Soon I found myself the least intelligent person in the cyber-room, as Felicity Carter, editor-in-chief of Meininger's Wine Business International, and Damien Wilson, an Australian wine marketing professor who teaches at Sonoma State University, took opposite sides on whether or not private label wines are good for consumers.
I'm going to give you that intelligent wine conversation, and a conclusion.
But first, a primer. Private label wines are everywhere but don't announce their presence. There's an ocean of bulk wine made cheaply in California's San Joaquin Valley, Australia, Chile, and elsewhere. What a private label wine does is attempt to make it seem like this wine was handmade by a person from a single place. Lately some private-label companies promote the winemaker who "made" the wine when in fact the wine usually just came out of a tanker truck.
However, that doesn't mean it's bad wine. We are in a golden age of minimum wine quality, when most of the bacteriological flaws that existed in wine a generation ago have been eliminated. The biggest arguments against private-label wines are that they're inauthentic -- pretending to be something they're not -- or that the taste is one-dimensional and boring.
For many wine drinkers, these are not negatives.
It's easy to side with Felicity Carter in this discussion, but to understand Damien Wilson's point of view, you have to consider how powerful name brand wines are in the U.S. market. California has thousands of wineries, many of them small and artisanal, but just three companies produced about 60% of all California wine last year, according to Wine Business Monthly.
Is there any real difference between bulk wine sold in an established brand like Mark West or Black Box, owned by Constellation, or Glen Ellen or Cupcake, owned by The Wine Group, or bulk wine sold to a supermarket with a made-up name like Bubbling Brook Cellars? In some cases the Cabernet is pouring from the same spigot. This is not to say any of it is bad: it's just cheap and, to the enophile, not very interesting. But plenty of consumers like it: Cupcake and Black Box are among the hottest brands in America. So why wouldn't people like the same juice in a different container?
Here's how the discussion went: