Mini-reviews 110: Aldi wine, Bota Box, Chammisal, Jean Bousquet

chardonnayReviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the fourth Friday of each month. This month, four critically-challenged chardonnays

Broken Clouds Chardonnay 2016 ($9, purchased, 13.5%): I desperately wanted to like this Aldi private label white from California, But it’s a “least common denominator” wine – made to appeal to the most people possible without regard for quality. It’s the same price as Bogle or McManis, but not nearly as well made thanks to the cloying vanilla fake oak and the hint of sweetness. One more example of how Aldi and Lidl aren’t doing in the U.S. what they do in Europe.

Bota Box Chardonnay NV ($15/3-liter box, sample, 13%): This California white, about $4 a bottle, is, sadly, is what everyone thinks boxed wine tastes like. There’s a little chardonnay character, but it’s bitter and tannic thanks to what seems to be the poor quality grapes used to get the price so low. Plus, it tastes like the stems and seeds were crushed with the grapes, which would be the cause of the off-putting flavors.

Chamisal Vineyards Chardonnay 2015 ($16, sample, 13.5%): This California white is heavy, somehow hot, and oaky though it’s not supposed to have oak. Plus, it’s very warm climate – tropical fruit instead of crisper green apple. In other words, almost everything I don’t like in California chardonnay. Having said that, if that’s your style, enjoy.

Domaine Jean Bousquet Chardonnay 2018 ($12, sample, 13.5): This Argentine white is grocery store chardonnay that would be OK at $8 or $9, but is overpriced here. Plus, it’s not especially crisp the way an unoaked, cool climate chardonnay should be. It just sort of sits in the glass and you don’t really care whether you finish it or not.

Coming soon to the WC: Computer-generated wine reviews

computer-generated wine reviews

“Damn. … where is that neural network when I need it?”

A little Python, some neural network command line work, and the blog can start posting computer-generated wine reviews

Sooner rather than later, I’m going to post computer-generated wine reviews on the blog. Thanks to the Lifehacker website, all I need are some basic Python programing skills. Or, even better, find a Python-savvy volunteer from among the blog’s sophisticated and erudite audience who wants to help “write” them.

We’ve followed the advances in artificial intelligence that makes these reviews possible for several years. Barbara Ehrenreich, writing in the New York Times, said that “the business of book reviewing could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers.” And writing one kind of review isn’t all that different from writing another kind.

The point here? That wine has become so mechanized and so predictable that we can probably get acceptable Winestream Media-style reviews from an artificial intelligence. It’s probably even possible to teach the machine to give scores – a delicious irony that is reason enough to make this work.

Lifehacker’s Beth Skawrecki writes that machine-written reviews are more possible than ever thanks to advances in neural networks. A neural network is “a type of [artificial intelligence] modeled on the network-like nature of our own brains. You train a neural network by giving it input: recipes, for example. The network strengthens some of the connections between its neurons (imitation brain cells) more than others as it learns. The idea is that it’s figuring out the rules of how the input works: which letters tend to follow others, for example. Once the network is trained, you can ask it to generate its own output, or to give it a partial input and ask it to fill in the rest.”

For our purposes, we would tell the computer what chardonnay is supposed to taste like, where the grapes were grown, information about the vintage and the winemaker’s style, and the price. Then, we can “teach” it to interpret that information to write the review – that chardonnay from California is different in certain ways from chardonnay from France, for example.

Now, to brush up on my Python.

More about computer-generated wine reviews:
Winecast 30: Arty, the first artificial intelligence wine writer
Do we really need wine writers?

Wine of the week: Vinho verde 2018

vinho verde 2018Vinho verde 2018: Drink the Broadbent, but pass the rest unless you want sugar and cheap fizz

The Wine Curmudgeon has been a long-time supporter of vinho verde, the Portuguese white wine with a greenish tint. It’s cheap and ideal for hot weather: A slightly sweet lemon lime flavor, low alcohol, and a little fizz. So imagine my disappointment when five of the six wines I tasted for the vinho verde 2018 review were almost uniformly awful.

I was warned, though. When I bought the wines, the saleswoman told me the producers had softened them — winespeak for removing the acidity and adding sweetness. And, boy, was she correct. The wines weren’t quite in white zinfandel territory, but they’re getting there. Call this one more victory for focus-group produced wine, which assumes U.S. wine drinkers don’t like anything but sugar.

Our vinho verde primer is here. Most of the cheaper wines, like Famega, Casal Garcia, and Gazela, are made by the same couple of companies but sold under different names to different retailers. These vinho verde 2018 suggestions will get you started:

Broadbent Vinho Verde NV ($7.50, purchased, 9%): Just about the only vinho verde that tasted like wine — a tinge of sweetness instead of a mouth full of sugar, plus acidity to balance the sweetness. It also had a full mouth feel and some structure, while the fizziness was pleasantly in the background.

