In a sampling of supermarket wines, 2 different worlds collide

IN my Wine School column, each month I choose a genre of wines to explore and suggest three representative bottles. Participants find one or more, and drink them in a natural setting with food and company, paying attention to their reactions to the wine. The aim is to help make them more comfortable with wine by exploring the enormous variety produced around the world. By trying such a diverse selection, people develop over time a greater sense of their personal taste.

I hope that the inquiry is enjoyable and guided by a spirit of openness. I don't expect that everybody will like every wine - I don't like them all myself. Besides, we can learn as much about our personal tastes by discovering what we don't like as well as by what we do.

But I had a slightly different goal in mind this month. Trying popular supermarket bottles, I thought, would etch in stark relief the yawning chasm between mass-produced industrial bottles, which happen to be enjoyed by millions of people for whom wine is not a particular priority, and our usual topic, wines that are agricultural products, often made in small lots, which are cherished by people for whom wine is important enough to commit to learning more about it. It may well be that a small group of consumers is able to enjoy both types of wines, but I would say these consumers are more the exception than the rule.

Calm understanding of both sides was not the order of the day. Instead of a learning exercise, the assignment became a noisy collision of worlds that do not usually meet.

On the one hand were fans of these wines, who know what they like and do not ordinarily pay attention to what they consider the snobby realm of wine discussion. They were surprised that I would focus on these popular wines; some interpreted that as a validation of their preferences.

On the other hand were readers who seemed horrified that any attention would be paid to these sorts of wines, as if curiosity about them amounted to transgressing some sacred trust.

It all reminded me that we are not simply talking about wine - an ancient beverage that people enjoy - but something deeper and closer to the core of people's ideas about themselves and their character.

The exercise was certainly not meant to demean anybody's choices, or to persuade fans of these wines to drink something different. I have no argument with anybody who enjoys these wines and wishes to continue to do so.

But if you are curious about wine and wish to dive into it more deeply, you will find it offers a far greater range of pleasures, though more effort than stopping by a supermarket might be required to identify and find bottles with that capacity.

The three wines I suggested are among the best-selling in the United States at their prices. They were: Apothic Red California Winemaker's Blend 2016, US$10; Meiomi Monterey County/Santa Barbara County/Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2016, US$18; The Prisoner Napa Valley Red Wine 2017, US$42.

Two, Apothic and the Prisoner, are red blends, which marketers would have us believe is the new rage. Of course, red wines have been blended from time immemorial. What's different now is that rather than using a varietal label, or even a stodgy, snobby moniker like Meritage (which has been used for high-end Bordeaux blends), commodity wines are reaching for evocative brand names.

Some are rather obvious: Cashmere, Red Velvet, Silk or Luscious are all intended to suggest smooth, easy wines, often cushioned by discernible sweetness. Others, like Apothic and the Prisoner, are more mysterious, conveying in their gloom something that many find appealing.

The third wine I picked, the Meiomi, is labelled varietally, a pinot noir. But it has more in common with the other two in that it is made to fit a preordained profile of aroma, flavour and texture.

I call these processed wines. They are manipulated and engineered in the winery to achieve a consumer-tested end, just like processed foods. These wines are usually mass-produced and widely available. They are factory wines, not agricultural products.

This seems obvious even without tasting. The back label of the Apothic reads: "A masterful blend of rich zinfandel, flavourful syrah, bold cabernet sauvignon and smooth merlot." Nothing about that sentence is uncalculated, especially the adjectives, which hit the popular notes - words like rich, flavourful, bold, smooth - that research must indicate are deeply appealing to fans of Apothic.

The wine itself? I taste a touch of oak, courtesy of barrel substitutes like chips or staves used to flavour 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 per cent 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 flavours 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 per cent 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 flavours 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 rationalise 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 are the people who find wine interesting enough to explore, to learn about. 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.

I want to be clear that, despite my obvious identification with one of these groups, I do not make judgements about the other. Nobody is obliged to be interested in wine any more than they are to follow football or ballet or woodworking. Obviously, I do my share of evangelising about wine, but if people have other priorities, that is fine with me.

No one should think that the wine he chooses to drink reveals anything about his character. Semiotics and marketing aside, the connotations associated with wine are deeply damaging both to American wine culture and the civilised discussion of it. Drink what you want because you like it, not because it's representative or a status symbol.

One of those damaging connotations is snobbery. That word was liberally laced through those 800-odd comments and myriad emails I received, and it has no place in the discussion. Fans of Apothic and the others ought to be free to enjoy these wines without disapproval.

But they should not expect wine critics to speak approvingly of the wines themselves. By drinking them, you show that you are not concerned with what critics think, just as millions flocked to and enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody despite some scathing reviews. But then, you should not look to others for validation. It certainly is not condescending for a critic or wine-lover to call these bottles bad wine, if they can make a cogent argument for their point of view. NYTIMES

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