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02.13.2007

NV "The Big Red Monster" Red Table Wine, California

nv_big_red_monster.jpgYou wouldn't believe the sort of stuff I get in the mail.

Consumers are blissfully ignorant of the incredible amount of marketing dollars spent to push wines, not at everyday people, but specifically at journalists. In the last couple of years I've gained a certain amount of visibility in the wine world, and as a result, I receive a pretty steady stream of heavy boxes with "Adult Signature Required. 21 Years or older" stickers on them. Many of these simply contain a few bottles of wine and a letter from a winemaker urging me to try them. But many of them contain everything and anything imaginable that can be crammed into and around a bottle of wine for (presumably) dramatic effect.

Apparently, there are a whole set of wine marketing folks who think that if they gussy up a wine bottle with knicknacks, packaging, toys, and other bric-a-brac it's more likely to be reviewed by a journalist. I've received all of the following as part of promotional wine press packages: juggling balls; cheese and cheese knives; tapenade; olive oil; a kazoo; a novel in which the wine features prominently; corkscrews; sunglasses; a frisbee; a mechanical puzzle; chocolates; bubbles; a fruit basket; a calendar; a music CD; the list goes on and on.

And I'll let you in on a secret. Every one of the wines that has been sent to me with this sort of packaging has been unimpressive. Wait, let me revise that. All of these wines have fallen somewhere between downright awful and not so great. I have never reviewed a single one.

Until now.

This bottle of wine showed up in a big black box. Opening the box, I recoiled in horror (appropriately, it appears) to find a B-Rated marketing campaign come to life. A fake tabloid newspaper, The Daily Varietal reporting the opening of a movie entitled, "The Big Red Monster." A couple bags of microwave popcorn. Some movie film strips, a DVD of four classic B-rated horror movies, and then, of course, the requisite bottle.

All the other stuff went into the trash or recycling immediately, and the bottle was added to a group of Cabernet and Merlot wines that I intended to taste together at my first opportunity.

I popped the corks on them the other day, and was surprised to find that this wine actually merited some attention.

The Big Red Monster represents a type of wine becoming much more common around the United States. In France it would be called a negociant wine, but given some much of America's fear of all French terms for wine, it should simply be called an aftermarket wine.

Made from excess grapes and/or wine purchased from various sources around the state, this wine was blended together by winemakers Bob Pepi (formerly of Robert Pepi winery) and Jeff Booth (formerly of Conn Creek). These two have been working together as a team for over 15 years since they joined forces to create one of Napa's more famous bottlings, the Conn Creek Anthology. Together they run a winemaking consulting business, and presumably in their spare time, they cook up little projects like this one.

These aftermarket wines, which might also be called virtual labels, as they are not actual wineries but labels attached to some other winery's license to make wine, are quite difficult to write about since much of their making is shrouded in mystery by design. In most cases the contracts signed by winemakers who purchase excess fruit or wine specify strict non-disclosure clauses that keep anyone from revealing sources. Presumably most wineries don't want anyone knowing that their wine is being blended into some other brand, or even worse, sold under another label for generally much lower prices than the winery would normally command.

In the case of the Big Red Monster, it is supposedly a "member of Bennett Family Wines" which is yet another virtual label produced by a company called William Grant & Sons USA, which is a subsidiary of another international liquor company by the same name. It's all a bit like trying to track down the offshore investments of today's largest corporations. Winery based in Bermuda anyone?

In the absence of any real information about the wine, other than it is made of Syrah, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah from multiple recent vintages and from multiple regions of California, the only thing really tangible about the wine IS the marketing. As if it were a movie back lot, where all the buildings are just facades.

Of course with wine, we always come back to what is in the glass, and remarkably, Pepi and Booth have managed to craft something of substance. On reflection this is a fairly impressive feat, akin to a movie director scrounging for film scraps in various editing rooms for years and then assembling a coherent film out of his findings.

While you might not want to sit through the credits, this one is worth watching.

Full disclosure: Needless to say, I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Medium to dark purple in the glass this wine has a pleasant nose of cherry, cassis and vanilla aromas. In the mouth it is smooth and soft and round with no perceptible tannins and a mix of fruit flavors including black cherry, cherry, and cola. The wine is balanced, though perhaps possesses the tiniest hint of sweetness amidst all the ripe fruit. Not to beat a metaphor to death, but this wine is definitely a crowd pleaser for anyone who enjoys a bolder style of red wine with plenty of fruit. It won't win awards for sophistication, but sometimes you don't want to drink anything intellectual, you just want to drink something tasty.

Food Pairing:
Keep it simple with this wine. I'd be likely to serve this with a quick meal of some grilled sausages if I could get an opening in the rain to fire them up.

Overall Score: 8.5

How Much?: $10

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.

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