In what can only be called an act of virtuous public service, a wine critic and blogger has taken on the selfless task of tasting and assessing—at his own $4000 expense—the huge middle tier of California’s Chardonnays that are sold at Northern California supermarkets.
In his March 3rd article, “Grocery Store Chardonnay Project,” Richard Jennings provides his assessment of 230 user friendly offerings that are on the shelves of stores like Lucky, Raley’s, Safeway, and Costco. Interestingly, no one else has ever tackled such a project, and I suspect that few others ever will. Most critics seem to prefer reviewing wines with a loftier pedigree.
Jennings purchased about twelve bottles per store visit and then spent three or four nights a week tasting and judging them. The project took roughly three months, and it covered seven narrow price ranges: $6 to $9; $10 to $12; $13 to $15; $16 to $19; $20 to $25; $26 to $29; $30 and above. His report details how each wine scored, as well as its rank within its price category, plus an alphabetical listing of the wines with their individual scores.
His top picks from selected, but not all, price levels “which showed the best combination of complexity of flavors and bright balancing acidity,” were as follows: Ravenswood Vintners Blend (87 points, $9), Chateau Ste. Michelle (87 points, $10), Alma Rosa (91+ points, $19), Clos du Val Carneros (91+ points, $23), Landmark Overlook (91+ points, $23), and Freemark Abbey (91 points, $24).
In addition to his numerical assessments, Jennings also offered additional thoughts and observations. First, and what should not be news to any wine enthusiast, he noted that “oaky and sweet” seemed to be the dominant style, with over 30 bottles displaying high levels of sweetness. (Those so styled were marked down accordingly, for they also lacked balancing acidity.) Also, as one might expect, the higher rated wines and overall quality tended to correlate with price. More expensive wines apparently do taste better. (Better grapes, better location, better practices.)
However, having said that, there are some QPR gems (quality/price ratio) that were found at most price points. Additionally, inasmuch as these wines are not considered to be “age-worthy,” (and become more complex and interesting), he was astonished how many producers were still relying on image-appealing, cork closures. (He experienced cork taint in about six percent of his purchases.)
And it should come as no surprise that wines below the $15 price point tended to lack a “clear varietal character.” That is, they smelled and tasted like anything BUT Chardonnay. (Varietal character is a notion, I suspect, that is lost on, or of no importance to, those who purchase at that price point.)
Some of Jennings’ tech sheet sleuthing revealed one or more of the following tweaks are used to craft the style a winemaker was trying to achieve: Muscat, Gewurztraminer, French Colombard, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and as one winery stated, “a proprietary blend of aromatic varietals.” With a 25% leeway wherein one can still label the wine as the dominant varietal, is it any wonder why many varietally labeled wines taste like something other than what is named on the bottle!
Finally, it’s worthwhile to note that Jennings is well known within the industry as a wine critic at formal tastings and media events. He is also Cellar Tracker’s most prolific poster of tasting notes—over 40,000! And quite interestingly, when friends and acquaintances previously asked for recommendations at grocery stores, he routinely advised these are not the best places to buy wines—at least those that are complex and well balanced. Given this research project, I imagine his advice may be modified accordingly. To see his report, and verify how your favorite Chard stacked up against the competition, go to http://www.rjonwine.com/chardonnay/grocery-store-chardonnay-project/