Monday, March 7, 2016

Grocery store Chardonnay reviewed in the year's best wine blog post

Richard Jennings blogs as RJ on Wine
Richard Jennings spent $4000 of his own money to review 230 grocery store Chardonnays on his blog. I feel confident even in early March calling it "the year's best wine blog post" because I don't remember the last time I read a better one.

Jennings, whose day job is as HR director for a large mental health agency, is one of the most profilic reviewers of wine, with 44,000 tasting notes on Cellar Tracker. He previously wrote a weekly column for the assholes at Huffington Post (pay for content, you parasites), but stepped away from blogging last year because his schedule was so full. He hadn't posted in more than six months, and that post was to apologize for not posting in three months.

When he returned to blogging, he did so with the type of public-service journalism that doesn't exist in wine writing anymore.

Sales numbers show Chardonnay is still easily America's favorite wine. Many Americans buy their wines in grocery stores, despite the best effort of writers (including Jennings) to dissuade them. Grocery store Chardonnay is what America actually drinks.

But publications, editors more so than writers, turn up their noses at grocery store Chardonnay. (I have tried soooo many times to sell Chardonnay stories.) Eric Asimov of the New York Times is the nation's leading public-service wine journalist; there's no close second. Yet I don't think you could get Asimov to taste grocery store Chardonays with handcuffs and a funnel.

I used to work for a newspaper that did this sort of story, and I was proud of that, but they don't do these stories anymore; nobody does. Instead, we write love sonnets about $60 wines of which only 150 cases were made. The one magazine that might do this sort of public-service story is Wine Spectator. If they do, I will applaud them, but it's more helpful to more consumers to see ratings and tasting notes (on every wine, good and bad!) from a writer who doesn't reward only overblown wines.

Jennings made a lot of interesting observations about grocery store Chardonnay in the piece, which I won't steal from him here: you'll have to read them on his site. I was so impressed by Jennings' work that I called him to interview him about it.

Me: My God Richard, you spent $4000 of your own money? Are you sure working in mental health hasn't affected your mental health?

RJ: Yeah, pretty crazy, and I hadn't planned to originally. I wasn't great about pricing things out. But once I got into it, it was an interesting project and I wanted to continue.

Me: Where did you get the funds for these Chardonnays that you weren't even going to drink?

Jennings in Barossa Valley, so that's probably not Chardonnay

RJ: I had a good tax refund last year. It came out of money that should have gone into savings. Also, I sold off a bunch of cases of domestic wine last fall on WineBid that I had collected -- Cayuse, Rhys -- that had appreciated a lot and that I found I wasn't drinking. Since the money I got for that was from wine I had, it felt okay to be spending it on more wine. Arguably there were better uses for the money, but that's why I was flush enough with wine-related money to justify the grocery store expenditures to myself. Plus, I had several samples.

Me: What percentage were samples?

RJ: I'd say 5%.

Me: And you spent all this money on wines you didn't end up drinking, right?

RJ: Right, there were very few I ended up drinking.

Me: Why grocery store Chardonnay?

RJ: I think on hiatus, I've been trying to figure out, I really enjoy writing about wine. It does take a whole lot of time the way I do it. I was trying to think of ways to be more relevant. I have had a lot of requests over the years for recommendations for grocery store Chardonnay. It is really a wine for daily life. It seemed to me I might be doing a service by letting people know what are the better labels. I remembered back to when I got introduced to wine. I would read wine columns, but the only place I knew to buy wine was the grocery store. Part of me hoped the revolution in Chardonnay might be reflected at the grocery store Chardonnay level. I didn't find that to be the case.

Me: Ten years ago I wrote a regular bargain-wine column and I can tell you Chardonnays in this category were bleak. Looking at your tasting notes, it seems like they've improved a lot.

RJ: I think that's true. Wines across the board are better than they were 10 years ago. But I wanted more. There could have been better balance and more varietal character.

Me: Were you surprised at finding good wines so cheap?

RJ: Something like the Ravenswood, that stands out at that level.

Me: Did you drink the Ravenswood (which was $9)?

