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Beringer. Australia's Yellow Tail was the only foreign brand to crack the top echelon in sales, though some American brands use imported wine. Three box wines made the list: Franzia, Black Box Wines and Bota Box. Most sell for the equivalent of less than $10 a bottle. Altogether, the top 20 brands racked up $4.14 billion in sales in 2016.
Those 20 brands are owned by only 10 companies. That shows the predominance of such behemoths as E&J Gallo Winery (owner of Barefoot, Apothic, Gallo Family Vineyards, Carlo Rossi and Liberty Creek), Constellation Brands (Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, Black Box Wines, Clos du Bois and Robert Mondavi Private Selection) and the Wine Group (Franzia, Cupcake Vineyards). The romantic vision of the artisan vigneron toiling among the vines does not apply to our daily tipple.
None of these names have appeared in my column lately. So I headed to Costco and Morris Miller Wine & Liquor in the District and the Montgomery County Liquor Store in White Oak and purchased as many chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons from the top 20 brands as I could find. I also bought some other cheap brands I’ve enjoyed over the years, as well as Costco’s Kirkland. Finally, I included two sweet red blends, Gallo’s Apothic and Yellow Tail’s Sweet Red Roo. Apothic’s presence on the top-20 list demonstrates the popularity of this category. All but a few of the wines cost less than $10 a bottle.
Just for fun, I added a few more expensive wines, then put the bottles into bags to hide the labels, a “blind tasting” designed to prevent any preconceptions from influencing my perception. I was joined for the chardonnay tasting by Mike Tate of Silver Spring, an avid consumer who is not in the wine trade, and my wife, Leah, who has a much sharper palate than I do when she’s paying attention. Tate also volunteered to help with the cabernets, along with Elyse Kudo, the regional representative for Jackson Family Wines.
The 10 chardonnays fared better than the 19 cabernets and blends. In fact, you can buy delicious U.S. chardonnay for less than $10. Just look for the name Robert Mondavi on the label. When we ripped the bags off the bottles, we found the Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi to be our favorite, with the Robert Mondavi Private Selection in second place. The Woodbridge — which costs just $7.59 — was fresh, fruity and so well balanced that we all suspected it was one of the more-expensive ringers I had put in the lineup. The Private Selection was also quite nice, with more oak flavoring and richness from malolactic fermentation.
The Woodbridge should be easy to find: Constellation Brands made 1.1 million cases of it in 2016. Perhaps one reason it stood out from the crowd is that it is only about 77 percent chardonnay; the rest is a blend of various grapes, including French colombard, Viognier and muscat. This “secret sauce” is not mentioned on the label, but is listed on a tech sheet Constellation sent me. And it’s perfectly legit: A wine can be labeled as chardonnay as long as at least 75 percent of the blend is that grape.
Most of the other chardonnays were pleasant enough but overtly sugary, appealing to the famous American sweet tooth. (Sweetness can come from incomplete fermentation, blending with sweeter grapes or simply the addition of sugar.) Some were noticeably flawed. The Cupcake smelled like a wet dog, suggesting sloppy hygiene in the winemaking, and Sutter Home — the second-most-favorite brand in America — was simply awful.
The red wines as a group disappointed. Of the 19 we tasted, we found only three to be noteworthy, and all were ones I had selected, not on the best-selling list. They were the Santa Rita 120, Cousiño-Macul and Los Vascos, all from Chile. So here’s your cabernet takeaway: Look for Chilean cabs in the $10 range — cheap, but not bottom barrel. Two other Chilean brands, Walnut Crest and Frontera, cashed in at about $5 but did not show well.
The U.S. brands were almost uniformly depressing. Some were pleasant enough, but sweet and dull. Even overtly sweet red wines, such as Apothic, did not stand out as sweet among the treacle that is cheap Cali cab. Others tasted of cough syrup, rubber, machine oil or worse. The boxed wines failed to impress. It was as though the companies — I hate to say “winemakers” — were following a recipe of fake tannins, grape concentrate and artificial oak flavorings to appeal to the American palate. I would be happy with a simple wine for less than $10 as long as it’s delicious, but whether for reasons of economics or market research, that does not seem to be possible for domestic wines.
Our least favorite red was the 14 Hands from Washington state, a popular brand that tasted simply like a junkyard in a bottle.
We all want to be conscious of value when shopping for wine. But with the exception of a few pleasant surprises, the quality simply isn’t there under $10, especially when it comes to domestic wine. To get your money’s worth, look for the $15-to-$25 range for quality that justifies the price. You are most likely to find this in imported wines.
You get what you pay for.