Chianti Isn’t That Complicated


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The charm in the old Italian restaurant of a short, fat bottle of wine that’s covered in straw is undeniable for many Americans of a certain age. The wine inside of that iconic Italian imagery, unfortunately, didn’t do the great Chianti wines of today any favors.

grape-sense-logoChianti is the most-recognizable red wine of Italy. It’s a table wine and a fine wine but it has a checkered past. Chianti producers were making swill and taking liberties with their wine blends until the international explosion of wine sales started in the 1990s. It was about that time, along with a younger generation of winemakers, that Tuscany wines took a leap in quality. New Italian government regulations narrowed how the wines were to be made.

Chianti is a wine region largely encompassing Florence down through Siena, Italy. The heart of Chianti is a designated grape-growing region for the best wines, Chianti Classico. The grape of these wines is Sangiovese. Chianti Classico can be 100 percent of the varietal but must be at least 80 percent Sangiovese to be called a Classico. The Italian grapes Canaiolo and Colorino are often used in the blend with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot also used to round out the flavor.

Chianti wines are most associated with red sauces. Or yes, pasta dishes and Chianti wines are the great pairing we know and often enjoy.

Chianti is not a sipping wine its best paired with food. Chianti often has bold acidity and can be quite tart but that’s why it pairs so nicely with red sauces.

Basic Chianti can always be found under $20. Chianti Classico has a bit of a higher price point but is worth the extra dollars. Classico usually has softer fruit and a more pleasing roundness to enjoy with your food.

Here are a couple of recent Chianti wines I’ve enjoyed:

Cecchi 2014 Chianti Classico – Tart cherry flavor and great balance. The Cecchi label is widely available. The wine can be found anywhere from $15 to $22. Cecchi Chianti Classico is a great value entry point for red Italian.

Castello di Albola  2013 Chianti Classico – Another entry level wine that is a bit softer on the palate but lighter on the fruit. The Albola was missing the typical pronounced acidity. I’d recommend this wine to folks trying Chianti for the first time. The wine can be purchased for around $16.

There are lots of Chianti choices in most wine shops, even liquor stores. There are too many for specific recommendations. A safe bet is to go with the Classico and enjoy Italy’s great Sangiovese grape with a good red sauce and pasta.

Buon Appetito!


Cold Weather Is Time for Muscle Wines


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This one is for you, guys!

One of the keys in helping people with wine is to appeal to the widest possible audience. The same applies to a wine column. Grape Sense has always focused on affordable wines but has kept the focus pretty diverse.

grape-sense-logoSometimes though a particular focus is helpful. There is a term in the wine world that can be very misleading – ‘feminine wine.’ Generally, the term means a lighter bodied wine with a light hand on the alcohol and mouthfeel.

I’ve never heard the term ‘masculine wine’ in my 8-10 years learning about wine. Occasionally, the term muscular is used, usually meaning big and bold. Well, today men let’s punch somebody in the mouth. Let’s talk about big, bold manly wine that makes you say “damn!”

There is enough cold weather left in the early days of 2017 to go big with your wine choices. Big wines go with big foods. Any discussion of big wines begins and ends with the “king of grapes” or Cabernet Sauvignon. Similar to never hearing about masculine wine I’ve never heard of a queen of grapes.

muscle-wine-illustrationCabernet is the most-planted red wine grape in the world. Cabernet is big fruit, big mouthfeel and big tannins on the finish to stand up to big food. Cabernet should be enjoyed with bloodied red meat, charred on the outside and medium rare on the inside. Growl!

Cabs can pair nicely with big bold, beef-based, stews as well. But nothing quite matches the muscle power of beef and Cab. Good value Cabs are J. Lohr, Robert Mondavi, Clos du Val, Louis Martini. You can usually find one of those on the grocery or liquor store shelf. Most of those wines sell for around $15. Keep in mind gents, big red wine often means big alcohol so choose carefully.

There is no more enjoyable pairing – maybe even with fewer grunts – is red wine and chocolate. Cab is pretty big for most chocolates and not the best pick for pairing. Get some good dark chocolate, about 70 percent dark, and pair it with a Zinfandel. Zin brings bigger and softer fruit than a cab with a nice peppery finish. Try Three Deadly Zins or Consentino Cigar Zin as a good pairing. If you have trouble finding either of those look for a Zin from Lodi, California. There are several good ones under $20.

For another choice I’d suggest Syrah. Washington Syrah is big, rich, smooth and fabulous value wine.

As you develop your wine and chocolate tastes try experimenting with the wine, sure, but experiment with the chocolate as well. The sweet chocolate bars at the checkout counter won’t cut it guys. Kroger stores are now carrying Lindt chocolate – a pretty decent and affordable choice. Experiment by going from 60-80 percent cacao. You might be surprised with the differences.

Real men drink red wine. Be bold and give the big boys a chance.

