Sure, you’d think we need another how-to series when it comes to wine and other adult beverages like a proverbial hole in the head. But in my experience, most helpful writing about wine is a little too aspirational. None of it addresses the times when we really need help figuring out what the fuck to buy in less than ideal circumstances: a big box store, an intimidating hipster bar with a prickly, unhelpful staff, a dusty liquor store near your hotel on vacation. In this irregular, half-assed series, we’ll address all those times when you’ve wondered, “what is the best alcohol-fueled way out of this situation?”
First up is how to shop for wine at everyone’s favorite modern general store, Target.
Before I really get started ranting, let’s dispense with the notion that Target is a great place to save money on wine. It isn’t. Places like Target and Applebee’s make their money on perceived value, not actual value. The check average at places like Applebee’s isn’t actually that low. It seems like it will be low, which gets people in the door, and then they spend just like they would on any other meal out at a mid-tier restaurant.
I work for an independent wine shop that people perceive as being expensive, but we don’t have that many fewer options for wines less than $12 than Target does, and all of ours actually taste good because my coworkers and I spend hours tasting and spitting really vile shit and rejecting it before it makes it onto our shelves.
So, we’re not shopping at Target to save money, we’re shopping there for convenience and to escape with something palatable. I mean, I’d love to buy all of my produce at my local farmers’ market, but sometimes I end up at a shitty Safeway at 10pm after a long day at work with a cart full of almond milk, irresponsibly farmed arugula, and Magnum bars just like everyone else. Sometimes you just need to get all your errands done at once and you don’t want to deal with making another stop and the weird parking (or being on a strange side street, if you’re on foot in a big city) issues that invariably go with going to a smaller store running on a smaller budget. I get it. I do it too, and I work in a freaking wine store.
What to Look For
Big French Brands: This idea that French wine is expensive persists, and it’s silly. France is still one of the world’s biggest producers of wine, and a lot of what is made there is everyday stuff. Wines made by big ‘umbrella’ wineries, ie wine companies that own a lot of other brands and wineries (often referred to as negociants) generally don’t make interesting stuff, but what they make is often more drinkable and less offensive than its American counterparts. Belleruche is the supermarket-tier brand from the Chapoutier family and I’ve seen it on the shelves at several Targets. The red, white and rose are all pretty decent, but the red is usually the best of the three. Another good brand in this category is Louis Jadot – for a light, easy drinking red, the Beaujolais-Villages will certainly not change your life, but you could do a lot worse.
Bag in Box: Black Box and Wine Cube are the main brand I see in Target, and they are often quite drinkable. I also love the little 3-glass sized Tetrapaks (500ml) that are popping up more and more in big-box stores. I hope more quality wineries jump on this bandwagon, because it’s such easy to use, environmentally friendly packaging. These little guys feel good in your hand and are perfect to take to a picnic (or sneak into the movie theater!).
I’ve tried a bunch of bag in box wines and tetrapak wines from these brands, and the best bets are usually Pinot Grigio, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. If you’re having spicy takeout or barbecue, the red blend from Wine Cube after 15 minutes in the fridge would be a great match. It’s a little bit sweet, which a lot of people have a knee-jerk adverse reaction to, but for inexpensive wine you’re going to have with food that has a sweet and/or spicy sauce, it’s a great choice. Choose styles with descriptors like “fresh” and “fruity” rather than “vanilla” or “toasty.” Those last two descriptors imply oak, and good oak barrels are expensive. These producers are not using nice oak barrels. They are using oak chips or staves, and unless used with a very deft hand, these tend to make wines taste like you’re sucking on a popsicle stick.
If you need something sparkling, Prosecco is your best bet. I’ve tried the Champagne that’s under the Wine Republic brand that my local Target is pushing on a lot of their end caps right now, and while it’s certainly not undrinkable, it was definitely not worth the $26 I paid for it. Any Prosecco between $10-12 will feel like less of a rip off. And honestly? The Cupcake Prosecco is actually not bad. I didn’t want it to be true, but I’m just here to report the facts.
What to avoid
Cutesy Shit Made in California that retails for between $12-$18: Red, white or in between, these are way, way overpriced for what’s in the bottle, and most of the names are just fucking dumb and often offend my strident feminist sensibilities. All this ‘mommy’s special juice because she dEsERveS it’ crap makes me want to break things. No adult needs to deserve, earn, or make excuses for having a drink if he or she wants one, so you may as well drink something you actually like that doesn’t pander to you like you’re an overgrown toddler in a princess costume.
Red Blends: Ugh, ‘red blends’ that market themselves that way as though it’s a real category or style of wine (it’s not – it could be literally ANY combination of red grapes, so how the fuck does that tell you anything about what’s in the bottle?) are the new Meritage, and just an excuse for big wine companies to buy whatever bulk juice is cheapest at the end of harvest season, soak it in a bunch of oak chips, and sell it for $12.99 of the dollars you decided not to throw to student loans or your car payment this week. Some of the greatest wines in the world qualify as ‘red blends’ because they are blends of different red grapes, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about wines with names like “The Heartbreaker,” that say on the back that they’re a ‘luscious blend of premium California red grapes wrapped in a kiss of oak. You know he’s bad, but he tastes oh-so-good.’ Hork.
I have not had great experiences with wines from California or Washington state labeled ‘white blends,’ either. My suspicion is that this is because the grapes that are often used in these blends (Viognier, Roussane, Marsanne) are grapes that tend to oxidize (spoil) more quickly than other grapes, so lingering too long under those fluorescent lights just accelerates this and makes for wines that taste kind of bland, cloying and tired.
Chardonnay: Some of the greatest wines in the world are made from Chardonnay (if only I could drink Grand Cru Chablis every night of my life, only taking breaks to switch to blanc de blancs Champagne…), but Chardonnay is one of those styles where when it’s great, it’s amazing, and when it’s not, it’s just disgusting. Treating white wine with oak is tricky business, and when it’s done wrong, you get something that tastes like boozy, sour cake batter. Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc are much safer white wine bets.
Barefoot: The best this brand can do is be bland, which the Pinot Grigio is, but most of the Barefoot brand wines I’ve tried are just awful. The garish packaging and horrible design of those large-format bottles just makes me cringe, too. I hope you like yourself enough to just never buy this shit.
So, to recap, kids, stick to generic French brands, don’t be afraid of those boxed wines, and just say no to anything with “Mommy” in the name. And while you’re there, that Boots No. 7 Protect and Perfect hand lotion is legit and you can feel good about the fact that you’re at least protecting your skin while you’re wearing out your liver.