Into the Heart of Darkness: America’s Most Popular Wine Brands

folie a deux

Last week, just in time for Valentine’s Day, I decided to delve into the nexus of America’s repressed desires: the wine aisle at my local Target.

Depending on what you read, either Apothic or Folie a Deux’s Menage a Trois are the most popular red blends in America, so I decided to try both. Here are my thoughts from this experience. Was I horrified? Pleasantly surprised? Find out!

First up, just to warm up my palate, is Menage a Trois’ California Pinot Grigio. “Oh, the sensual delights of Pinot Grigio!” the copy on the front of the bottle purrs. Sensual delights? Jesus, guys, it’s just Pinot Grigio.

First of all, let me just say that most areas of California don’t have the best climate for growing Pinot Grigio, but I tried to remain objective. This is a 2015, which is the current vintage most producers in the Northern hemisphere have on the market, so it’s not at an unfair disadvantage after hanging around too long under fluorescent lights. The color is pale, normal for a young white wine, but a little paler than some Pinot Grigios I’ve tasted because PG isn’t actually a white grape, it’s more of a pinky-gray color, hence the name (Grigio is Italian for gray; the French call it Pinot Gris.) This was $9.99 at my local Target here in Northern Virginia, by the way.

OK, now on to how it smells. There’s a faint whiff of a riper apple aroma, kinda like those Golden Delicious apples that are only delicious if you don’t get a gross mealy one, which seems to happen a lot. There’s also this odd plasticky aroma that wine geeks often compare to those blow up plastic pool toys. I don’t have kids, but I do remember my own childhood, so to me it smells like a new My Little Pony, plasticky and sweet. There’s a little meyer lemon. And weirdly, I smell a little more alcohol than I’d expect from a white wine like this. It’s labeled at 13.5%, which isn’t unusually high for a white from California, so that’s odd. Overall, it didn’’t smell bad, but it doesn’t smell great.

On the palate that alcohol still really shows: thin, yet boozy. There’s no objectionable residual sugar – since this is labeled as Pinot Grigio, it should be totally dry. If you use the Italian version of the grape’s name, that’s what you’re telling consumers, so you should follow through! Pinot Grigio is neutral, sure, but this is really neutral. Forgettable, bland finish. Not refreshing, not very much acidity. It just kinda…sits there. Now I’m noticing that it cloys ever so slightly. If I got this at a party I’d throw an ice cube in it and knock it back, but I wouldn’t go back for more. You can do much better for $10.

If you’re looking for a crisp, refreshing white, try Picpoul de Pinet from the south of France. Cadastres is one that you often find in this market here on the east coast for around $9.99 – I see it at Whole Foods all the time. If you’re willing to spend a few more dollars, Kellerei Kaltern’s Pinot Grigio, a coop producer in Alto Adige, Pinot Grigio’s spiritual homeland, usually retails for between $11-13. It also comes in a screwcap bottle instead of being closed with one of those awfu plastic corks. 

Next up is the Apothic red Winemaker’s Blend 2014. I have a lot of friends who claim to like this wine (I’m clearly not bringing enough decent shit to their houses; sorry, guys), so I was optimistic. And at first, things seemed OK. It’s an appealing, almost magenta color that reminds me of a young Cotes du Rhone. It smells like bing cherries and ripe, almost jammy strawberries. There’s a little creamy vanilla character that’s probably whatever oak treatment they used peaking out. Just judging from the aromas, I would totally drink this, it smells like a really ripe Grenache-based blend from the south of France, but maybe with a dash of Zinfandel in it. Kinda makes me want barbecue.

Then I put it in my mouuth. I had high hopes from the aromas. Like I was thinking, god, Diane, stop being such a fucking snob – maybe people buy these wines because they taste good and not just because marketing tells them they should.

This is not good. This tastes like cherry kool aid that’s been steepd in oak chips. There’s all this weird, cedary, aggressive oak that makes me feel like I’ve been sucking on a popsicle stick, and a tiny, thin, screechy little flavor of strawberry struggling to break free of its oak prison. JFC people, enough with the oak chips (or dust or fucking *flour*, which is apparently a real thing people put in wine because I was recently sent an email advertising the stuff)! This would have been a pleasant, if thin wine, without all that oak. The little bit of residual sugar would have plumped it up enough so that it didn’t taste too thin or watery. How do people drink this without food? I feel parched and like I’m getting a headache and I’m spitting this crap. This was $8.99 on sale from $10.99. For a dollar or two more you can buy real wine. One of my current favorites is around $9 – Casa Santos Confidencial, a soft, easy drinking red blend from Portugal made using grapes usually used to make Port. I could actually drink a glass without needing an glass of water every other sip.

And now we’ve arrived at Act 3, Menage a Trois Midnight “Dark Red Blend.” “Let the deep, dark magic of midnight embrace you. Velvety blackberry and plush spiced plum flavors linger on your lips like a stolen kiss.” This is all getting a little too 50 Shades of Grey for me.

Maybe because I work with wine for a living, and spend a large chunk of my day tasting it, spitting it into buckets under bad fluorescent lighting, this positioning of wine as forbidden fruit and not just a normal (if delicious…well, usually) food item that’s part of everyday life is just lost on me. Like trying to sexualize oranges or something.

Anyway, it’s what’s in the bottle that matters, so let’s see what we have here. This retails for $11.99, so it’s our most expensive wine today, so maybe the extra couple of dollars will buy us something! It’s definitely darker in color than our old friend Apothic, more of a dark purple than magenta, and it smells a little stronger and darker, like overripe cherries, stewed blackberries you’re going to use to make pie, plums, dark chocolate, and a little cedar and creamy vanilla.

I’m not hopeful when I go in for a sip. I’ve been hurt before, Menage a Trois! OK, this is getting weird.

This tastes very remeniscent of blackberry juice – definitely doesn’t taste as lush as it smells. It’s actually sort of juicy, mouthwatering, and pleasant. Not the ‘deep dark’ flavors and mouthfeel I expected. There’s some decent acidity. There’s no real finish to speak of, but it leaves my mouth feeling clean, there’s a nice clean mouthwatering quality to it. This would be great with a nice juicy burger actually. If I was putting together a list for a mid-tier restaurant with a lot of slightly gussied up comfort food I would consider this.

I actually like this! I would drink this! I wouldn’t reach for this all the time, but if I’m ever stuck at a store with limited offerings on vacation or something, I’d totally grab this.

I’m seeing a theme here with these gimmicky wine brands: food and sex. Almost every gimmicky wine brand I come across lately seems to be named after either food or have some kind of sexual name or marketing strategy, and most of these wines, red or white, have a bit of residual sugar, and flavors reminiscent of things like vanilla, caramel, chocolate, blow pops, and cherry pie. These wines are also overwhelmingly aimed at women. So, apparently, American women are hungry and horny. Or marketers think American women are hungry and horny. Anyway, something disturbing is going on, and I wish wine would be left out of it.

Anyway, there you have it, a peek down the aisle of typical offerings at a big box store.

These wines are B- at best. The Midnight red blend was far and away the best of the bunch, but for $12 you can still do a lot better. Actual sex and actual dessert are much better than the bizarre approximations these wines provide. My too-late-for-Valentine’s-Day advice? Try having some real wine with dinner and then just…see where the night takes you.


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