Ingredients for Valentines’ Lovers


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One of the great marketing slogans of all time might be “Virginia is for Lovers.” Who knows, they might still use that one. Valentine’s Day is for lovers. And here’s an argument that Valentine’s Day is for Pinot Noir lovers.

grape-sense-logoOver the past few years holidays like Halloween and Valentine’s Day have grown in popularity and celebration.

Valentine’s Day is the second largest card-sending holiday every year. There are estimates that more than 2.5 billion cards are sent each Feb. 14. The wine numbers are equally impressive. It’s hard to narrow down exactly when consumers pick up their Valentine wine but industry experts estimate more than $8.5 million is spent on wine for the lovers’ big day.

No column on Valentine’s Day would be complete without a quick history lesson. Yes, there was a Saint Valentine but that’s about where the agreement begins and ends. Officially, in the Catholic Church at least, Saint Valentine of Rome is the Saint most associated with Feb. 14. He is known as the patron saint for beekeepers, epilepsy, and of course engaged couples and happy marriages


Saint Valentine

And for all those engaged couples, happily married, or dating duos, it’s time to think about the lovers’ day on our annual calendar. A dozen roses, a nice dinner, great chocolate and an even better Pinot Noir can create an awesome and memorable holiday.

Let’s start with the chocolate and state the obvious. The names you know are not the ones you want to be pairing with your wine. Even with Pinot you want a darker chocolate. A good starting point for your chocolate is buy one with at least 60 percent cacao. Ghirardelli is a pretty good place to start. It’s easy to find and a really good mass-produced product. They flavor it up lots of different ways but keep it fairly simple with your wines.

Two great Indy area chocolatiers, and there are more than two, are Best Chocolate in Town on Mass Ave., and Chocolate for the Spirit, available online. Both make a high-end and elegant chocolate truffles and other treats worthy of your significant others. Sure, artisan chocolates aren’t going to come cheap – you can expect to pay $2-3 per chocolate truffle. But that’s the sort of gift your loved one is really going to appreciate.

Recommending a great Pinot in various price points and easy to find is tough but someone has to do it. If you are on a tight budget hit the local grocery wine aisle or liquor store and look for Mark West. The West pinot is almost always under $10, light bodied, but has correct Pinot Noir flavor.

It gets easier if you step up between $10-$20 price range there are many decent picks. Meiomi Pinot Noir is very widely distributed and sells around $16-$17. Meiomi Pinot is the biggest selling Pinot in the U.S. It’s a consistent product, perhaps a tad sweeter on palate than some, but a good choice.

Step up to the $20-$30 range then you’re talking significantly better wine. I’ve suggested in this column space many times that Lange Estate Winery’s Willamette Valley’s Pinot Noir is one of the best buy wines of any varietal. You can find it in better wine shops in the mid-$20 range.

If you want to splurge and go above the $30 price point, I’d recommend a great Oregon Pinot Noir. Bergstrom, Lange, Adelsheim, Winderlea, Domaine Drouhin, and Domaine Serene are just a few of the great names from Oregon. Those wines will be in a silky and refined style.

If you want something bigger look to Sonoma’s Russian River Valley or the California Central Coast.

Buy your bestie some really good chocolate and a nice Pinot Noir and your Valentine’s Day is sure to be a great one.

White Zin’s Lasting Damage


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The California mega-wine producers of the late 1970s and early 1980s did the wine industry a great favor and terrible injustice.

At a time when not much of anyone was drinking wine, California winemakers came up with something called “White Zinfandel.” The pink wine was refreshing and sugary. Think of it as a bowl of frosted cornflakes or Fruit Loops in a glass.

grape-sense-logoWhite Zinfandel is a punch line today for uneducated palates and super sweet pink juice. Still, many will quickly tell you that the pink was a populist wine winner that got Americans drinking wine. That’s all true but things have changed.

Most American’s moved from White Zinfandel to Chardonnay and then the 1976 Judgement of Paris proved California red wines were just as good as the world’s best. American’s palates evolved a lot in the 70s and 80s.

In keeping with the 2017 theme of trying new things, if you haven’t been drinking dry rose’ then it’s time for you to catch up.

It wasn’t long ago anything pink would be laughed off the shelves at places like Carmel, Indiana’s Vine and Table wine shop. But over the last ten years rosé wine sales have exploded. That explosion has been led by southern France’s Provence wine region.

Provence sales have increased over the past decade by double digits annually. But sales exploded in 2015 to more than a 50 percent increase.

“Every year it seems to increase. Last year we did close to 3 palates of rose between March and October,” said Brendan Kennedy, wine buyer for Vine and Table. “It definitely dies down after October but it does seem to increase every year, definitely.”

roseWhy the huge boom in sales? Rosé wines offer a flexibility for serious and casual wine drinkers. “I love it with food and it is great on its own as a backyard patio wine,” Kennedy said. “But there are still a lot of people out there who are very scared of the pink wine because White Zin gave it a very bad name.”

