It’s true, you shouldn’t need a PhD to enjoy wine. Yet apparently the myth persists that wine is something you have to be a full-on Illuminatus to drink, because Shark Tank invested in Obvious Wines. Their mission: To demystify wine with neat categories, predictable utilitarian packaging that provides a “Just the facts, Ma’am” rundown on what’s in the bottle, and zero flight of fancy, poetic trills, or snooty insider nonsense. Breath of fresh air, right?
It’s true, wine is complex. Beer and cider are also complex and all of them arguably pale in comparison to the complexity of gin. But it’s wine that gets singled out for being impossible to understand. We have wine “professionals” to thank for this to some extent (I do this for a living and even I shrug in bafflement at Robert Parker’s “ratings” system); know-it-alls are ubiquitous everywhere but wine know-it-alls can indeed be particularly ponderous and off-putting. I admit it. And it seems like perhaps the more we try to “explain” wine, the more weird and fussbudgetty we make it (cider has “terroir” and “typicity” too, and for that matter an apple’s genome is twice the size of a grape’s, but you seldom hear anyone going on ad nauseam about apple terroir). So for some of us, big yes to wine getting stripped of its trappings, some of which can be obscure in a way that feels not only impenetrable but classist; I mean when was the last time a beer made you feel defensive? The endless, epic complexity of wine should be a source of pleasure and curiosity versus overwhelm. For whatever unfortunate confluence of reasons, apparently it isn’t. So.
“Wine” and “gimmick” are a tough pairing, and I have a natural aversion to anything that can reasonably be described as a “lifestyle brand.” I can admit that. So I was prepared for the worst when I was sent some samples to try. Now, if a wine is good, it doesn’t matter if it can reasonably be called a lifestyle brand. Just as it doesn’t matter how boutiquey and estate-y a wine is if it sucks. So the big question is simply “Are these wines good?” And the simplest answer is “yep, totally competently made and will appeal to many people.”
I tried “Dark & Bold,” “French Bubbly,” “Bright & Crisp” and “Simply Rosé.” None of them are bad wines and none are “best wine of this type I have ever tasted.” The “Dark and Bold” red blend has a densely black-fruity nature and a low-acidity softness that tells me off the bat I am drinking a Bordeaux blend built in California. Maybe a bit generically so, but to be honest I feel that way about many a Cab-Merlot blend. The Merlot contributes its hallmark plum note and velvety mouthfeel, and the Cabernet provides dignified structure and a cherry-blackberry-blackcurrant component. It’s attractively priced at $18 and for someone looking for an introduction to California-Bordeaux-Nouveau, it’s a totally decent exemplar. I like it. The rosé is an extremely minimalist one that’s been almost entirely ghosted by fruit components, relying instead on wet gravel and ephemeral cherry-blossom florals. It’s very, very dry, even a tad astringent, with a young greenness that suggests the fruit was not exactly falling-apart-ripe when picked. It’s a little savory, very light bodied and super pleasant. The bubbly is a Cremant de Loire made in Champagne style from Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay. Personally I prefer my cremants to be Alsatian, but this is certainly a well-made wine. It’s the kind of workhorse bubbly you’d be psyched to have in a cocktail because it’s solid but unobtrusive and will play well with add-ins (A float of Chambord would make it a brilliant holiday aperitif). It’s dry and yeasty and the most prominent fruit notes for me are pear and yellow peach. If you are a Champagne fiend, you might find this wine a bit safe or even boring. If you’re not demanding about layers, it’s your guy. The Bright and Crisp offering is a Sauvignon Blanc, also from the Loire Valley. I’m personally easily turned off by the varietal, but this bottle was a relatively easy one for me to like. Citrusy, herbaceous, with ringing acidity, it’s a fine foil for sushi or oysters or anything with goat cheese.
As for the concept, I won’t lie, something about it makes me feel weird. Does the stripped down labeling style seem like it’s masking sketchy practices? No, at least no more than anyone else’s labeling. They’re attractive labels, and legitimately easy to read. The “Dark and Bold” blend has basic descriptors like “fruit-forward” and “smooth” (hashtagged, by the bye). It tells me in plain English that the fruit is a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with small additions of Tannat and Malbec, estate grown in Paso Robles, CA. It has an ABV of 13.9%. It says “vegan,” which tells me no animal-derived fining agents were used, and it offers some details on the producer’s green creds. It has ratings for fruitiness, dryness, acidity, tannin, body and alcohol. They are roughly correct. It has handy pictures of food pairings; in this case a roast chicken, something that appears to be Swiss cheese and something that appears to be a taco. I don’t think this wine is the best friend for any of those things, but that’s me.
Thing is, reducing what the wine tastes and feels like to a hashtag has serious limitations. For one thing, people vary in how they perceive things. “Dry” is relatively empirical in that residual sugar is something you can quantify, but even that is subject to some interpretation. “Citrus” and “Fruity” are separated on the white (a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley), which is slightly eccentric to those of us who consider citrus fruits to be fruits. It doesn’t call out a rating for acidity (high! Very high! If you were looking for low acidity you would want to know how much this really doesn’t have that) or for “herbaceous” or “grassy” notes, which are one of the biggest defining flavors of the varietal. The pink has limited descriptors and the ones that do get a rating are rated in a way I totally disagree with. In the end, you have to make your own assessment. I admit I have a problem with any product that trains consumers to be less discerning, less curious, and less engaged with what they consume, though, and I’m not sure this isn’t an example. I get it (indeed I agree) that there are times when you simply do not want to be thrown a gauntlet by your drink, mystified by a label in a language you don’t read, unable to maintain the mental cross-referencing system that reminds you “Bourgogne Blanc” is Chardonnay and “Weissburgunder” is Pinot Blanc, or all of the above.
You already didn’t have to have a PhD to enjoy wine. Don’t let snobs or oeno-mystics deter you from enjoying wine. Enjoy wine. Enjoy wine tomorrow that you didn’t know anything about yesterday. Take a snapshot of the label when you find something you love and you’ll be able to refer to it if you want to have it again (or hey, figure out what else might give you the same warm fuzzies). Yes, Enjoy Obvious Wines. And also less obvious wines. And all will be well.