Gazela Vinho Verde NV ($5, purchased, 9%): Tasted like 7-Up mixed with grain alcohol, but with too much sugar and not enough alcohol.

Casal Garcia Vinho Verde NV ($5, purchased, 9.5%): Noticeably sweet, but other than that, sort of what vinho verde is supposed to taste like. Other than the Broadbent, the best of a bad lot. For what that’s worth.

Famega Vinho Verde 2017 ($6.50, purchased, 10.5%): Not quite as sweet as the Gazela, but sweet enough. Otherwise, mostly vinho verde.

Aveleda Vinho Verde 2017 ($6.50, purchased, 9.5%): Almost smelled like a rotten egg, which usually comes from too much sulfur to the wine. This is a wine flaw, not common much these days, and shouldn’t have happened here.

Gazela Vinho Verde Rose NV ($4.50, purchased, 9.5%) Sweet cherry-flavored Alka-Seltzer.

For more about vinho verde:
Vinho verde review 2017
Vinho verde review 2016
Vinho verde review 2015

Winebits 546: Crummy wine, rose’s popularity, and three-tier restrictions

This week’s wine news: A top winemaker goes off on poorly made and crummy wine, while rose continues to grow and we learn about even more silly three-tier laws

Poor, poor sauvignon blanc: The Wine Curmudgeon is not the only person lamenting the state of wine quality and the abundance of crummy wine. Says Matt Day of South Africa’s Klein Constantia: ““If we’re not careful sauvignon blanc will go down the same route as chardonnay and no one will want to drink it.” His point? That winemakers and producers are “cheating” – ignoring terroir and varietal character – to make all sauvignon blanc taste the same, no matter where it’s from. The result, he told drinksbusiness.com, is boring wine that doesn’t taste like sauvignon blanc.

Rose is here to stay: No kidding – though I have to admit, I liked the tone of the piece, which positions rose as something wine snobs don’t respect. Or want us to drink. And there’s a great picture of a rose picnic, with everyone dressed in pink. On the other hand, some of the other was hard to swallow, like roses’ pink color has much to do with its popularity. How its popularity is because it’s usually cheap, well-made, and offers value where so much other wine doesn’t these days?

No, no, no: Liza B. Zimmerman, writing for wine-searcher.com, relates some of the especially silly laws tied to the three-tier system in the era of social media – because, of course, we can never get enough of that. How about not being able to list the price of a wine on social media? Or that posts can only made in a “media where at least 71.6 percent of the audience is of drinking age [based on reliable audience data].” Or, my favorite, that wineries can’t list just one retailer that carries their product, but at least two. Says an attorney quoted in the story: “[T]hese laws are not rational in today’s market.” Would that more people felt that way.

Photo by Kaboompics.com from Pexels, using a Creative Commons license

Follow-up: Just because it’s a cheap wine doesn’t mean it’s worth drinking

cheap wime

“What do I care if it’s any good? It’s cheap.”

Wine drinkers of the world unite: We have nothing to lose but crappy cheap wine

Ordinarily, a rant like last week’s Two-buck Chuck rose and cheap wine post makes a brief impression in the cyber-ether, and then it fades away. But not this time.

The Wine Curmudgeon is not the only one who thinks we’re getting played by the wine business. You do, too, given the comments and emails I got after the post ran.

Wrote one reader: “Thank you, WC, for some sanity on this ‘cheap wine is good’ chatter. Someone gave me the Two-buck Chuck sauvignon blanc. It was undrinkable – pungent, flabby and almost no SB flavor, so it may be worse than the rose.” And another: “I tried it just to test. Virtually tasteless.”

In this, those of us who want quality for our $10 are caught between a rock and a hard place. Premiumization has forced up the price of quite ordinary wine, so that we’re paying $15 and $18 for a product worth $10 or $12. But when we trade down to look for value, because who wants to spend $18 for alcoholic grape juice, what happens? We end up with foolishness like the Two-buck Chuck rose.

That happens every time I do the $3 wine post, when I drink five $3 wines with dinner for a week. Most of the wines are made with little concern for varietal correctness, and it’s rare when a chardonnay tastes like a chardonnay. Mostly, they’re made to cost $3, and if that means sub-par grapes, a grimy sweetness, less than ideal winemaking, and a poor quality product, so be it.

That’s why I’m here

But we buy it and hope for the best. Partly that’s because we’ve been taught that the only good wine is expensive, and we don’t want to believe that. Why, after all, am I here?

But it’s also because we believe that Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods or whomever won’t sell us a crummy product. We trust them in a way we don’t trust the phone and cable companies, and quality retailers spend millions of dollars to earn and keep our trust. And, for the most part, they do a fine job. Whole Foods may have its problems, but when I buy an organic tomato, I have no doubt that’s what it is.

