I assembled a group of tasters to sample 29 chardonnays, cabernets and sweet red blends that are among the nation's most popular, plus a few of my favorite and widely available Chilean reds. In each category, wines are listed in descending order of preference.
1. Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi 2016 ($7.59): Clean and minerally, crisp and light, with peach and pear flavors and a good balance of acid and sweetness. Rather tasty!
2. Robert Mondavi Private Selection 2016 ($11.69): Richer and fatter on the palate, with some oak influence, good medium depth and length. While the Woodbridge appeals to the more modern preference for less oak, this one has a classic California chardonnay style.
3. Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve 2016 ($16): Nice fruit, with peach and apricot flavors, but the sweetness detracts from it for me, even if it might account for the wine's popularity.
4. Chateau Ste. Michelle 2016, Washington ($9): From a venerable Washington state winery celebrating its 50th anniversary, this is mouth-filling and rich, with caramel notes and a strong finish. For those who like fuller bodied chardonnay.
5. Lindeman's Bin 65 2016, Australia ($9): Like sucking the last bit of peach off the pit, quite quaffable.
6. Barefoot NV California ($8.59): Pleasant but nondescript. Nothing to offend, except its inoffensiveness.
7. Kirkland Sonoma County 2015 ($7): Peachy and sweet but a bit viscous and plodding.
8. Cupcake 2015 Monterey County ($11): Funky, skunky wet dog.
9. Yellow Tail 2016 Australia ($6.79): Caramel? Plastic? Birthday candle? Sweet and cloying.
10. Sutter Home, NV, California ($10 for 1.5 liter): Smells of sewer gas and is simply unpleasant. Mike Tate could just come up with "poopy." There was no argument.
THE CABERNETS AND SWEET RED BLENDS
1. Santa Rita 120 2015, Maule Valley, Chile ($9): This wine used to be easier to find in the area. I hope it will be in more stores again soon. It shows bright fruit flavors of berries and cherries, and is quite refreshing. Good burger wine, good bargain cabernet.
2. Cousiño-Macul 2015, Maipo Valley, Chile ($10.69): A perennial favorite, even if it is creeping up in price. It shows a fresh nose of black and red fruits, with a smoky, tarry note and excellent body.
3. Los Vascos 2015 Colchagua Valley, Chile ($10): From a Chilean winery owned by Baron Lafite, the owners of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux, this shows classic blackberry and cherry with mint, sage and rosemary.
4. Kirkland 2015 California ($8 for 1.5 liters): Blackberry, toffee, with hints of tobacco. On the sweet side, but interesting. At $8 for a magnum, this is a steal for parties.
5. Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi 2015 ($7.69): A bit thick and sweet — the love handles protrude a little on this one, which I can relate to.
6. Beringer Founders' Estate 2015 ($11): Sweet with jammy, strawberry flavors.
7. Cupcake Vineyards Central Coast 2015 ($11): Nondescript but pleasant, with a sweet finish. You're drinking this for the label and the cute name, and to have something in your glass while you chat at a party.
8. Robert Mondavi Private Selection 2015 ($8.50): Sweet caramel, cocoa, brown sugar; a bit syrupy. I wouldn't pour it over ice cream, but boil it down and it might make a good toffee.
9. Columbia Crest Grand Estates 2015 ($11.70): Heavy and viscous, with flavors of candied cherries and a tannic finish. I expected this brand to show better.
10. Yellow Tail Sweet Red Roo, Australia ($6.80): This is not a cabernet but a sweet red blend of grapes that really don't matter. It's not bad — blueberry cobbler in a glass. It would benefit from a slight chill and perhaps some fruit slices and a splash of seltzer.
11. Bota Box Cabernet 2015 ($25 for 3 liters, equal to $6.25 a bottle): A bit green and underripe, but there is some nice fruit before a sweet, treacly finish. The best of the best-selling boxed cabernets, although that's not saying a lot.
12. Walnut Crest 2015, Chile ($7): Cheap is the only appeal here. I included this because Walnut Crest has been a sleeper bargain in the past. Not this vintage. The wine is disjointed, starting tart and fresh but ending with unpleasant cooked flavors.
13. Barefoot NV California ($8.70): Industrial aromas of machine oil, as if you're at a factory rather than a winery. Green and underripe flavors.
14. Apothic Red ($7.40): This is Gallo's blockbuster sweet red blend, and it is so successful that it has spawned a number of knockoff variations, such as Apothic Dark and Apothic Inferno. It's an overtly sweet red wine, but it actually did not taste as sweet as some of the cabernets. Mocha and cherry, on the cough syrup scale it is more Luden's than Robitussin. This inspired Elyse Kudo to recite Dr. Seuss rhymes. ("I would not drink this from afar . . .")
15. Sutter Home NV ($10 for 1.5 liters): This is the Robitussin.
16. Black Box 2015 California ($15.40 for 3 liters, equal to $3.85 a bottle): You know the smell when a tire pile catches fire? Yeah, that.
17. Frontera Cabernet-Merlot 2016, Chile ($5.20): Boiled potato skins, sauced with rendered cough drops.
18. Franzia box, Chile ($20 for 5 liters, equal to about $3 a bottle): Like Bazooka Joe chawed down on a big wad of bubble gum and used it to filter storm water runoff.
19. 14 Hands 2015, Washington State ($12): Tire rubber. Aged in inner tubes. Like a gym accident when you get strangled by a resistance cord.
Wines are widely available, with the exception of the Kirkland wines, which are available only at Costco. Prices listed were paid at Costco and Morris Miller Wine & Liquor in the District and the Montgomery County Liquor Store in White Oak. Actual prices may vary.
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