Quail Oak Chardonnay (ca. 2014)

Should the United States have a wine classification system along the lines of what you find in other countries like France, Italy or Germany?  That is the question that came to mind as I drank this wine.

You see, this wine is very clearly aimed at the bottom of the market.  After all, it’s a non-vintage “American” wine – meaning they can source the grapes from anywhere within the 50 states (and maybe even anywhere from within North or South America as that would still be a truthful claim) and they can blend grape juices from more than one harvest year to get a potable product.  If this were sold in France, it’d be a Vin de Table which is their lowest rung of classification.  While that classification doesn’t necessarily mean a vintner will charge less per bottle than a competitor in the Vin de Pays class, it does serve as a quick indicator to the consumer that they shouldn’t be paying top dollar.

Although the regular retail price of this wine is by no means top dollar, it is considerably higher than the wines which are of the same ilk and against which this wine appears meant to compete.  For instance, the Charles Shaw wines can be had at the local Trader Joe’s for $3.29, and the Three Wishes line at Whole Foods is priced exactly the same.  Why, then, does the local Safeway put a regular price of $6.99 on this bottle?  Could it be to snag uneducated consumers unawares?  After all, I bought this on sale for $3.49.  So it looks to me like the store realizes that is about what this Chardonnay should be selling for – period.

Oenophilogical_QuailOakChardonnayWinemaker:  Quail Oak (by The Wine Group for Safeway)
Varietal:  Chardonnay
Vintage:  NV
Appellation:  America
Price:  $6.99 at Safeway

Notes:  This Safeway private label Chardonnay was a bright lemon yellow.  It’s body was on the lighter side of medium with good acidity while alcohol came in at 12.5%.  On the palate I found pear, grapefruit, grass, and a touch of honey.  At times during it’s trip across my tongue it was quite weak.  Overall, though, it was pretty much OK.

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Rex-Goliath Pinot Noir

I have to admit that the first time I saw a Rex-Goliath wine, I was curious about the reason for naming a wine label after a big rooster.  After reading at the winery’s website that HRM Rex-Goliath was billed as the “World’s Largest Rooster” in a Texas circus at the turn of the 20th century, I was confused.  Texas?  A giant chicken?  Circus?  What do they have to do with a winery in California?

But their website goes on to say, “Our wines are a tribute to Rex’s larger-than-life personality, with bold, fruit-forward flavors that are sure to please. In essence, Rex is all about letting BOLD fruit flavors express themselves in an easy-to-drink, worry-free fashion. Bold Wines. Fun Times.”  Oh …  I suppose I see now.

Winemaker:  Rex-Goliath
Varietal:  Pinot Noir
Vintage:  NV
Appellation:  America
Price:  $5.49 at Trader Joe’s

Notes:  The color of this non-vintage Pinot Noir was a medium garnet.  On the nose I caught whiffs of oak, earth, red plum, and pepper.  It was medium-bodied with bright but not racy acidity and medium tannins.  The tannins were pretty aggressive in attack and long in duration, but they did settle some with time to breathe.  Alcohol was at 12.5%.  Flavors I tasted were cola, sweet plum, lots of pepper and oak, and a green herbal note on the finish.  This was an unusually feisty selection for a Pinot Noir and a surprisingly interesting bottle of wine for the price.  Yes, I would call this a good value.

Gallo Family Vineyards Merlot

Not too long ago I was on a business trip to Chicago.  It was a quick trip, but an interesting one.  I’ve enjoyed some great trips to the Windy City in years past, but had no time this go-round for fun.  Unfortunately.  Because on my only night there I had to work late in my room preparing for the next day’s activities, I decided to run to the drug store across the street to see what kind of brain food (aka junk food) they might have on hand.  Much to my surprise, they had more than snacks, water and soda.  They had a very large selection of wines and spirits – yes, liquor.  Sadly, I had to keep my wits about me or my work would not have gotten done.  Thus, I grabbed a personal-sized bottle of this Gallo red – just enough to warm me yet not prevent me from accomplishing the task at hand.

