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Rod Byers

Fred’s at it again. Let me recap for a minute. Fred Franzia, you might recognize him as the progenitor of two-buck-chuck, bought a wine label called Napa Ridge.

Originally Beringer, located in Napa Valley, created the Napa Ridge label as one of their second labels. When Franzia bought the label they started filling the bottles with grapes grown in California’s central valley.

Napa Valley grape growers sued Fred, claiming that the juice from any bottle with the word “Napa” included in the brand name must be produced from grapes actually grown in Napa. Franzia bit back and the lawsuit was appealed for long enough to pay for several boats.

Finally, last summer the Napa Valley grape growers won with the court declaring that the word ‘Napa’ in the brand title indicated origin of location. Undaunted, Fred decided he would produce an inexpensive wine from grapes actually grown in Napa.

Now, fast forward to last week. I was in Trader Joe’s. I buy a lot of wine for my wine classes and pretty much if I see a bottle of wine with a Napa Valley appellation for under $10 I buy it. I figure it is either really awful or an undiscovered nugget. I bought a bottle of something I had never heard of before, Napa River, Napa Valley 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, for $4.99.

When I got home and researched it I discovered it was Franzia’s stick-it-in-your-eye answer to the lawsuit. Just to prove it could be done, and to taunt the double and triple digit producers of Napa Valley Cabernet, he bottled a few cases, well, 66,000 of them, of a $4.99 Cabernet. In case that didn’t make the point he bottled a few more cases of Napa Valley Chardonnay and Merlot as well.

OK, so bottled is bottled, but is the wine any good? On the last week of my wine class I like to have a Cabernet tasting. I buy as big a price spread of Cabernets as I can to try to check value for money. This year we had wines ranging from $4.99 to $65. I showed everyone what the labels were and then bundled the wines into bags to taste them blind – that means not knowing which bottle is which.

Before knowing which wine was which, one person said that he hoped the wine in question wasn’t expensive, that it would be terrible for an expensive wine but if it was the $5 wine, well, it was a pretty good drink. About a third of the class had the Napa River Cab among their top three picks, out of the nine wines poured, independent of price. So should you rush out and buy a case?

Wine is a very subjective sensory experience. First or worst, does someone have to be right or wrong? What I try to teach is that as long as you can clearly express why you do or don’t like a wine, you simply can’t be wrong.

Remember, two thirds of the class didn’t rate it highly at all. I am reminded of the art dealer who recognizes that pleasure is in the eye of the beholder or as a friend of mine used to say, that is what makes chocolate and vanilla ice cream.

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