ONE CORNER of the Caves Coopératives de Nevian, near Narbonne in southwestern France’s Languedoc region, suggests nothing so much as a sort of pleasant-smelling indoor gas station. Two immense stainless-steel tanks, each with a capacity of about 1,300 gallons, are mounted on concrete blocks. Local residents line up in front of them, carrying empty plastic cans or large wicker-wrapped bottles. An attendant, dressed in blue overalls, fills these containers from gas pump-style nozzles. The locals fork over the equivalent of about 40 cents per liter to a cashier stationed nearby, then head for their cars. Some of them, the director of the operation tells me, stop by every day on their way home from work for a fill-up.
What they’re buying isn’t gasoline. It’s fresh, sharp, light, fruity vin buvette – which means “wine on tap,” more or less. This is, in other words, the local version of Red (or Rosé) Mountain. This is real jug wine, and you bring the jug.
As any American who’s ever twisted a screw-cap knows, California makes jug wine, too. Lots of it. But California wineries don’t sell theirs out of gas pump-style nozzles from 1,300-gallon tanks. They did used to sell it – some of them – from huge old wooden barrels and even concrete storage tanks -but they don’t do that much anymore, or at least they don’t advertise the fact if they do. Wine has become far too serious a subject. Quality control and sophisticated marketing techniques have become far too important. What if a customer were to draw off a couple of pints of your best chablis into an old whiskey bottle and then go around telling all his friends that your wine tasted like watered-down Jack Daniels?
No, the selling of wine in (and from) California has become too much of a science. And too much of a big business. (The largest California wine producer, Gallo, for instance, bottles 250,000 cases of wine a day; in six five-day weeks, they make as much wine as Texans drink in a year -and Texas is the sixth-largest wine-consuming state in the union.)
But how good are California jug wines? And how do they compare to their European counterparts? How does Gallo’s Pink Chablis, for instance, stack up against the Nevian Co-op’s 40-cent-a-liter rosé?
The propaganda long put forth by California’s Wine Institute and other boosters of the Golden State’s highly profitable wine industry is that California’s everyday wines, its ordinary vins de table, are the best in the world -certainly better and more consistent in quality than those of France or Italy.
Is that really true? It’s hard to say, first of all, because the answer depends on your idea of “better” wine. I can’t speak for the bulk wines of places like Argentina, Australia, South Africa or the Soviet Union – all of which, believe me, produce amazing quantities of the stuff-but I’ve consumed many more gallons than I care to think about of the bulk wines of France, Italy and, of course, California. I’ve also held tastings, both formal and informal, in which I’ve asked American friends to try European bulk wines not available in the United States, and vice versa. What I’ve found is that Europeans often don’t care for California wine because they find it too sweet and sometimes too neutral in character, while Americans aren’t always wild about the French or Italian product because they find it too “sour” or acidic and too pronounced in flavor. As I said, it depends on your idea of “better.”
I think both sides have a point. California bulk wines do tend to be richer and sweeter (and, incidentally, higher in alcohol) than French or Italian ones and do usually seem to have had the edges taken off-an inevitable result, I suppose, of blending wines for product consistency on such a huge scale. And French and Italian bulk wines can be nastily thin or sharp. Personally, though, I find that 1 usually like the latter better -not only for that very sharpness (which can translate into a kind of liveliness, too), but because they often seem more vinous -more wine-like – than the Californians. The Californians are usually smoother, less articulated, more of a piece -which isn’t necessarily a good thing if you happen to like the way wine tastes (which, I realize, not all wine drinkers do).
Still, many of the better European bulk wines I’ve tasted are sold only in their countries of origin and quite possibly wouldn’t taste that good here (whether for physical or psychological reasons). And, anyway, there are some very good, very drinkable, even very vinous California bulk wines, if you know where to look.
1 know where to look, at least some of the time, mostly because I took part in a large-scale tasting of such vintages (and non-vintages) in Los Angeles last year, for a publication called California Wine List. Its editor, David Holzgang, is both methodical and diabolical about his tastings: The idea is to gather every example of a given California varietal or wine type in current release through normal Califorina retail channels and then cajole a panel of tasters – usually one or two wine writers, a winemaker or two and some representatives of the retail and/or wholesale wine trade -into trying every one of them, blind, in groupings of from two to seven at a time, over a two- or three-day period. California Wine List then publishes the results of the tastings, with extensive comments by the tasters, winery production information and statistically adjusted numerical ratings. 1 say that Holzgang is both methodical and diabolical about the process because in the past, such tastings have included, for instance, 110 chardon-nays, 125 zinfandels or 144 cabernet sauvignons. Tasting that much wine during two or three days isn’t fun. But, just to show that he hadn’t entirely lost his sense of humor, Holzgang presented last year’s tasters with 161 jug wines, both red and white (but not, thank goodness, rosé).
Actually, they weren’t all jug wines: A small percentage were so-called “premium generics” -wines from smaller quality producers, blended for everyday drinking and labeled either as burgundy or chablis (just like a lot of jug wines) or as “house wine,” “table wine” or some variation. These are almost always better than mass-produced jug wines and are invariably more expensive, but they can provide surprisingly good drinking at comparatively reasonable prices.