So where does crummy cheap wine fit in? Because if a retailer sold chicken or piece of beef that tasted like these wines, someone would call the health inspector. It’s because it’s wine, and they can get away with it. If I buy bad beef, it’s easy to tell it’s bad. If I buy bad wine, how do I know? The store won’t tell us (and try to return a bottle that’s gone off – can’t be done). The critics won’t tell us, because they don’t review those wines. So we’re stuck assuming that it’s supposed to taste the way it does. And if we don’t like it, then we’ve been taught that we aren’t smart enough about wine to know the difference between good and bad.

Talk about a rigged game. It’s not so much we can’t find the bean under the shell; there isn’t even a bean for us to find.

Stop hyping cheap wine like Two-buck Chuck rose just because it’s cheap

Two-buck Chuck roseCheap doesn’t mean a wine is worth drinking, and the Two-buck Chuck rose is almost undrinkable

The cyber-ether is agog with praise for the new Two-buck Chuck rose: “Who needs Two-buck Chuck when you can get $4 organic rose from the same brand at Trader Joe’s?” And, “Trader Joe’s Made $4 Organic Rose Just In Time For Memorial Day Weekend.”

Obviously, no one tasted the wine.

The only good thing about the Two-buck Chuck rose ($4, purchased, 11.5%) is the closure. It’s one of the new Helix corks that works like a screwcap. The wine itself is almost undrinkable – thin, bitter, practically no fruit flavor, badly sweet, and devoid of any rose character other than its light pink color.

In this, it’s everything that’s wrong with Big Wine, where more money is spent on the bottle and the marketing than on the wine. The back label actually refers to “the Charles Shaw family,” which doesn’t exist. Call that the height of marketing cynicism. The wine is made for Trader Joe’s by Bronco Wine, the seventh biggest producer in the country with at least $200 million in sales.

But none of this matters to the cyber-ether. The Two-buck Chuck rose is cheap. It comes from Trader Joe’s. What more does anyone need to know?

A lot, actually. Cheap wine is not worth drinking just because it’s cheap. Anyone who thinks that hasn’t been paying attention for the past 25 years. Besides, you’re hurting the cause when you write that. Cheap wine should offer quality and value, just like any other cheap product. Would you praise a broken car or a broken computer just because it’s cheap? Of course not. And the Two-buck Chuck rose is seriously broken.

Hence, this Wine Curmudgeon offer: The next time anyone in the cyber-ether wants to write about wine, . I’ll help you figure out what’s going on so you don’t recommend a wine most of us will pour down the drain.

Father’s Day wine 2018

Father's Day wine 2018Father’s Day wine 2018: Four wines that offer quality and value — because that’s what Dad taught you

The Father’s Day wine 2018 news releases have been landing in my mailbox for a month or so, and most of them bore me to tears. I mention this not to bash wine marketing again, but to note that the releases don’t understand what Dad wants. It’s not about spending money; it’s about value and pleasure.

Which is the point of this year’s Father’s Day wine post. Keep the blog’s wine gift-giving guidelines in mind throughout the process: Don’t buy someone wine that you think they should like; buy them what they will like.

This year’s Father’s Day wine suggestions:

d’Arenberg The Footbolt 2014 ($18, sample, 14.6%): Australian shiraz’s fall from grace should not apply to d’Arenberg, an Aussie producer that makes some of the most interesting red wine in the world. d’Arenberg does it by combining terroir, top quality grapes, and — believe it or not  —  high alcohol in a fresh and intriguing fashion. This is shiraz for people who love wine, and not booze. Highly recommended. Imported by Old Bridge Cellars

Peter Zemmer Pinot Grigio 2017 ($15, sample, 13.5%): Prices for this Italian white are all over the place — probably because it’s more than the citrus-flavored tonic water of cheaper pinot grigios. Look for some lemon fruit and minerality, plus something that can only be called character. Imported by HB Wine Merchants

Zolo Signature Rose 2017 ($10, purchased, 12.9%): This Argentine pink reminds me why I love wine — a $10 wine bought with no expectations and that gave me more than a bottle of enjoyment. It’s a syrah blend with lots of just ripe strawberry fruit, but not too heavy, too fruity, or sweet at all. Highly recommended. Imported by Vino del Sol

Gloria Ferrer Brut Rose NV ($25, sample, 12.5%): I drank this at the Friday night reception at this year’s Critic’s Challenge. And then I drank some more. And some more. It’s beautiful, well-made, and delicious — tight bubbles, strawberry aroma, and soft red fruit flavors. Highly recommended.

More Father’s Day wine:

Father’s Day wine 2017
Father’s Day wine 2016
Father’s Day wine 2015
Expensive wine 106: Graham’s 20-year-Tawny Port