By Rick Riozza
When was the last time you bought a “jug wine”? You know what we’re talking about: it’s the Carlo Rossi, the Vendange, or the Leaping Grapes in a big fat 3 or 4-liter bottle that may well take two hands to carry.
If there is a time for die-hard wine enthusiasts to indeed purchase a “jug wine”, it’s probably for a big picnic where a bunch of beer or seltzer drinkers are gathering and perhaps taking a glass or two of wine just to get an extra buzz. Or at least, that’s what the hosting wine enthusiast is thinking, and therefore, he or she is not bringing out some decent wine.
Well, what about those folks who do enjoy a nice glass of wine at the picnic but are simply served-up “plonk”? Actually, these last two paragraphs assume various facts: Are “jug wines” indeed plonk? Are there in fact decent “jug wines”? And how cheap can one be, purposely thinking they’re putting out the “cheapest” wine for their picnic party guests!?
Of course, we’re having fun here. No one is taking this stuff too seriously. Whatever wine you wish to buy, is the wine you wish to drink—and cheers to that!
I remember we were hosting an 80th birthday party for my father-in-law over in Rancho Mirage, and, I had especially purchased about five large jugs of Galleano Winery Zinfandel for the occasion. At the time, it was my favorite table Zin in town. The grapes harvested were from the old Lopez Ranch from the old Rancho Cucamonga wine range-territory that produces a pretty decent complex red.
One of the guests—the senior pastor from a local Lutheran Church, noticed that we were pouring wine from a large glass jug. Whether or not he had already consumed a couple of glasses of wine, he blurted out that we were serving “some cheap red wine from a jug!” Of course, I objected to his assertion and had to defend our “house wine”. I gave him the benefit-of the-doubt however, since perhaps he sped-read the label—thinking “Galleano” was “Gallo”. Anyway, he did come around and drank up more than a few more glasses of wine at the party.
About a dozen years ago, I remember the Wall Street Journal did a piece on the subject with the fine title of “The Joys of Jug Wine”. I don’t really remember all the content of the article but I kept a snippet in my records to perhaps share someday—and that day has come:
“Jug wines are the “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” of wines, lovable yet ridiculed. After all, fine wines in big bottles are called magnums or “large-format” bottles. Jug wine has come to embody a specific meaning and that meaning is “cheap.” Over the years, most of us have had some really bad wines in big bottles. But there’s no reason good wines can’t come in big bottles at good prices.”
For those who enjoy inexpensive wine, on our wine aisles at Ralphs, there are about eight to ten brands of “large format” bottles that seem to do very well. Livingston Cellars wines seem to fit the bill; Glen Ellen Chardonnay sells out all the time; Vendange sells all types of varietals, from Cab Sauv to Sauv Blanc; Liberty Creek sells out their very popular Merlot; and Leaping Grapes is new on the block, and it looks like it will be staying on the shelves.
And of course, there is Carlo Rossi. Quoting from The Brutal Hammer of Truth, “The King of the Jug Wines is Charlie ‘Carlo’ Rossi who, though he died in 1994, still reigns over the category today. He peddled a pretty good, mostly honest wine for E & J Gallo Winery until his death at age 90. I say “mostly” honest, because he had less to do with making the wine that bears his name than either he or the Gallo company let on.
“Charlie started out as a grape shipper during Prohibition and had the foresight to marry into the Gallo family when Ernest and Julio’s wine empire began to rise. He went to work for Gallo as a salesman. In 1962, Gallo introduced a cheap wine called “Mountain Red” that became popular because it sold in a big jug with a ring handle for carrying. In the late-60s, the counterculture embraced Mountain Red: a Berkeley, California hippie commune, for example, called themselves the Red Mountain Tribe, after their favorite Gallo product. But Ernest Gallo, not an Age of Aquarius sort, didn’t appreciate the free publicity. He decided that Mountain Red needed a re-branding.
“Re-brand as what, though? Charlie was still on the payroll, now working in the marketing department. He had a fortunate last name in common with the Italian winemakers Martini & Rossi, famed for their sparkling wine and vermouth (although Charlie was no relation). And, as it turned out, the congenial Charlie proved to be good in front of a camera—better than the actors that Gallo auditioned for the new, yet-unnamed brand. Why not? Charlie started going by the Italian “Carlo,” and Mountain Red was retired. In 1975, 45 years ago this year, “Carlo Rossi Vineyards” was born.”
If I had to vote on my favorite inexpensive large-bottle wine, it would be the Bolla Bardolino or Valpolicella. It matches and pairs well with any Italian meat & pasta dish on the table. Grocery Outlet fortunately carries the wine every so often at around $8.
Probably the biggest selling inexpensive large-bottle wine at Ralphs Markets is the Barefoot Cellars Pinot Grigio at around $8. It’s fleshy and peachy, with some weight and true white-grape tastes. It sells like hotcakes—and probably pairs with them as well! Cheers!