Winemaker:  Gallo Family Vineyards
Varietal:  Merlot
Vintage:  NV
Appellation:  California
Price:  $5.99*

Notes:   On the nose I caught scents of wood, berries, and earth with some floral notes.  It was very light-bodied.  It even seemed watery at times.  Acidity was OK, and tannins were light.  Alcohol was at 13%.  On the palate I tasted generous amounts of wood with notes of crème de cassis.  I know it’s inexpensive, but I think there have to be better options out there – from Gallo even – within this price range.

* This is the price for a 750 ml bottle in my local area not the personal-sized mini I purchased while on travel.

Pepperwood Grove Cabernet Sauvignon

Another of the Sebastiani wineries, Pepperwood Grove not only uses a label with varying shades of green waves but is also busily working at finding ways to match the color on their label with their business practices.  As part of their sustainability program, for instance, they have been getting into the boxed wine category (Big Green Box and Little Green Box).  Their box packaging uses materials that are 100% recyclable and paper that is sourced from sustainable forests.  Like me, though, you can still get your Pepperwood Grove in a bottle where for additional sustainability they stop their wines with the re-usable ZORK® STL bottle closure.

That’s all well and good.  I’m glad winemakers are concerned about sustainability and taking steps to employ sustainable practices in the various facets of their business.  But all of that isn’t going to sell me on the wine if it isn’t worth drinking.  I’m happy to say that I think this budget Cab was worth popping the zork on.

Winemaker: Pepperwood Grove
Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon
Vintage:  NV
Appellation: California
Price: $6.99  at Whole Foods

Notes:  In the glass this inexpensive Cabernet was a dark reddish purple – just barely translucent.  On the nose I found musty earth, dark berries, and pepper.  The body was fairly light and smooth.  It had gentle but definite tannins and good acidity.  Alcohol was at 13%.  On the palate I encountered flavors of currant, earth, cherry, oak, pepper, and a minty note.  I thought it was pleasant for a non-vintage Cab in this price range.  I imagine this Pepperwood Grove would probably be pretty good with Mexican fare or a burger.

Night Harvest Sauvignon Blanc

First done possibly as early as the 1970’s in California, night harvesting grapes for winemaking is becoming the rule rather than the exception.  A practice that is more common with grapes for white wines, it is nonetheless also observed by some for red harvests as well.  According to a 2011 article in USA Today, two-thirds of grapes picked for winemaking in California are picked at night.  Since California has approximately 58% of the U.S. market (per the Wine Institute), my calculator tells me this means at least 40% of the wines being consumed in the U.S. are made from grapes harvested in the wee hours.  I say “at least” because this isn’t just a California phenomenon.  Night harvesting has gone global.  Why?  The Napa Valley Register tells us that “Vineyard managers say night harvests bring in grapes with better sugar levels, acid and ‘aromatics’ — the scents that linger after the grapes go into the bottle.”  And they bring in grapes at a more consistent temperature which gives the wineries more control over a key facet in the process.

The most interesting item I found listed in the pro column for night harvests is energy savings.  I’ll have to admit, that claim gave me pause.  I mean, if you’re picking at night you have to manufacture your own light, right?  And that means you’re consuming energy – most often via diesel generators – to create your illumination.  Somehow that didn’t conjure up an image I’d classify as environmentally friendly.  Yet vintners say because the grapes have to be cooled to something in the region of 55 degrees Fahrenheit prior to crushing and because harvest days can be as warm as 80, 90 even 100 degrees, harvesting the grapes in the cool of the night and reducing the need for significant pre-crush cooling presents a very significant energy savings.  Well, all right!  I’ve been schooled.

SauvignonBlancHere’s what the R.H. Phillips folks had to say about their Night Harvest label on it’s reintroduction in 2006.  “Night Harvest by R.H. Phillips is made with 80 percent estate-grown grapes, blended with a small amount of coastal fruit to round out the flavors.”  They go on to say, “In keeping with the winery’s rich history, R.H. Phillips harvests all of its estate-grown fruit between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. Now more of an industry-wide practice in the wine business, R.H. Phillips first harvested under the stars in 1983, a practice pioneered by the founding family, the Giguieres.”

