by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
Surely you remember Bartles & Jaymes. They were those wine coolers in the mid 1980s with two old geezers sitting on their porch in suspenders and yakking away at enjoying a refreshing drink on a summer day. Those coolers were all the talk for quite a few years or until excise taxes were raised on alcohol. Gallo stripped the beverage of alcohol to avoid the taxes, but then the coolers weren’t much more than lime-ade. Sales plummeted. That opened the door to a spate of malt-based concoctions, like Zima and Mike’s Hard Lemonade.
In 2019, Bartles & Jaymes launched a comeback and put the wine back in the cooler with only 4 percent alcohol. But today the boys don’t own the market like they did in the 1980s. In fact, they share it with a flood of seltzers hoping to capitalize on the millennial market.
We decided to take a look at the seltzers, sangrias and other concoctions that are competing for your summer attention. Roll up the sleeves for warmer weather -- there is a lot to digest.
Most popular are the hard seltzers made famous by White Claw. Also called spiked seltzer, these canned drinks add alcohol from fermented sugar cane or malted barley to flavored sparkling water. Consumers like them because they don’t have the same high carbs as beer, although the alcohol content (calories!) is about the same. They come in a rainbow of exotic flavors to keep you interested, but we find them to be a lot of bubbles without much flavor. But we’re as old as the actors on Bartles & James, so what do we know?
Millennials are drifting away from once-popular craft beers to join the seltzer craze, so much so that beer manufacturers such as Budweiser and Corona have launched seltzer products. White Claw is still on top.
Wine producers also pivoted by getting into the seltzer market. Just recently, Decoy, which is part of California’s Duckhorn portfolio, launched a wine seltzer. With 5.5 percent alcohol and only 80 calories, these seltzers are even gluten-free and have no added sugar unlike the most hard seltzers. They are sold four 8.4-ounce cans to a pack ($15).
A crowd favorite at a recent tasting was the Decoy Premium Seltzer Chardonnay with Clementine Orange. It has the most flavor for us. It also comes in a rose with black cherry, chardonnay with lemon and ginger, and a sauvignon blanc with vibrant lime.
14 Hands also has a delicious canned rose ($35 for a six pack) with delicious strawberry and watermelon flavors.
Spritzers are usually wine-based and have more calories and alcohol. Fruit & Flower out of Washington state is made from grape wine and natural flavor, but the alcohol level is 13 percent. We liked the passion fruit flavor. Four-pack cans cost $11.
Not in a bottle, but perhaps the most enjoyable of the lot, was Flybird Baja Lime Margarita made in Mexico. Called a wine cocktail, it is made entirely of agave wine, fresh lime and natural citrus flavors. It has the unmistakable aroma of a margarita and about 15 percent in alcohol. With 11 grams of sugar and about 160 calories a serving, this is hardly a hard seltzer recipe.
Flybird also makes a strawberry margarita mix. The cost is about $10-12 for a 750 milliliter bottle.
The seltzers offer the best healthy recipe, but we feel the urge to add some spirit to them, which of course would defeat their purpose. Still, they fit neatly into ice coolers, which makes them appealing to the tailgate and boating crowds.
Of course, you can buy canned wines without the bubbles that usually taste a lot better if you can ignore the calories and carbs. Bonterra Organic wine is a good choice.
We also like A to Z Bubbles and Underwood spritzers.
Among the spritzers, we enjoyed Line 39 ($12 for a four pack) in attractive resealable aluminum bottles. They come in a sauvignon blanc with lemon, a pinot noir with black cherry and a rose with a dash of strawberry.
These handy wines offer a nice alternative to glass bottles.
Turnbull Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($50). This veteran producer often flies under the radar, but manages to produce consistently balanced and approachable wines. Blended with a little cabernet franc, petit verdot, merlot and malbec, it has luscious plum and blackberry aromas, jammy raspberry and cherry flavors with soft tannins.
Decoy California Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($25). This cabernet sauvignon may be broad in grape sourcing but it has Duckhorn’s stamp of quality. By blending some merlot, zinfandel, petite sirah, syrah and petit verdot, the winemaker has created a delicious and quaffable red wine with juicy black fruit flavors.
Tenuta Frescobaldi de Castiglioni IGT 2018 ($24). A super-Tuscan blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and sangiovese, this delicious wine has ripe blackberry and cassis notes with hints of licorice and black pepper. Frescobaldi’s chianti at $16 is another a great valuable from this respectable house.
El Tractor Reserve Malbec Mendoza 2017 ($14). Luscious plum and raspberry flavors with a hint of vanilla. Great value.
Gary Farrell Olivet Lane Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 ($45). From the Russian River Valley – a terrific area for chardonnay – this single vineyard wine has great balance with grapefruit and citrus aromas and stone fruit flavors. With just a kiss of oak, its creamy texture takes center stage.