I joined a wine club.
The offer came through my Amtrak credit card; American Cellars Wine Club promises wonderful values — ”wines that have been chosen by our experts after extensive evaluation and tasting.”
I checked out the website to find out which wines would be in my first shipment. I’d never heard of any of the wineries, but that just made the whole thing more fun. Indian Creek Pinot Blanc, Austin Cooper Cellars Pinot Gris, Green Groves Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Bramble Ridge Winery Merlot — don’t they sound intriguing? Small family projects that only survive because some nice wine club is willing to do their marketing?
The price was right, too. For my introductory shipment: only $7.99 a bottle, free shipping, and 2,000 Amtrak points. Future shipments, of course, cost more — but only $12 to $15 a bottle for these fabulous finds!
The six-pack arrived a couple of days later. These folks are fast.
Bottles looked great. Instead of putting them away for a special occasion or for company as I often do with special wines, I decided to get started on the tasting. It was, after all, my birthday week and shouldn’t I be drinking the good stuff?
Since I had pizza dough rising when the wines arrived, I picked out the ’09 Knoll Haven Winery California Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines notes admit that this isn’t a $100-plus bottle of cult wine but rather (“thanks to wineries such as Knoll Haven”) a food-friendly “food lover’s dream” with “notes of blackberry, black cherry, plum, cassis and mint.”
I was disappointed to discover a plastic cork underneath the seal, but even some of my favorite Yolo wineries have gotten suckered into plastic corks (please stop using them, neighbors!), so I wrote it off to temporary insanity on the part of the lovely Knoll Haven folks, who just wanted to make a good, food-friendly wine.
I wasn’t expecting a $50 Cab. But neither was I expecting Two-buck Chuck, which is what it tasted like. Oh dear.
The next night, I couldn’t face drinking the rest of the bottle, so I opened the ’09 Bridge Trail Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc. Again I was faced with a plastic cork. In fact, it was the same plastic cork. Hmmm.
I dumped the cork and poured a bit in my partner’s glass. She came downstairs, took a sip, and said, “Did this have a fake cork? It tastes like plastic.” She had never noticed a plastic cork in the past. I tried it. She had a point.
Well, once again the wine tasted nothing like a $20 bottle, a great find or a bargain of any sort. I guess it was food-friendly enough, if food-friendly means easy to ignore. But hey, during a recent meeting of the club’s tasting panel, this wine floated to the top of “three dozen bottles of SB” because “it pairs perfectly with everything from seared scallops to grilled shrimp, and from raw oysters to tiger prawns with garlic butter.”
My own response: were I going to invest in those expensive ocean items, I would most certainly invest in a better bottle.
OK, I admit it. I didn’t do my homework. It took these two wretched excuses for wine to make me sit down at the computer and research the wineries. Which seem not to exist.
Surely, though, I said to myself as I made my way down the list, I’ve heard of Austin Cooper. Isn’t that the high-end family winery in the Paso Robles area? No, that’s Austin Hope. Or maybe I’m thinking of Cooper Vineyards in Amador or Cooper Mountain Winery in Washington. No, Austin Cooper, besides conjuring up a cute little car, just suggests these well-regarded wineries. Nice marketing ploy.
I searched systematically for all six labels in my shipment. Oh, the wines do come up — on various wine club sites. But nowhere else.
I sent an immediate email to the club to cancel my membership — it came back just as immediately as an “unattended mailbox.” I called the special 800 members number (available seven days a week, I’m promised) only to reach a recording asking me to call back during their regular hours — Monday through Friday.
Meanwhile, I decided to try out a bottle on friends just to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating their awful-ness. This time the plastic cork didn’t surprise me. At least it had a slightly different design on it.
I also opened an inexpensive but interesting Parducci Arneis-Tokai Friulano blend that was slightly past its prime. The result: The Parducci’s entirely gone but we still have more than half a bottle of Austin Cooper Pinto Gris. (Austin Cooper’s goal, I’m told, is to create “a true expression of the variety.” That’s just the goal, though. To American Cellars Wine Club’s credit, they don’t actually claim that the goal was reached.)
The final sentence of this wine’s description, which I naively took as a joke, should have been sufficient warning: “a perfect pairing partner for fried chicken. KFC, anyone?”
I’m happy to give you the half-bottle. If you don’t have a nice cold leftover leg of The Colonel on hand, I’m sure this Pinot Gris would work equally well with a McD fish sandwich.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com