April 25, 2019

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Supermarket Wines Are Poured, and Worlds Collide

Supermarket Wines Are Poured, and Worlds Collide
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The wine itself? I taste a touch of oak, courtesy of barrel substitutes like chips or staves used to flavor the wine, a hint of red fruit, softly textured — no tannins or bitterness. But overall, it’s just plain sweet, like a soft drink with 13.5 percent alcohol. It’s not something I would enjoy, yet it satisfies millions of people.

Similarly, the Prisoner is a blend of red grapes. Like Apothic, it’s as sweet as Kool-Aid but otherwise darker, heavier, more structured and tannic, and the sweet flavors linger. It’s made of Napa Valley fruit, unlike Apothic, which uses inexpensive grapes from parts unknown, so the Prisoner is a little more self-important. The bottle is heavy; the wine is weighty at 15.2 percent alcohol, and so is the price.

Of the three wines, the Meiomi came closest to what I consider a drinkable wine. It was discernibly pinot noir, though a heavy-handed version of it, with ripe, jammy flavors mixed with oakiness. It’s as supple and smooth as velvet, another popular word with back-label writers, soft and sweet.

Many people in the wine industry rationalize that these are gateway bottles, wines for people who have little experience with wine. Some drinkers, the thinking goes, will transition to better bottles.

I have never understood that thinking. These are wines for people who like wines like these, not some noble introductory effort to a glorious world beyond. And far more people are drinking these wines than, say, excellent Anderson Valley pinot noirs, just as far more people are eating fast-food hamburgers than dining at good corner bistros or exploring the tasting menus of visionary chefs.

These represent the two alternate universes of the wine business. One, in which consumers essentially pick brands that they like and stay loyal, is vastly larger. These drinkers value consistency and familiarity. They don’t want to be challenged; they are not interested in vintage variations, soil expressions or any of the other nerdy topics that wine geeks might pass a pleasant hour discussing.

The other, smaller universe is the usual audience for Wine School. These people find wine interesting enough to explore, to learn about. To them, it represents something more than a product on a grocery list. They find wine to be something with the capacity to surprise, to mystify, to disappoint, yes, but also to move them emotionally. These people embrace the unexpected rather than the familiar. Some consumers may move between these groups freely, depending on their shifting priorities, but the philosophies and methods of production for the two groups of wines are vastly different.

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