I’m not sure why, but when summer comes, people seem to change their standards for choosing wine. Maybe because heat provokes thirst, we look for quaffing wines: light bodied, simple wines that can be consumed with any food (or no food), on par with beer or lemonade, and at the same relative price point as other casual drinks.
Yes, I’m talking about cheap wine, or what’s known in the trade as “beverage alcohol.” A step up (arguably) from malt liquor, these are wines made in gigantic tanks that look the same as the tanks at a petroleum storage facility. The grapes that go into them come from vast mechanized and irrigated vineyards in places that have warm winters, so that yields are high—sometimes over 10 tons per acre. Yields in cooler climates (such as Long Island), or those that are dry, without irrigation, are more in the 2- to 4-tons-per-acre range.
A few wine conglomerates own most of the “el cheapo” brands. Gallo, for example, owns several, including (besides the Gallo brand itself) Barefoot Cellars and Copper Ridge. Constellation owns Woodbridge, Taylor California Cellars and La Terre. W.J. Deutsch’s [Yellow Tail] in various forms comprises almost half of all Australian wines sold in the U.S.
Annette Alvarez-Peters, the head wine buyer for CostCo (the leading retailer of wine in the United States—though not in New York, where food and wine can’t be sold in the same store), recently made a stir in an interview on CNBC in which she said, “Is (wine) more special than clothing; is it more special than televisions? I don’t think so.”
When her interviewer replied, “Certainly it’s different than toilet paper?” she replied, “People can look at it that way. But at the end of the day, it’s just a beverage.”
Ms. Alvarez-Peters is a marketer, not a wine expert. She has buyers in the field who make deals, often with premium producers. The buyers may care about quality, but price and brand recognition often supersede deliciousness. Wine buyers for chain restaurants are also more likely to choose wine the same way, as a commodity.
On Long Island, because of the high land and labor costs, and low yields, there are no “commodity” wines produced here, but most LI wineries offer “value” wines—wines that outshine others in their price category—nonetheless.
Long Island-based restaurateur Tom Schaudel (the owner of A Mano, A Lure, Jewel and Passion Fish) has featured local wines on his menus for decades, alongside wines from a broad variety of regions.
With characteristic grace, he told me, “The wines I choose at the lower end of the list survive the exact same process that the top of the list wines do. I believe that there is relatively little ‘bad juice’ on the market anymore: just good and better,” he said. “For us it’s all Bacchanalia and the pleasurable pursuit of the grape, and for me, no distinction between turning someone on to a wine in their financial comfort zone no matter where that lies. I see value in all price categories because value means different things to different people.”
If there are truly “value” wines at the low end of the price range, what is the difference between a $10 wine and a $50 wine? Sometimes you are paying for reputation or region alone—an established brand from Napa, Burgundy or Bordeaux will cost more than a similar wine from South Africa, Friuli or Tasmania.
You already know how to recognize differences in quality. Imagine yourself at a party where you meet two people: one has had obvious plastic surgery, wears a shirt unbuttoned too far, and chatters on about washing his Hummer hubcaps, or the “Real Housewives.” You can’t wait to get away. The other engages you in conversation so fascinating that you want to talk all night.
The LI “value” wines on Mr. Schaudel’s list make for good conversation, too. Among his choices are Pellegrini Vineyards Chardonnay, Palmer Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Blanc, Roanoke Vineyard’s “The Wild” Chardonnay, Anthony Nappa’s “Spezia” Gewurztraminer and Comtesse Thérèse Traditional Merlot.
On the higher end of the value chart he likes Paumanok Chenin Blanc, McCall Pinot Noir, Lenz “Old Vines” Merlot, Waters Crest Campagna Rosso, the Grapes of Roth Merlot and John Leo’s Red blend.
Whether you are looking for wines that engage you, or wines that serve a purpose the way toilet paper does, you’ll find plenty of choices this summer. If it’s horrible, put ice in it.