RJ: I think I drank that, half a bottle, because I was surprised at how good it was. I was putting up pictures as I went through the project on Instagram. It got quite a following. Joel Peterson noticed I mentioned Ravenswood. I have been impressed with Ravenswood, the low-priced Zins and Cabs when I occasionally encounter them.

Me: How many wines did you taste at a time?

RJ: Optimal for me was about 8 wines at a time. I tried 12, I was trying to rush the project along. One night I tried 16. Even if you're spitting, it's hard to focus.

Me: Would you then have the best of them for dinner that night?

RJ: I would, so I was having a lot of Chardonnay with dinner at evenings. Occasionally I wouldn't find anything I wanted to drink and went to my wine fridge for something else.

Me: What did you eat? Did drinking so much Chardonnay change your diet?

RJ: Maybe a little bit. I've been on a health kick. I get food sent in from a company that prepares healthy food. From their selections, I went a lot with the shrimp pesto, chicken pesto. They also have a crispy chicken thing that went with it. Occasionally I made a chicken curry salad. I had a whole lot of shrimp pesto.

Me: Huh. I don't think of Chardonnay with shrimp. I usually go with an aromatic white. Chicken, though, certainly. How many nights a week were you drinking Chardonnay?

RJ: I was trying to do a few nights a week. I was interrupted by a couple of trips. Unexpectedly I had an appendectomy and that kept me from drinking anything for a few weeks. About 3 nights a week I was focusing on it.

Me: What did you want to drink on the other nights?

RJ: Anything else. (Laughs.) A Pinot or a heavy duty red. Chardonnay is one of my favorite things. But we're talking Montrachet with some age on it, a wine with layers, a wine that changes over an hour and a half or two hours. That wasn't these Chardonnays.

Me: Are there any of these that you would spend your own money for to drink again?

RJ: From the producers I really admire anyway: Qupe, Au Bon Climat, Alma Rosa. It seems to focus a lot on the Santa Barbara producers. I was surprised to see those on my local supermarket shelves. As far as something you see a lot, Landmark Overlook is surprisingly good for the price. I would certainly settle on that for dinner. And Jordan, although that's pricier. It's not pricey for good Chardonnay, but that's high for a grocery store price. Most of these producers also do single-vineyard or appellation-specific wines that you can find at the grocery store.

Me: Was it just California?

RJ: It was just domestic. Safeway doesn't have a lot of non-domestic Chardonnays, but Lucky's does. I could have gotten nuts and done all Chardonnays. Costco has more from all over the place. But what I was interested in was California producers and the changing style of Chardonnay.

Me: I really like the service journalism aspect of this.

RJ: As I was going through and spending my own money, I was remembering back to being a reader of the Wine Advocate and Robert Parker saying he always bought his own wine. There was much more limited wine available and that's what he was trying to do. But Wine Advocate focuses on the high-end stuff and they don't even print reviews of wines that finish below 88 points. Vinous also focuses on the high-end stuff. As I realized other people weren't doing it, I realized this was a niche I could cover. Wines people actually buy and drink, instead of verticals of Salon or something that people will never get a chance to try.


Richard's blog post is here. If anything else wins Wine Blog Post of the Year, it's a travesty. You can help defray his expenses by clicking on the "Donate to Grocery Store Wine Ratings Project" Paypal link on the right side of his front page. (I have one too. Tipping bloggers is good karma.)

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Hawk_Wakawaka said...

Thanks for pointing me in this direction, Blake. I'd missed that Richard had posted again though I've been checking to see about once a month. Looking forward to reading his write-up and appreciate you adding to it here with the interview. Cheers!

Bob Rossi said...

230 grocery store Chardonnays. Sounds like my idea of wine tasting hell. I'm glad someone else did it.

Rex said...

Wow. Well done. Deserves support.

Unknown said...

Thanks for adding dimension to RJ's story. Context is everything, and I enjoy reading about a taster's "story" of how he or she found a given topic relevant on a personal level. The interview definitely brought to light some important points about the world of wine. Great job!