Commodity wines 3 of 6

Commodity wine producers see their mission as making a wine product rather than serving as stewards of a vineyard, so they naturally focus on best-selling wine grapes.

The great California marketing breakthrough of the 1970s: turn grape varieties into brands the average buyer could understand.

Old World labels hopelessly confuse fledgling American wine drinkers. Who knows what the labels mean or why one bottle cost $8 and another that seems to be the same thing cost $80?

Led by marketing genius Robert Mondavi, California wine makers turned confusion into brand loyalty. If you have no clue about left bank Bordeaux, you can know you enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon. If Burgundy’s labyrinthine labels baffle you, you can know you enjoy Pinot Noir. If Pouilly Fuisse seems as if it must be a sissy wine, you can feel comfortable ordering Chardonnay. If Rhone Valley vagaries vex you, there is no problem buying an Australian Shiraz.

Commodity wine makers strive to provide wholesalers a palette for all palates, so their factories crank out bottles of all or almost all of the big varietals, even ones they don’t make so well. The trick is to know producer’s best product, which drives recommendations this week.


• Yellow Tail Cabernet Sauvignon South Eastern Australia. Classic commodity wine story. Not available in Australia where it is made, Yellow Tail products were created with flavor profiles driven by research on American tastes. Often target of wine snob snubs, the YT Cab has plenty of oak and sugars, very drinkable, great price. $7

• Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Washington’s biggest winery makes a superb commodity Cab; red fruits, jammy, often made with dash of Malbec for tannin and Merlot for structure. $11

• Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon. Another Washington winner with chocolate and cherries, medium body, fruit-forward, silky tannins. Splashes of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah help body and structure. $12

• Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. KJ is a king of commodity makers and best known for Chardonnay, but their Cab works, too. Bordeaux in style, thankfully reserved on tannins and oak. $15