Wal-Mart puts good wines into most folks' budgets

The private label line of California wines called Oak Leaf sells at less than $3 a bottle at Wal-Mart.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

The private label line of California wines called Oak Leaf sells at less than $3 a bottle at Wal-Mart.

Anyone desperately seeking Two-Buck Chuck should pour a glass of Super-Saver Sam.

That's Sam as in Walton, as in Wal-Mart, which now stocks a private label line of California wines called Oak Leaf at less than $3 a bottle.

Head to the back of the supercenter to the wall of bulk diapers, and look past the soft drinks. The section in the Pinellas Park store is small, one short aisle and an endcap, but packed with action, a riot of falling prices.

The popular Yellow Tail and Rex Goliath still cost more than a fiver, but most of the rest are $4.99. Even Australians are hung with instant refund tags that knock them down a dollar further.

Right on the money

Yet none go lower than Oak Leaf's cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and a pinot grigio-chard blend, at $2.97. Elsewhere it has been spotted at $1.97 and rumored at $1.44.

Yet it tastes more than decent. In fact, Oak Leaf wines took gold and bronze at this year's wine competition at the Florida State Fair, and winemaker Mario Pulido has a good record with Turning Leaf at Gallo.

It doesn't look cheap, with its clean and classy label, no screw cap, real glass. The only clues to humble roots are that the source is broad "California'' and no vintage is specified.

So? The numbers of interest are the little ones behind the dollar sign, and they're lower than wine buyers have seen in 20 years. Back then, Avia and other Eastern European wines came in at less $3, and Glen Ellen and Sutter Home pioneered the "$5 fighting varietal.''

Slowly California moved up and ceded lower prices to Chilean, Australian and then to a world of silly-label wines, from pickup trucks and guitars to a cartoon menagerie.

Tradition reclaimed

Enter Mr. Two Buck, a.k.a. Charles Shaw wines, in 2002. They were made by Bronco Wine Co., a giant in the Modesto vineyards, for Trader Joe's, California's funky gourmet grocer. Careful economies and unique deals made for a $2 price tag, a cheap-thrill cult and a new price category of "super value wines.''

Now comes Oak Leaf, to a much wider market. Where Trader Joe's is in two dozen states, Wal-Mart is global. For Oak Leaf, the producing partner is the Wine Group, a bland name for the second largest winemaker in California, owner of Concannon, Corbett Canyon, Fisheye, Big House, Almaden and Inglenook.

If that combination weren't enough, Oprah Winfrey gave Oak Leaf a splash in O magazine.

Extreme-value wines are perfectly timed for a slow economy, when shoppers trade down, and are a useful tactic for domestic wineries taking advantage of the weak dollar. It's not so perfect for anyone pushing $15 cabernets or even $8 chards, but bargain wines expand the market to the large group who buy no wine at all.

"They can try a bottle of wine now; $2 or $3 is not a big risk,'' says Harvey Posert, a Napa veteran who worked with Bronco on Two Buck Chuck. He says the gain in new drinkers benefits the business more than the losses of competitors.

"Is it stealing (from higher-priced brands)? Sure . . . but it's also building.''

Chris Sherman can be reached at csherman@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8585.

. FAST FACTS

My name is

Wal-Mart, and I'll be your sommelier

The following wines are a private label made by the Wine Group in Ripon, in California's Central Valley, exclusively for Wal-Mart. The wines are made from grapes sourced throughout California and are sometimes of several vintages. They are usually priced at $2.97, sometimes less.

Cabernet sauvignon, Oak Leaf. Dusty crimson in color with a strawberry nose, medium body but with a soft, broad mouthfeel; tastes of sweet cherries and plums and a bit of cocoa. Best of the bunch and fine with burgers or steak.

Chardonnay, Oak Leaf. Honey-gold color and round taste and texture: melons, peaches, vanilla and pears in the mouth; an easy finish. Florida gold medal well-earned and hard to beat at thrice the price.

Merlot, Oak Leaf. Brighter red color but modest bouquet, with light body and slippery mouthfeel; a tart taste of berries and pepper, more like pinot noir and a bit sharp. Stick with the cab.

Pinot grigio-chardonnay, Oak Leaf. Clean green-apple color and taste, crisp and citrusy, verging on grapefruit sour, with a hard finish. Not as rich as the plain chard. Best as a refresher, straight from an ice cooler.

Chris Sherman

Wal-Mart puts good wines into most folks' budgets 06/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:29am]

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