By Rick Riozza

I know I’m a little behind the wine times with this article on Dark Horse Wine. I’ve heard that maybe a year or so ago Trader Joe’s Market was an exclusive seller of the stuff—but come to think of it, I haven’t been to Trader Joe’s in over a year! And I know they’ve always had such good deals on wine—especially with Italian wine imports. Well, life happens—there you go.

Anyway back to the subject of Dark Horse Wine. Just last winter, their line of reasonably priced wines showed up on the shelves—at around $9. I remember a vacationing English lady in my wine department taking notice of this new brand, and it almost startled her that a wine would be named as such. “Dark Horse!” she sounded off, “Do you know what that means!?”

Well—I always understood that term to refer to an unlikely person or thing becoming successful or winning a competition or something. The way the lady put it, it sounded that maybe there was a “darker” meaning—if you will. I really wanted to ask her what she really meant—like perhaps in British jargon, a macabre connotation. But I was scared to sound like a dupe.


So pretty much every time I walk by this wine, I replay that brief conversation. What’s up with that!

Lisa Zelka is the sale representative for Wine Warehouse, one of the major wine and spirits distributors in California. She is a very lovely and amiable person who I love talking wine with. Her company distributes Dark Horse. So of course I’m curious about this line up of wines. At Haggen in Rancho Mirage, we carry their Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Red Blend, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

I’m eager to taste these wines so I can talk about them to our customers. As a wine steward, we are expected to know the products we offer. With wine labels exploding on the market, we stewards are almost under the gun to stay on top of our game. Often times, we’ll spend a day at the distributor’s offices tasting from their wine portfolio. But we can only taste so much—and I can purchase only so many bottles without going into debt!

We look for added assistance by way of sampling individual bottles on our time off. In charge of a thousand label wine selection, every so often, I’ll request these wine samples. Some wine distributors out there think they’re doing us a favor—like they’re treating us to their wine. The smarter distributors know better: It’s our trusted and personal recommendation that the customers rely on to try new and different wines.

Lisa absolutely understands that and was eager to get me to sample these Dark Horse wines. Due to unexpected circumstances, it took a little longer than I had wished—or maybe I was just becoming anxious with this dark horse thing.

I did my homework and found out that Dark Horse is a new label from the Gallo wine company. And we know that it is one of the biggest and most powerful wine companies in America—which means they certainly know how to produce a wine that is going to please. To boot, they generated over 50,000 cases in their first year. That certainly doesn’t fit any “dark horse” I know.

Anyway, I just tried the wines, and I’m pleased to recommend them to the wine buying folk who wish for a tasty table wine and a great price. Currently, all of Dark Horse varietals are on sale for $7.99 at Haggen. A definite bargain when picking up four or more bottles.

Dark Horse Chardonnay: A delicious chard for the price; indeed, it’s what I refer to as one of the biggest-bang-for-the-buck. You’ll not find such a luscious and round white wine at this price range. It has really bright flavors of apricot and peach along with rich flavors of baked apple and pear, layered with toasted oak, brown spice with a smooth, lingering finish.

I enjoyed this wine with salt and pepper roasted turkey wings—delish!

As to the reds. My personal favorite is the Dark Horse Red Blend. It’s got all that California red and blue fruit going on that we love in a blend, while actually being a mix of Malbec, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Merlot sourced from Argentina, California and Australia!

Again, the winemakers at Gallo show they can really put together a wonderful wine to match any of the California red blends at the $15 to $20 range. This wine owns deep flavors of dark berry and black current. The tannins are easy with hints of dark roasted oak leading to a long finish. I hate to beat a dead horse, but I’m telling you, at this $7.99 price—it’s the deal of the season.

The other two reds are the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Merlot. The Dark Horse Cabernet Sauvignon has really bold flavors of blackberry and black cherry with medium tannins, brown spice and a dark chocolate espresso finish. The winery says: “This Cabernet Wine was carefully aged to develop dark fruit flavors and dark roast aromas.”

The Dark Horse Merlot has really robust flavors of jammy dark fruit layered with toasted oak, molasses and brown spice with a long full finish. “This Merlot wine was carefully aged to develop dark fruit flavors and mocha aromas.”

For you wine aficionados who just read between the lines in my Cab and Merlot descriptions, it was my polite way of describing “fruit bombs”. Now I’m quite aware there are bunches of you vino lovers who love the fruit forward wines that California can produce. If so, these are the wines to buy right now! You’ll love them and you’ll love the price

For those of us who love a more subtle and complex wine, no worries. The “secret” to enjoying well-made wine that starts off as “fruit bombs” is to simply aerate them in a large decanter for a day or two in or out of the fridge. Wildly out-of-the-barn, Dark Horse Cabs and Merlots came back. Cheers!