Dark Horse Cabernet Sauvignon: Don’t bet on it

dsc_0053.jpgA dark horse, according to common wisdom, is an unknown competitor whose odds of winning are difficult to determine. While the phrase comes from the world of horse racing, the most famous example of a dark horse in recent years is the Leicester City Football Club, which managed to win the 2015-16 Premier League despite being coached by a man seemed better at getting fired than winning games.

When it comes to wine, the concept of a dark horse than that in sports, particularly when all is revealed the instant it hits your lips. Whether or not it is a winner becomes instantly measurable. Therefore it seems strange that a new wine has taken the brand name Dark Horse, but perhaps I shouldn’t reach too much into it. Or should I?

Dark Horse Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 comes from…somewhere in California — the back label says the company is base in Modesto — and sells for £8 in your local supermarket. The marketing guff goes long on the usual fluff: “Bold flavors (sic) of blackberry and black cherry, supported by firm tannins, brown spice and a dark chocolate espresso finish.

Enticing.

When I think of Californian wine, I am always brought back to memories of trip that took me through Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara. Forever will the landscape, the sunshine and the scents in the air be etched in my memory. Californian cabernet should display a few hallmarks: dark fruits such as plums and black cherries, toasty oak, herbs and spices, and a medium to full mouthfeel.

So how did our Dark Horse deliver? I have to confess I had high hopes for this one, even if the entry point for a great Californian cabernet in the UK tends to be about four times more expensive. With its promise of black fruits, a strong backbone of tannin, a hint of spice and chocolate? What’s not to like? I had visions of tasting a wine that stood as a showcase of this grape variety in the Golden State. I ignored the fact that, since this wine is merely labelled ‘California’, the grapes likely didn’t come from a highly prized terroir in Napa or Sonoma, but instead a vast factory vineyard in the Central Valley where much of the state’s cheapest wine originates. Think Lodi rather than Stag’s Leap.

Certainly on the nose there were aromas of black fruits, with prunes and blackberries mingling with, perhaps, chocolate and coffee. It could have been great had it not been overpowered by the ferocious aroma of alcohol — quite a feat given it’s a fairly restrained 13.5%.

In the mouth it’s not all that much better, no matter how many of the reviews on the Sainsbury’s website gave it five out of five stars. The first sensation to pass over your tongue is the burn of alcohol, followed by something sour and then finally a microsecond of black fruit and potentially coffee and chocolate before it leaves an aftertaste of yet more alcohol that will leave you reaching for your glass of water. If there were bold tannins in this wine, as they claim, they galloped away long ago and left behind only a mild backbone of tannin. When I think bold tannins, I think of a young Barolo and how it can cause your tongue to curl. Not so with the Dark Horse Cabernet Sauvignon.

Visit the Dark Horse website and you will be greeted by a dark and brooding marketing exercise that hypes up the brand’s apparent quality, claiming, “Anyone can have a great label, but it’s what’s inside that counts.”

But wait, there’s more.

Dark Horse is possible because of the unstoppable visionaries who pour everything into creating these shockingly good wines. Based in Modesto, CA, this tireless team has taken Dark Horse from complete unknown to a real contender.

Leading the charge is Beth Liston, a winemaker crazy enough to believe that with the right planning and technique, a reasonably priced wine could actually be ridiculously good.
Pretty bold if you think about it.

The website, in fact, is impressive. It is mobile responsive, features slick photography and storytelling, there is just enough information on the wine and a lot of attention is paid to the winemaker, Beth Liston. There’s even a video about her, which, I will admit, is well made and drew me in.

The story seemed great. Beth is passionate about wine, wants to be creative, wants to challenge perceptions and, above all, wants to make the best possible wine she can at the lowest possible price. How can this not be an amazing story?

You have to find your way to the nether regions of the website to find the answer to this question, to where you find out that Dark Horse is just another label produce by E & J Gallo.

I can only assume they omitted Gallo from the label for a reason.

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Photo post: California Zinfandel…just can’t say no

pedroncelliThere are certain wines, and wines from specific regions, that I simply can’t resist.

In this case, it’s a region: California.

More specifically: Sonoma County.

Even more specifically: Dry Creek Valley.

I bought this wine not because I know it to be incredible. The reviews for it on CellarTracker suggest it is good, but not a masterpiece. But Dry Creek is one of those areas where you can still stumble upon a winner you’d never heard of before.

So as I was impulse-shopping on my lunch break, the prospect of this being a winner was too good to pass up.

As you drive down Dry Creek Road between Healdsburg and Cloverdale, you have about as much chance of missing some vineyards if you happen to blink while you are passing by their driveways. I recall making multiple passes down that road to find some wineries. Over and over. And over.

And so this: Pedroncelli Bushnell Vineyard Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2011.

Now let’s hope it’s a winner.

Wine shop Where’s Waldo? (Wally if you’re British)

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I don’t like to admit it, but I’m a stereotypical man when it comes to shopping. Confronted by myriad options, I panic and try to rush the process, usually to my own detriment.

I have a long-running track record of coming home with bags full of new clothes only to discover they are all the wrong size.

