By Randy Kemner, Proprietor, The Wine Country
If I were a winery owner, I’d love to produce a wine that makes a top 100 list. I wouldn’t have to work as hard selling my wine. People all over the country would be beefing up their orders, and retailers would see their racks quickly emptied and order more.
Some consumers are attracted to Top 100 lists. They take comfort in the affirmation print journalism gives them in their wine selections among zillions of choices. They defend their reliance on another’s palate as a useful tool because they are too busy or too broke to try out every wine available to make up their minds. But there is a Top 100 wine list they might want to avoid.
It’s the “Top 100 Brands & 100 Individual Wines in USA Restaurants in 2007” unveiled recently by Restaurant Wine magazine.
A lot of wine was sold in American restaurants last year- 68.8 million cases of it- and all the top 100 came from only 6 countries: Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Italy and the USA. No New Zealand, no Spain, no Argentina.
The most popular wines had names familiar to anyone walking the aisles of the local Rite-Aid. The top 20 include names such as Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, Beringer White Zinfandel and Cavit Pinot Grigio.
The minimum number of cases needed to make the top 100 list was 80,000 cases of a single wine! If you knew nothing at all about these wines, know this: a vintner can’t afford to be too fussy with the quality of his grapes when he needs that kind of gallonage to fill all those orders.
We get people in The Wine Country that tell us they never drink white wine or never drink red wine. After looking at this list, I think I know why. If the only wines they ever encountered were wines somebody else ordered at a hotel banquet room or a family chain restaurant, it’s no wonder America is 34th in the world in per capita wine consumption.
There are still a lot of Americans who drink no wine at all. Some have religious reasons, some have health concerns and others have only experienced wines with names like Yellow Tail and Sutter Home.
As a conscientious wine merchant, last month I felt an obligation to find out for myself just what corporate winemaking was up to. I made two buying trips to local supermarkets which specialize in “premium” wine, some with famous names like Beringer, BV, Robert Mondavi and Chateau St. Jean. All were affordable by my definition, under $15 per bottle. Many were under $10.
The label and glass designs of many wines were beautiful and impressive, and most had corks.
I went through some 40 wines from three popular varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. They had designations like “California,” “Coastal” and “Central Coast” when their anchor wineries were located in Napa Valley or Sonoma. They were, in essence, cheap knockoffs of famous brands, like a Gucci you buy from a street vendor.
None of these wines was technically bad, mind you. But, jeez, they were boring to drink. Some had stemmy flavors, and most had bitter aftertastes because of the deliberate oak-chip tea-bags used to impart flavor.
And all were about as natural and fresh tasting as canned fruit cocktail. With wood shavings.
If restaurateurs were hauled into food court I’d sentence every manager that serves these to his customers to drink them every night for a year. Maybe then they’d put something sensible on their list, like good Beaujolais.
Ironically, the best food wines on the list are probably the White Zinfandels for their ability to handle all the sweet and spice in popular dishes, and perhaps the jug Chablis for its simple fruitiness. I wouldn’t hold out much hope for these factory-made, thin-tasting, uninspiring Pinot Grigios, but perhaps they’d work out O.K. with the right dish.
To be fair, it’s tough to offer a hand-made artisan wine at a price most restaurants want for their high-profit glass-pours. The cost of the grapes and intensive labor needed to make that kind of wine are price-prohibitive. But not always.
There are still values out there that make a meal sing. Imports from Spain and non-hip regions like France’s Côtes de Gascogne offer fresh-tasting, fruit-and terroir-driven wines whose major goal in life is to help make your dinner table a happy place. Another is Beaujolais, a supremely drinkable and versatile food wine from a wine region once indispensible to every quality wine list, and now inexplicably rare.
For California, I’ve always been an advocate of J. Lohr’s juicy, delicious, easy-drinking Gamay-like Valdigiué as the quintessential red food wine and the Ruby-Cabernet of James Arthur Field’s Red Wine ($7.99 per magnum!) is about as good a hamburger wine as any.
True Chablis (chardonnay from France’s Chablis region) is a comparative value next to overwrought premium domestic and imported Chardonnay, and there are many yummy ones available for less money. You don’t want one made in 80,000 case quantities, though.
While most Americans who drink wine say they drink it with meals, I think most drink wine just to drink it because they find the flavors more compelling than booze or beer. But there are three kinds of wines now dominating the scene today: complex wines that make a statement all by themselves, simple wines whose major role is to provide fruit and acidity to a meal, and wines grown and designed to maximize corporate profits.
I don’t mind making a buck, but wine, like fresh produce, should taste a lot better than what our modern restaurant and grocery store chains offer.