Low-cost corporate wines can be winners
While the wine-industry slump has caused prices to slide and given corporate wines new competition from smaller producers, the big boys are still capable of making winners in the $6 to $8 price range. Among the best in a recent sampling of California wines, Kenwood 2009 Vintage White and Kenwood 2008 Vintage Red stood out.
Special to the Seattle Times
Picks of the weekKenwood 2009 Vintage White; $8
Kenwood 2008 Vintage Red; $8
The Vintage White is mostly sauvignon blanc; the Vintage Red mostly zinfandel. Packaging is simple and the excellent quality of the fruit is immediately apparent. Both blends are thoughtful and delicious. These are not huge-production wines, so you'll want to grab them quickly. Be sure to get the vintages listed. (Young's-Columbia distributes)
IN THE SPIRIT of the recently concluded World Cup matches, I staged a four-team wine shootout, looking for the best bottles from four producers whose wines are widely available in supermarket and convenience-store wine departments. Though many wine writers tend to avoid such corporate offerings, the truth is that they are exactly the sort of affordable, easily found wines that are helping craft a wine-drinking culture in this country. In my regular forays into what some might dismiss as Plonkville, I always hope to find something of genuine value.
Not that it's easy for the corporate folks to compete these days. The economic downturn, whose ripples are being felt throughout the wine industry, has been a boon for consumers. Those $6 and $8 national brands can no longer compete solely on price; there are plenty of new entries (from winery overstock, online discounters and newly minted entrepreneurs) that can go head-to-head with the critter, truck, dress and lifestyle labels, offering better wines at comparable prices.
The four teams in this recent match were all from California. Turning Leaf is a Gallo brand aimed squarely at young women; Kendall-Jackson is widely known for its iconic chardonnays; Fetzer is a Brown-Forman brand hanging its hat on being "The Earth Friendly Winery," and Kenwood is a Sonoma standard that now is part of the Heck Estates portfolio, which also includes Korbel, Lake Sonoma and Valley of the Moon.
The Turning Leaf and Fetzer wines, which retail for $6 to $8, were first on the field. Turning Leaf has an attractive label and an eight-wine lineup, including the trendiest (pinot grigio, pinot noir) and most basic (white zinfandel, chardonnay, merlot) varietals. Varietals in this instance is a little deceptive. The government requires only that a wine contain 75 percent of the named grape, so many of these wines (the pinot noir in particular) are blended with grapes that obliterate anything that might be considered varietal character.
Fetzer's six wines included pinot grigio, chardonnay and merlot also, but added gewürztraminer, riesling and sauvignon blanc. The hype-laden packaging included a lot of blather about "pairing well with the planet," as if our Mother Earth were a piece of cheese. I particularly dislike the rubber corks on these Fetzer bottles. Surely there are better, earth-friendly alternatives.
Why didn't either of these wineries use screwcaps? And why not abandon glass entirely, and move to cartons and 3-liter boxes? That would be far more earth-friendly, consumer-friendly and affordable. Wines in clear glass, such as the Turning Leaf bottles, have another problem. When displayed under bright lights, these wines quickly lose freshness, as the glass provides no protection from UV.
A good strategy for these brands (and most other cheap lineups) is to avoid the trendy varietals — especially pinot grigio and pinot noir. These latecomers to the party are almost always the worst. The Turning Leaf 2008 Riesling (sourced from Germany!) was the real bargain in that lineup, and the only wine under screwcap. The 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon was best by far among the reds.
Overall, I liked the Fetzer wines a little more. The 2009 Gewürztraminer, though off-dry, was the most interesting and best-made, while the 2008 Merlot was actually quite quaffable — perhaps aided by the adventurous blend, which included liberal amounts of syrah, cabernet, petit verdot, petite sirah and carignane.
In match No. 2, there were fewer, though much better wines. Three K-J Grand Reserves — Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay — were tried against the Vintage White and Vintage Red from Kenwood. The K-J whites, though not what I would consider reserve quality, were fair values ($15 to $20), and the chardonnay will definitely please lovers of soft, fruity, oak-bombs. The two Kenwoods, simple blends priced at $8 each, were the best wines of the day.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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