Plus I am easily swayed by salespeople. If I tell them I want to buy product X, somehow I walk out with product Y instead – and then regret it later.

Twice now I have walked into a wine shop to buy a bottle of Au Bon Climat (they have a terrible website, by the way) only to walk out with something I probably didn’t want.

For me it seems bottles of ABC are as elusive as the Holy Grail was to Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.

It’s safe to say the buying process can be a struggle for me, so I find it unhelpful if the bottles of wine are arranged though the shop is managed by Rob Gordon from High Fidelity. Imagine if the bottles were arranged autobiographically rather than by country, region or colour.

These shops exist. Because I’ve been to them.

Finding what you want in these places is impossible without seeking help an employee. And I think that is part of the tactic, because whenever I’ve come in looking for X, they always seem to steer me, through subterfuge and sensory overload, to something else. Something more expensive. Something that, in my cynical mind, probably isn’t selling fast enough.

Now, you would think arranging a few bottles on a wine shop’s shelves is straightforward.

All you need to do, really, is have a different shelf for each country and then separate the white wines from the red wines. Then on other shelves you have space for Champagnes and sparkling wines, dessert wines, Ports, sherries and anything else.

Simple. So simple, in fact, wine shops up and down the country do exactly this, from the cavernous Majestic Wine Warehouse to the neighbourhood vintner and even the fusty merchants like Berry Bros & Rudd and so on.

Even the supermarkets – known for their efficiency at delivering products to customers’ hands – dare not meddle with this system. They know what’s best.

Yet there is always someone who thinks there must be a Better Way™ to do things.

I can think of two shops within shouting distance of my home that have shunned the conventional layout.

Offender number one has no signs on the shelves at all. It simply has all the whites on one side and all the reds on the other. After a few confused minutes of staring blankly at all the bottles, it eventually occurred to me which ones were white and which were red.

Then a few minutes later I figured out they were, in fact, arranged by country – but not in anything that resembled alphabetical order.

Last I checked Germany comes before Spain in the alphabet. Unless they’re referring to the country as Espana. But if you’re going to use Espana on the one hand, you had better be using  Deutschland on the other.

The other shop I visit takes it a step further and arranges everything by grape. Yes – by grape.

If you want to tell prospective customers they’re really not welcome in the shop unless they are knowledgeable to identify what they want by its constituent grapes (and it better not be any fucking merlot), you know you’re dealing at the higher end of the market.

But how helpful is this for the average consumer? Think back to a time before you knew much about wine. Think back to when you knew the wine only as St Emilion or Saumur, as Rioja and Chianti. A time when you couldn’t name the grapes used to make them.

Merlot? Cabernet franc? Tempranillo? Sangiovese? Would you have thought to head for the shelf with those grapes labelled at the top? Handy for those of us who wake up and say, “Today I’d like to buy a bottle of chenin blanc and I want the shop to arrange all of the world’s chenin blancs together in one place so I can compare and contrast.”

But not so handy if you wake up and say, “I just want a bottle of Vouvray, whatever the hell it’s made of.”

And don’t even get me started on some of the blends I’ve seen. Cabernet-shiraz. Chenin blanc-chardonnay-viognier. Or how about Olaszrizling-furmint-hárslevelü-juhfark?

Do they have a shelf for that?

Two Buck Chuck: If you’re going to slum it

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I have a few fond memories from my youth that involved experimenting with the cheapest booze I could get my hands on, but the best one involves a wine few people would admit to drinking.

A student’s budget and a general ignorance when it came to alcohol meant I tasted more than my fair share of oddities and abominations of the alcoholic kind.

But the worst of them all came into my life when my brother emerged from a B.C. Liquor Store with a bottle of red fortified wine called Bounty, a truly awful concoction with an alcohol level of about 20 per cent.

It featured a dramatic, square-rigged sailing ship on the label and a tagline that, if memory serves, suggested its contents promised us “the exhilarating taste of adventure.”

This was the sort of wine that was often seen on the side of the train tracks where the local alcoholics hung out. In fact, the only reason my brother bought it was because he spotted an empty bottle of it next to the train tracks that day, just a few steps from the liquor store.

We should have known drinking this ungodly elixir was going to be difficult. In the end, it had to be cut with a high ratio of tonic water. Even then it was still a challenge.

You would think, then, the same can be said for all cheap wine, that all of it is impossible to drink and nothing good can come from being a tightwad. And in many cases, this holds true. But sometimes you come across surprises – even if, deep down, you were hoping not to.

This came to mind when I heard the news that American grocery chain Trader Joe’s was raising the price of its Charles Shaw wines to $2.49 a bottle from $1.99.

If you don’t know of Charles Shaw, you might have heard of Two Buck Chuck. Yes?

I was sad to find out Two Buck Chuck would never be known by that name again. It was heartening to know there was a wine out there that could be bought for less than we pay in taxes alone on a bottle of wine in the U.K., which is £1.91 per bottle + 20 per cent VAT. (Annoyingly, even at its new price it is still cheaper than what we pay in taxes.)