Winemaker:  Night Harvest by R.H. Phillips
Varietal:  Sauvignon Blanc
Vintage:  NV
Appellation:  California
Price:  $6.99 at Whole Foods

Notes:  Pale straw in the glass, this non-vintage Sauvignon Blanc was light-bodied with good acidity.  Alcohol was at 13.5%.  On the nose I caught whiffs of apple, pear and citrus.  On the tongue I found plentiful grapefruit flavor with apple, pear, and hints of spice.  It had a very slight creaminess to it as well.  On the finish there was a dose of grass which then lingered intertwined with echos of grapefruit.  Not half bad for an inexpensive white wine from the grocery store!

La Caumette L’Authentique Red

I’m always curious about where the wines I drink come from.  I like to get as much information as I can to help me understand more about, among other things, the practical results of “terroir”.  When it comes to a table wine, though, there is often a lack of info about where the grapes were grown beyond a very general description.  So then I look at the winemaker and where they are located.

Carte du diocèse de Béziers

This inexpensive import is made by the company La Caumette SARL in Béziers, France.  Looking at it on a map, I see that it is just a few kilometers from the Meditarranean coast in the Languedoc region.  What does that tell me?  Well … I’m not sure that it tells me anything.  But as I look over the map of southern France, it does remind me of something.  Something I’d rather forget but somehow can’t seem to shake the memory of.

Give me a few moments of your time, and I’ll share with you a tale of trouble, calamity and woe.  A tale that is seared into my memory banks like burnt cheese on a frying pan.

photo by Sven Storbeck

When I was a young boy – 5 years old – my family was living in Europe.  While there, my father did his best to expose his American children to as much of the Continental culture as he could.  We managed to see quite a bit as we camped our way across western Europe.  Oh yes!  We had a VW camper, a pup tent, a camping stove, sleeping bags, etc.  Each trip was an adventure.

Let me say first that we had some great times on our treks.  On one of our trips through France I learned how to swim at the campground pool.  But that place was not on the southern coast.  Thinking back now, I can’t recall exactly where on the coast of France we pitched our tent.   Was it near Nice, Marseille, Montpellier, Narbonne?  I just can’t say.

photo by Lewis Clarke

What I can say is that once settled in at our campground, we decided to visit the local public beach.  My first surprise – the beach was pebbly not sandy.  Very big pebbles, too, for a little guy of five shod in flip flops.  Then there was the smell.  This beach had a very pungent odor – fish, seaweed, and something else.   So far, I wasn’t especially thrilled with this outing.  I hung with my family, of course.  It’s not like I could get anywhere by myself.  Five years old, didn’t know the area, didn’t know the language.

Eventually, nature called, and I had to make my way to the restroom.  The very old, very well-used, public restroom.  For some reason, I was wary going into this facility.  Once inside, though, I saw they had individual stalls.  I quickly disappeared into one and locked the door behind me.  When I turned around from locking the door, what I found took the breath out of me – literally.

I was facing a behemoth of a urinal.  Beginning at floor level, it was almost twice as tall and wider than me.  It was stained and cracked.  The large drain hole didn’t have any cover over it, and from it’s mouth escaped an odor that made my nose burn.  Given that I had business to take care of, I screwed up my courage and approached it’s gaping maw.  Everything proceeded handily until, preparing to leave, I had to shift my weight slightly.  Unfortunately, around the base of the porcelain monolith the uneven cement floor was slick.  One small shift, and my world was turned upside down.

photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

In a split second, my left foot slid forward and into the jaws of this horrible beast.  It was inside the hole, not above it.  As soon as I realized my situation, I yanked my foot out of the blackness.  In so doing, however, my flip flop caught on the edge of the nasty mouth and was ripped from my foot.  My shoe fell forever into that horrid darkness.  Now in a hurry to retreat, I turned and unlatched the stall.  But it didn’t budge.  The latch remained perfectly in place to keep everyone else out … and me in.  I looked around for another way out.  Maybe I could crawl under the stall door?  No!  The door and walls went all the way to the ground.  I looked up, but at five I couldn’t have scaled a normal-sized stall.  And this stall was much taller than any I’d seen before.  So I tried the latch again.  And again.  Finally, having run out of options, I yelled.  A cry for help to any good Samaritan who might be passing by.

