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Second annual five-day $3 wine challenge: The results

$3 wine challenge
$3 wine

“The horror, the horror. …”

In one respect, this year’s five-day, $3 wine challenge was no different than last year’s: I made it through unscathed. But the results were also depressing in a way they weren’t last year.

I wanted to find a wine among the six — five $3 merlots and a $4 red blend — that I could enjoy without reservation and use as another example in my campaign to help wine drinkers understand that price is not the most important thing about wine quality. One was OK, one was undrinkable, and the rest were as brainless as bottled ice tea. With so much quality cheap wine in the world, and sometimes for just a dollar or two more, why do so many people buy these, often making a special trip to do so?

When that analysis comes from someone who has spent 20 years trying to say nice things about cheap wine, it means there’s very little reason to drink them. The sad details are after the jump:

Wine review: Rodney Strong Merlot 2011

winereview

Rodney Strong merlotRodney Strong is an example of how sophisticated the California wine business has become. It makes $15 wine that is sold in grocery stores, but is of better quality than most grocery store wine. It has a line of very high-end reds, aimed at the Winestream Media and the people who read it, and which are about as different from its $15 wines as possible. In all of this, Rodney Strong produces more than 800,000 cases a year, making it the 20th biggest winery in the U.S., according to Wine Business Monthly.

That Rodney Strong can do all three of those, and do it mostly well, speaks to California’s dominant role in the wine world. It’s not only the best place to grow grapes, but its business model is the best, too. The idea is to make wine the way Detroit makes cars, with something for grocery store consumers, something for people who want to spend more, and then the very high end stuff.

The trick to this approach is not sloughing off. The quality/value ratio at the bottom has to be as impressive as at the top, or you’ll never get anyone to trade up. The  2011 Rodney Strong merlot ($17, sample, 13.5%) shows how much care goes into the wines. The 2011 California vintage was one of the coolest in decades, but that didn’t stop a lot of producers from making their usual over-extracted, over-alcoholic, over-oaked wines — even though, thanks to the cool vintage, they had to use a fair amount of sleight of hand to do it.

But not the Rodney Strong merlot. It tastes like it came from a cool vintage — fresh and juicy, no cloying red fruit, a touch of oak at the back that makes the wine better and not like caramel candy, and almost spicy in a French sort of way. It’s about as honest a California merlot as I’ve had in years, in which the winemaker makes what the grapes give him or her, and not what the focus groups want (“smooth,” “sweet fruit”).

Highly recommended, and not just for dinner (beef and lamb almost certainly). This is a gift wine, to show someone you want them to drink interesting wine, and that you found a very interesting one for them to drink.

Wine of the week: Charles Smith The Velvet Devil Merlot 2012

wineofweek

Maybe it’s the Wine Curmudgeon’s always-assume-the-worst nature, but whenever I start to feel better about cheap wine and its place in the world, I run across something like this, from a user on CellarTracker about the Velvet Devil: “A nice wine if you need a half cup of red wine for a recipe and want to enjoy drinking the rest.”

What does this person expect from a $13 wine? First-growth Bordeaux?

In fact, the Velvet Devil ($13, purchased, 13.5%) is another in a long line of well-made and well-priced wines from Washington state winemaker Charles Smith and deserves much more than damning with faint praise. This is a red wine for family dinners, with enough merlot varietal character to be recognizable — lots of blueberry fruit, a little leather, and a few tannins — and all more or less in balance. It’s a red meat wine (Christmas, even(, but not so fussy that it wouldn’t pair with roast chicken.

And, it’s a huge step up from all those grocery store merlots burdened with jelly jars of dark fruit, wines that somehow taste sweet even though they don’t have any residual sugar. If the Cellar Tracker user thought the Velvet Devil was ordinary, I don’t want to know what they would say about the other.

 

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