In an absurd way, I am happy to say I got to try two of the last bottles (by last I mean among the last few million, no doubt) before the increase.

Being able to drink an entire bottle of wine for just $1.99 – or even the new price of $2.49 – is mind-boggling, although I know this isn’t unheard of in other parts of the world (I am reminded of a roadside sign in Castillon, France, advertising ‘rosé’ for €2 a litre).

The fact it tastes nothing like ethylene glycol or acetone is an achievement the Bronco Wine Company should be proud of.

Anyway, the two bottles of Two Buck Chuck (a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay) I recently acquired came to me by way of my friend Mel, a Los Angeles native who now lives in London. During his trip to the city of Angels over Christmas, he had the genius – and I mean genius in the best possible way – idea to buy them for me.

I always knew about this wine, but had never had a chance to drink it. It was featured on the California wine series hosted by Oz Clarke and James May, and my own father drank it when he was in California a couple of years back . From what I’d heard, it was perfectly drinkable and innocuous, albeit bland.

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The cabernet sauvignon, however, was a quantity I’d not come across before, but based on my knowledge of volume wines, I figured wasn’t going to be completely putrid. Perhaps it would be awful, but certainly it wasn’t going to burn through my stomach lining and cause me internal bleeding or anything like that.

Now, let’s take a step back here a moment. Think back to my experience with that bottle of Bounty. Or think back to your own experience with a horrendous, cheap bottle of wine.

If your first memory is that of a gagging reflex, you are on the right track.

But much to my surprise, the Charles Shaw wines didn’t burn as they went down my throat. They didn’t have obscene, rough flavours. They weren’t overly sweet like a lot of cheap New World wine. They were they were simply neutral, dry as they should be and, overall, completely inoffensive.

The chardonnay wasn’t over-oaked or flabby like many a bad California version, which should earn it a medal for that achievement alone. Meanwhile, the cabernet sauvignon didn’t have that sweet edge you would expect from, say, a Yellowtail wine, and if left to breathe for a while, had typical if uninteresting cabernet aromas and flavours, and tasted like an honest, if not complex, wine of acceptable quality.

Let’s remember here, these bottles were just $1.99. What else can you buy for $1.99? Here in the U.K., it won’t even cover the taxes.

Don’t hate me for loving Californian wine

YOU KNOW THAT perfume-like scent of long, dry grass baking in the sun at the height of summer? It has a floral hint to it, along with something…earthy?

That, to me, sums up what I can smell when drinking (decent) wine from California. It’s a smell of all the good things in the Golden State – dried grass, hot air, stone, earth, sea and foliage – coming together in the bottle.

To me, it could very well be that expression of ‘terroir’ the likes of Michel Chapoutier or Randall Grahm bleat about endlessly.

They’re probably right.

But I know what you’re going to say to me here: Californian wine is, for the most part, terrible, isn’t it?

Look no further than the sea of cheap chardonnay and other abysmal wines coming out of California’s sun-broiled valleys, all made to fly off supermarket shelves and satisfy distinctly – ahem – downmarket tastes.

Well, okay, sure. Unfortunately, much of the wine coming out of California suffers from excessively high alcohol levels, too much oak (I drank a Central Coast pinot noir the other day that would have been much more enjoyable had it not tasted as though it was fermented from the oak tree itself), too much sugar resulting in jammy flavours and any number of other faults.

But the state isn’t a sea of stinkers. There are some incredible wines there – unfortunately you’ll have to pay a lot for them because this isn’t a cheap place to make wine.

When done well, I can’t get enough of good Californian wine. When done horribly, I usually have no choice but to seek solace in an Old World Medoc claret so dry and tannic it could knock my teeth out of their sockets.

Any Worlders…

This brings me to a thought I have been trying to develop, although perhaps not very successfully (yet) but bear with me.

When it comes to wine drinkers, there are three types of people: Old Worlders, New Worlders and Any Worlders.

The nomenclature I’ve chosen leaves a lot to be desired (feel free to send me your ideas for a better word), but leaving that aside, these three categories tend to work. There are those who will only drink wine from places like France or Italy; those who can’t stand the acidic, tannic wines of the Old World and prefer only to  drink ‘fruity, oaky chardonnay‘ from Australia or South Africa; then there are those who are agnostic to geography and just want to drink great wine no matter its origin.

I’d fall into the final category. Even though many of my favourite wines come from France these days and I actually like drinking wines that have tannins strong enough to bring down elephant, I have to confess my love affair with Californian wine – when executed properly.

I’m thinking of examples like Ridge, Clos du Val, Sean Thackrey, Tablas Creek, Au Bon Climat, Chateau Montelena and so many more. Yes, plenty are – eep – on the expensive side, but this is not always true.

The best way to explain why I can continue to love wine from California despite its many letdowns comes from this quote from the film Sideways when Miles and Jack were headed to a vineyard known for its chardonnay:

Jack: “I thought you hated chardonnay.”
Miles (to Jack): “I like all varietals. I just don’t generally like the way they manipulate chardonnay in California. Too much oak and secondary malolactic fermentation.”
Jack: “Huh.”

Photo: Porbital