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(Bloomberg) -- Every wine lover wants a deal, which is one reason the number of private-label wines is growing fast and furiously.
Trader Joe’s is often credited with popularizing the trend in the U.S. in 2002 with its Two Buck Chuck, the nickname for its exclusive Charles Shaw line of wines priced at $2 a bottle e still really awful).
So what is a "private label" wine? It’s a brand created specifically for one retailer, hotel, or restaurant, often with their input on flavor profile and style, usually—and this is key—to sell at a particular price, lower than similar wines from known wineries.
Even restaurants such as the French Laundry and Nobu have jumped on the bandwagon, to offer exclusive bottles to their guests, and such steak houses as Del Frisco’s sell plushy cabernets under their own labels.
Prepare for more. The U.S. is still way behind Europe and the U.K., where private labels account for about 35 percent of big retailers’ sales.
The real question is: how good are these wines, anyway? No matter how cheap, if a wine is too awful to drink, it’s not a good deal. Costco’s popular prosecco is only $6.99 a bottle, but I found it gummy and neutral tasting.
Quality depends on who creates them, and the surprise is how many serious wine estates, such as Au Bon Climat and champagne house Chartogne-Taillet, make private labels on the side. While some retailers are coy about revealing who made what’s in the bottle, others put it on the label.
Don't expect taste thrills. Instead, think of the best private-label wines as easily available, solid, reliable, and affordable bottles to drink every day.
Here’s my taste test of some of the best:
The online marketplace finally started selling wine—alongside everything from books to organic protein powder—in 2012. Contrary to recent reports, it doesn’t yet have its own wine label.
But the Next wines (for next generation, get it?) launched on the site last month come close. Produced by a new division of Oregon’s King Estate, they’re the first ones specifically created to be sold only through Amazon.com. A set of three bottles (pinot gris, pinot noir, and a red blend) costs $95, about the same as a 3-bottle sampler pack of “Game of Thrones” wines but definitely superior in quality. No one’s saying whether they’ll eventually land at Whole Foods, which Amazon just purchased for $13.7 billion.
How Do They Taste?
The 2015 pinot noir ($40) doesn’t have the verve and fruit of most Oregon bottlings and seems overpriced, while the 2014 Columbia Valley Red Blend ($30) from Washington State is more interesting, with spicy blueberry fruit flavors .
The best deal: 2016 Next Willamette Valley Pinot Gris ($20) is a drink-me-now combo of ripe fruit, floral aromas, and crisp acidity, perfect for summer. (King Estate’s own pinot gris costs more.)
Are there still people who don’t know this warehouse club sells more wine than any retailer in the U.S. (39 states as well as internationally)? It’s the place for deep discounts on grande marque champagne. Since 2003, it has peddled some 17 wines under its own Kirkland brand, which is also slapped on luggage, golf balls, and dog food. I tried seven; two got my nod. In general, they’re drinkable but pretty simple and a bit dull.
The best deals: 2016 Kirkland Ti Point Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($6.99!) was a nice surprise. Fresh and citrusy, it’s a little rounder (and better) th ew Zealand examples at twice the price. (Yes, there is a Ti Point winery in New Zealand.)
2014 Kirkland Signature Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.89) is a solid everyday red. For under $10, it really delivers, with dark fruit and earth flavors.
In 2007, the global hotel group partnered with Michael Mondavi’s Folio Wine Partners in Napa to create five wines under the Canvas label; it now sells about 100,000 cases a year. All are priced the same, $20 online and $56 in the restaurants.
How Do They Taste? , because the light, bright 2015 Pinot Grigio is delicious, but since other good pinot grigios can be had for less than $20, it doesn’t offer the bang for the buck the Cabernet does.
The best deal: 2015 Canvas Cabernet Sauvignon ($20 online at www.canvaswines.com ; $56 at Hyatt restaurants) has a juicy fruitiness as well as some subtlety, often hard to find in a California cab at this price point.
Smith & Wollensky
This quintessential steakhouse group features its custom Smith & Wollensky red and white prominently on the wine list; both are wel ade and food friendly, designed to go well with the restaurants’ surf-and-turf offerings. You can online .
The best deal: 2015 Smith & Wollensky ($48 online, $79 in restaurant) is an intense, classic Napa cab blend made by Girard winery, but softer, more complex, and fruitier than the winery’s own cabernet. It’s ideal with steak.
This rapidly expanding group of superstores is the country’s largest independent wine retailer, with 157 stores in 20 states and 8,000 different wines, including 2,000 not available elsewhere. Many identified as "winery direct" are private-label wines created for Total. One is the Courtney Benham line, named for the winery owner, who also created Martin Ray winery and makes Nobu restaurant’s private label.
How Do They Taste? There were 13 Courtney Benham wines at my local Total Wine. I sampled six. The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa ($22) was another good deal—with dark fruit, a licorice note, and mellow tannins—but the 2014 Cabernet from the Central Coast ($19) was much less attractive, with a strong olive-y taste. The 2015 Unoaked Central Coast Chardonnay ($14.98) is crisp and flavorful, way better than the regular oaked version. A honeysuckle fragrant Pinot Gris ($14.48) and a juicy Sauvignon Blanc ($13.48) were pleasant, but nothing special.
The best deal: 2014 Courtney Benham Central Coast Pinot Noir ($18.98) has real cherry-ish, savory pinot character and an appealing silky texture. It’s simple, but this is an under $20 pinot.
The Austin-based organic chain employs a master sommelier, who helped develop Whole Foods’ Criterion wines that made their debut in 2015. The idea? Scout for top winemakers and grapes around the world and create benchmark examples of particular varietals from specific regions that could sell for well under $20 a bottle.
The best deal: 2013 Criterion Reserve Cabernet ($18), from the Coonawarra region of South Australia, is, plush and spicy, with tobacco notes and smooth tannins.
To contact the author of this story: Elin McCoy in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Rovzar at email@example.com.
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