In general, in the California Wine List tasting, the reds were better than the whites. But there was a lot of dross in both categories, and the tasters seemed to agree, when we had finished, that it was as hard to choose a good jug wine as it was to choose a good cabernet or chardonnay. Nevertheless, there were some clear winners in the bunch, and I decided to go back and retaste a few of them – the ones I liked best, which weren’t necessarily the highest ranked by the other tasters -and see how they seemed to me this year. The vintages or blends of vintages involved were, of course, later ones; but these wines are supposed to represent a consistent style from year to year. And, in fact, I found that my 1982 tasting notes resembled those of 1981 surprisingly closely.
Here, then, are some California jug wines that even wine lovers can love. All of these wines are available in at least two standard sizes: 750 ml (a “fifth”) and 1.5 liters (a “magnum”). Some are sold in larger sizes, too, and I’ve noted that fact. A few are also sold in half bottles, which I have not noted. Somehow it just doesn’t seem right to me to drink jug wine out of a container the size of a catsup bottle. Prices listed are suggested Texas retail for the 750 ml size; 1.5s are usually somewhat less than twice that price.
Franzia Chablis Blanc NV($3.99 for 1.5 liter size; also available in 3-liter size). A dry, lightly grassy nose a little bit like a modest white graves; pleasant sharpness on the palate and a nice, dry finish; a good “adult” jug wine.
Inglenook Navalle Chablis NV ($2.99; also available in 4-liter size). A crisp, clean aroma with suggestions of an attractive floral quality that may derive from Riesling or Gewürztraminer; a bit low in acid and too much on the sweet side for my taste, but with decent fruit and a nice blend of flavors; if the Franzia is “adult,” this is high-quality kid stuff.
Monterey Vineyard Classic White 1979 ($2.79). Light, sharp bouquet, with good grape flavors and attractive balance; very drinkable.
Souverain Chablis 1979 ($3.89). Fresh young fruit smells, evoking just-crushed grapes; somewhat low in acid, but with good fruit and a very light pétillance or pinpoint carbonation that adds a lively flair.
Beaulieu Vineyards Burgundy 1978 ($4.49; 1.5-liter size available in non-vintage only). Nice fruit in the nose, well balanced, dry but grapey; a wine with lots of good flavors milling around in it; an aristocrat among generics and a traditional favorite of wine writers and other serious wine drinkers when they have to order something from the lower end of a list.
Franzia Burgundy NV ($2.29; also available in 3-liter size). An elusive but attractive nose, not unlike that of a beaujo-lais from a minor vintage; not very rich, but possessed of enough fruit to make it interesting and boasting a very clean, bright taste.
Inglenook Navalle Burgundy NV ($2.99; also available in 4-liter size). A fruity bouquet, with hints of something like cherries showing through; well-balanced and at least vaguely fruity; not one of the best of this bunch, but not at all unpleasant.
C.K. Mondavi Burgundy NV ($2.79; also available in 3- and 4-liter sizes). A beautiful color, first of all: deep, clear, and dark red; good, fresh, berry-like nose; more tannic than usual for this sort of wine, with good fruit flavors and a finish that is austere at first and then blossoms slightly; no “jug wine” character at all.
Monterey Vineyard Classic Red 1978 ($2.79). A fruity, almost floral nose (with even a suggestion of gardenias wafting through); lacks roundness and a middle ground of flavors, but pleasantly acidic and fruity enough to taste like real wine; a casual sort of quaff.
San Martin Burgundy 1978 ($3.69; also available in 3-liter size). Dark, purplish-red in color; spicy, stalky smells in the bouquet (which I mean as a compliment); not as rich as it could be, but with good grape flavors, some tannin and good acid – not unlike a good “little” red from Provence or the Languedoc (and, speaking of the Languedoc, clearly much better and more serious than that Nevian vin buvette mentioned above).
HERE ARE three more wines I liked both last year and this -a white and two reds- but which I can’t quite bring myself to call jug wines, since they don’t come in anything larger than 750 ml bottles:
Buena Vista Chablis 1978 ($3.10). A light, clear bouquet that flirts with elegance; well-balanced, ever so slightly pétillant and vaguely Alsatian-like in character; to use one of those highly technical phrases we wine writers are so fond of: This stuff tastes pretty good.
Parducci Burgundy 1978 V($4.49). Fragrant, lightly fruity, slightly tannic and very dry, with an abrupt, not unpleasantly bitter finish; a refreshingly uncloying, well-formed wine that might easily be mistaken for some more famous winery’s medium-priced zinfandel.
Trefethen Eschol Red, Blend #281 ($4.99). Almost too refined -and almost too expensive -to be included here, this is one of the better premium generics (actually, in this case, more properly a “premium proprietary” since the name Eschol is Trefethen’s alone); medium-light in color and very clear; light, pleasantly fragrant nose, with suggestions of pinot noir floating around in there somewhere; good acid and tannin and nice fruit; not a blockbuster, but a deftly fashioned, delicate wine with lots of understated class.
For the record, the top-scoring wines in the California Wine List tasting, in descending order, were Le Fleuron Vin Blanc (made by the Joseph Phelps Winery), Trefethen Eschol White, the Concannon Chablis 1980 and then Buena Vista chablis (which I retasted) and Robert Mondavi White Table Wine; and the Monterey Vineyards and then Beaulieu wines noted above Stags’ Leap Vineyards non-vintage Burgundy, Almadén Monterey Burgundy and the aforementioned Trefethen Eschol Red. Any of them would make good drinking.
Copies of the California Wine List’s jug wine book are still available from David Holzgang, The Cheshire Booksellers, Ltd., 3625 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, California 90020. The tariff is $4.95 each plus 55 cents for the first book and 30 cents for each book thereafter.