As luck would have it, my sister was just coming out of the women’s restroom.  She bolted to my parents and explained that I was trapped.  Trapped by a nefarious French commode.  And so my father came to assess the situation.  Ever the logician, he asked me to try the latch again.  Again?  All right!  One more time — to no avail.  And that was it!  I had put on a brave face walking across huge pebbles in nothing but flip flops.  I had faced the crusty, crumbling porcelain demon alone.  I had been attacked by the demon and lost a flip flop – almost lost a foot, in my mind.  I had tried to escape on my own.  Had tried the latch many, many times.  So rose in me the anger, the frustration, and the howl of a cornered animal.

In a matter of seconds I heard scrabbling and scraping and scratching.  Then I saw the stall walls shake ever so slightly.  I looked above me to see my father clambering over the very high walls of my prison.  Climbing down to join me in my dark cubicle.  Then he was pulling hard – very hard – and releasing the latch that had secured the stall door.  And I was free of that wretched adventure!

I have plenty of marvelous memories from France and our time in Europe.  But this day, this one day in the south of France.  This is still a day of trouble, calamity, and woe.  On my bucket list is another trip to France’s southern coast – Provence or perhaps Languedoc – to make a new memory and banish this 5-year-old’s day at the beach.  In the meantime, though, I think I’ll have another glass of wine.

Peck_LaCaumetteLAuthentiqueNVWinemaker:  La Caumette
Wine: L’Authentique Red Table Wine
Varietal: Red Blend
Vintage: NV
Appellation:  France
Price:  $4.99 at Trader Joe’s

Notes:  The La Caumette red blend was dark purple in the glass.  The bouquet held scents of earth, dark berries and pepper.  It was a light-bodied selection with a slightly velvety feel in the mouth, mild tannins and good acidity.  Alcohol was 13%.  On the palate I found earth, dark cherry and blackberry, oak, a hint of licorice and bitter eucalyptus on the finish.  Really not a bad wine for the price.  It was light, yes.  It was definitely light.  But that might be just what you’re looking for.

This post is part of a monthly wine blog challenge.  Begun by wine blogger extraordinaire  the drunken cyclist, this month’s challenge has been issued by The Armchair Sommelier who won the transportation-themed challenge.  The theme for this month’s challenge?  Trouble.

Important:  I am not a professional sommelier or wine connoisseur.  See “About” for the full disclaimer.

Lost Vineyards Shiraz-Cab

It looks as if this inexpensive Argentinian red blend is made by the folks at Trapiche and imported by Lost Vineyards.  It’s interesting that the appellation they give is just Argentina.  Of course, that is a bit more concrete than some wines I’ve seen that say they are “American.”  That always makes me want to ask, “North American, South American or all of the above?”  But getting back to the wine at hand, the label clearly indicates that it is a mixture of 60% Shiraz and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Winemaker:  Lost Vineyards
Varietal:  Red Blend
Vintage:  NV
Appellation:  Argentina
Price:  $4.99

Notes:  This wine showed a deep ruby color in the glass.  On the nose I found dark cherry along with hints of spices and herbs.  It was a light-bodied red with moderate tannins.  Alcohol is at 12.5%.  On the palate this blend brought me sweet dark cherry, pepper, clove, oak, and anise.  Sounds good, right?  But here’s the catch: it wasn’t a well-balanced glass of wine.  The oak and the tannins were the major players on the tongue and relegated the other flavors to the background.  Except for the sweetness!  The residual sugar had a tendency to come on a little strong.  The result was a strange back-and-forth on the palate between astringent wood and sweet.  Again, the other flavors were there but fighting a losing battle for my tastebuds’ attention.  Maybe I should have had a hunk of spiced meat with this Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon, and all would have been well.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.

Important: I am not a professional sommelier or wine connoisseur.  See “About” for the full disclaimer.