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GOOD BETTER BEST–AND BEST TO AVOID–BAREFOOT WINES

By Carolyn Evans Hammond, 24/06/11.

While wine snobs with raised pinkies are buying, swirling and sniffing the wines that cost two arms and a leg per bottle and are tediously hard to find, the rest of North America is just drinking wine. Popular big-brand wine. Inexpensive wine. But is all inexpensive wine cheap, vile swill?

It’s hard to tell when a disproportionate amount of wine criticism focuses on big-ticket, small-scale wines in infinite detail.

Frankly, one reason relatively little ink has been spilled on big brands is that there’s a stigma attached to them. Among many wine critics and connoisseurs, they’re seen as less interesting. Too commercial. Too generic. Too industrial—as if quantity has an inverse relationship with quality, which of course it doesn’t. Single-note wines are made by big and small producers, but still this stigma persists.

Among some wine critics, it’s even believed big brands are simply a means for driving shareholder value, leading to marketing that overpromises and bottles that underdeliver. Though this is the case sometimes, it’s certainly not always true. It makes better business sense to do the opposite: use economies of scale to make wines that overperform at each price point then fan awareness with honest marketing.

Sure, big brands use economies of scale to muscle into the market, and it tugs at the heart to watch cold, hard market forces squeeze out smaller winemakers. With little money to toss toward marketing, merchandising, and advertising and without the quantities of wine or dollars needed to secure wide distribution, the little guy loses and the big guy wins—simple as that.

It’s especially difficult for wine critics to watch this happen when we spend much time visiting smaller winemakers, seeing the dirt under their fingernails, feeling the grip of passion behind their words, and appreciating their daily struggle with those gnarled vines to produce wines of beauty, place and often pedigree. On some level, it’s hard not to fall in love with these producers when they charm you with their honest lifestyle, take you into their homes, make you food, and court you with their most treasured wines.

But the people behind the big brands work hard too and their wines couldn’t be successful without consumer consent—without making wine that people like to drink, can find on the shelves, and count on for pleasure. Lower-priced big brands are there to turn to as reliable, go-to wines for Wednesday’s pasta, Friday’s hamburgers, or that upcoming wedding reception for 100 of your closest friends and family.

Trouble is, with relatively little criticism focused on branded wines, it’s hard to know which bottles to buy–which was why I wrote Good Better Best Wines–the first book to rank bestselling wines by grape variety and price up to $15US. And it soared to bestseller within weeks of release.

I’m not afraid to critique big brand wines. I taste them technically to assess quality—are they clean, balanced, and correct for their variety and style? Do they offer good value for the price? This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a first growth Bordeaux or vintage Champagne but there’s a time, place, and market for all categories of wine and to argue otherwise is snobbery.

So this week, I tasted the Barefoot Wine range to reveal the good, better, best–and best to avoid. Barefoot Wine doesn’t pretend to be fancy. It’s made to appeal to drinkers looking for an unpretentious, tasty, good value quaff who prefer a touch of sweetness in their wines. And right now the brand is huge.

Last year, Americans bought about 100 million bottles of Barefoot and Canadians bought nearly six million. These aren’t wines people buy and go, meh, and don’t buy again. They’re repeat purchases. The numbers bear that out. Plus, the wines are not just stocked at little out-of-the-way wine boutiques; they’re among the most widely available bottles in North America.

So here we go.

Good

Barefoot Bubbly Pinot Grigio ($8US/$13CAN)
Cool, clean, crisp attack of Golden Delicious apple and honeydew melon. Not terribly complex but certainly balanced and refreshing with a pretty floral finish. Decent mid-afternoon drink, perhaps on the dock. Light-bodied with 12.5% alc.

Barefoot Chardonnay ($6US/$10CAN)
Attractively flinty nose leads to clean, juicy flavors of mixed citrus edged with honey and vanilla. Best served well-chilled, maybe with a spot of chicken and Caesar salad. Medium-bodied with 13.5% alc.

Better

Barefoot Pinot Grigio($6US/$10CAN)
Pinot Grigio lovers take note. Here’s a ripe little number teeming with red grapefruit, lemon-lime, and white peach. Powdery white blossom finish. Dry but not bone-dry. Honest value aperitif or cocktail alternative. Medium-bodied with 13% alc.

Barefoot White Zinfandel ($6US/$10CAN)
Shatteringly fresh like a summer rainfall, this pinky-orange wine with sweet watermelon aromas washes over the tongue with flavors of rosewater, pineapple, orange pear and cantaloupe. Relatively refined for a White Zin, frankly. Sweet stuff that finishes clean and dry due to mouthwatering acidity. Perfect for those who like fruity drinks. Light-bodied with 9.5% alc.

Barefoot Shiraz ($6US/$10CAN)
Clean, smooth and full of fruit, this wine swells with blackberry jam and stewed plum before arcing and tapering to smoke, peppercorn and macerated berries. Silky and round but appropriately structured. Easy choice for grilled ribs. Full-bodied with 13.5% alc.

Best

Barefoot Merlot ($6US/$10CAN)
Aromas of homemade blueberry pie lead to a dry but berry-rich attack of sun-drenched black and red cherry, wild blueberry, raspberry and dark chocolate. Swings from cocktail alternative to versatile, mid-week food wine for everything from pepper steak with fried onions to meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Full-bodied with 13.5% alc.

Barefoot Moscato ($6US/$10CAN)
The label is right; this wine is deliciously sweet—but balanced with lemon-squirt acidity so it doesn’t cloy. Aromas and flavors of wildflowers and rose, luscious apricot, and succulent citrus oil. Incredible value wine to serve with dessert or the cheeseboard—or as dessert itself. While this wine’s viscosity makes it taste quite full-bodied, it’s light in alcohol with 9% alc.

Barefoot Moscato Spumante ($8US/$13CAN)
This is a sweet bubbly wine—make no mistake. But again the residual sugar is balanced with bracing acidity and satisfyingly intense flavor (cantaloupe, orange, honey and rose) with a lingering kiss of honeysuckle. Chill it down and pour it one Sunday afternoon with fresh goat cheese and a selection of other mild cheeses. For the money, very good value. Light-bodied with 9.5% alc.

Best to Avoid

Barefoot Sauvignon Blanc ($6US/$10CAN)
Not enough varietal character. Single note, neutral and non-descript vinousness. Nah. You can do better than this.

Barefoot Cabernet Sauvignon ($6US/$10CAN)
There are a lot of undervalued Cabernet Sauvignons out there, but this is not one of them. Slightly stalky texture, hollowish mid-palate, and one-dimensional flavor profile disappoints.

To find a store that carries any of the above wines, go to http://www.wine-searcher.com

Carolyn’s latest book, Good Better Best Wines, is the first book to rank best-selling wines by price and grape variety, with tasting notes and bottle images (April, 2010, $12.95, Alpha Books). Within weeks of release, it soared to #1 wine book at Amazon.ca and the #2 one at Amazon.com, and received rave reviews in such eminent dailies as Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune. Available at bookstores everywhere. Watch the trailer at www.wine-tribune.com

Carolyn’s critical articles and reviews have appeared in Decanter and Wine & Spirit International in the United Kingdom, at thewinecellarinsider.com, and in Maclean’s, Taste, and Tidings in Canada. Her first book, 1000 Best Wine Secrets, earned critical acclaim and international distribution with the distinction of being a best-seller by Canadian standards. Qualified sommelier and seasoned journalist, Carolyn holds the Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and a BA from York University, and is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers in the UK. Carolyn has lived in many cities in North America and Europe, and now resides in Toronto, where she was born.

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