Kennedy calls on the wine’s versatility when pitching it to customers. “It’s a fun wine to drink on its own but pairing it kicks the door wide open. You might not pair rosé with red meats but white meats, fish, chicken, and salad – it goes great.”

Vine and Table, and other prominent Indiana retail wine shops are featuring rosé wines in their spring and summer tasting events.

With a rosé sales explosion some would expect consumers to climb the price ladder but that’s not necessarily so. Kennedy explained if consumers are used to buying a $15-$20 bottle of wine they’re probably going to stay in that range for rosé. And make no mistake, great pink wines are available in that price range. But another $10 on that price tag delivers an even bigger reward.

I always try to push people’s limits with rosé because they think it’s sort of a plain and simple wine but once you get into the Sanceres they’re complex, really a lot going on, and they have nice acidity. I think if you try some of those higher end rosés you’ll be rewarded for it.”

Provence rosé is made from a blend of traditional southern France grapes. Most of the best U.S. rosé wines are often 100 percent Pinot Noir.

Want some higher end names? Try Domaine Ott, Miraval, and Domaine Tempier. Those are great Provence names. Better wine shops will have a few of the Sancerre wines Kennedy mentioned. Most will retail $20-$30. A personal favorite is California’s Sonoma County’s Raymond Vineyards rose’.

There is nothing wrong if your think pink is White Zin in 2017 but try thinking pink with a dry rose’ and enjoy the delightful difference.

Expand Your Wine Palate in 2017


New Year columns run the gamut from Top 10 lists to personal highlights from a wino’s adventures.

But let’s look forward to 2017 and how you can enhance and, arguably improve, your wine drinking experience in the new year. Here are some tips for expanding your palate.

grape-sense-logoTake your favorite varietal and explore the options. Exploration might be the best education tip anyone can offer. We all know wine drinkers who will only drink Cabernet, Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay. That’s okay but that’s not as limiting as it first might seem.

Cabernet Sauvignon is planted around the world and sipping your way around the world is anything but boring. Most everyone starts with California Cabernet and there is nothing wrong with that. California Cabernet, and particularly Napa Cabs, are the benchmark for wine in the U.S. Most of those Cabs are big, bold, and tannic. But if you love the flavor and would like a more rounded red wine with your steak try Washington State cabernet. Washington Cabs often have more approachable rich and rounded fruit with less of the back-end bite. Washington wines are also great bargains. You’ll even find more and more Washington Cabernet on grocery store shelves.

There are great Cabernets coming out of South America. Chile, in particular, is producing better Cab every year. Italy is featuring more Cabernet in many of its wines even a few 100 percent Cab bottlings. If you’ve never had a true “Super Tuscan,” make 2017 the year you explore the style. A Super Tuscan is most often a blend dominated by the native Sangiovese Grape and Cabernet.

Finally, the trickiest test is the grand left bank Bordeaux wines. It’s hard to find quality Bordeaux under $50 or so but they’re out there. First, remember Bordeaux wines are blends. They’re going to be softer on the palate and often need some age in the bottle. If you want to try Bordeaux, go to a fine wine story and ask for some advice on the labels available.

The other way to explore is at price point. Now some people have a dollar limit, say $15-$20, they’re just never going to surpass. That’s okay but press your budget a time to two upward and the quality and drinkability difference is surprising.

You can expand your palate with any of the major grapes. If you like Chardonnay start again in California with the big buttery chards, find an unoaked Chard, then explore up the coast to the almost Chablis-like Chardonnay wines of Oregon.

Many real wine geeks reach their geekiness peak with Pinot Noir. Try California’s rich Central Coast Pinots, Sonoma and its Russian River Valley Pinot, then move to Oregon for the lighter style Pinot Noirs. But much like Cabernet and Bordeaux, you might want to venture up in price point and sample some of the world’s best Pinot with a Burgundy purchase. There are good examples of Burgundy around $40-$60 a bottle. Look for Joseph Drouhin, Albert Morot, or Louis Jadot. Those are three names available in Indiana and they’re large reputable producers.

Thanks for reading Grape Sense and have a Happy New Year!

Marrow Continues Adam’s Indy Success


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Smoked duck leg with seared duck breast – delicious!


Restaurants come and go but occasionally someone comes along with just the right touch. Perhaps a clichéd analogy of getting all the ingredients just right is the best description for a fine dining, long-term success in any city.

John Adams has had such a run in Indianapolis. Now outside big-time foodies the name John Adams probably doesn’t mean much – other than that Revolutionary War guy. Right?


Chef Adams

John Adams is unquestionably one of Indy’s best chefs and has helped draw lots of national attention to Indy’s food scene. Adams helped open and establish Bluebeard, in Fletcher Place near Fountain Square. Bluebeard is a chef-driven, local and fresh food spot that some might argue started the Indy food boom. Bluebeard, while under Adams’ chef knife, garnered a 2012 James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant.

Adams next project was a seafood-focused restaurant on 9th and Pennsylvania called Plow and Anchor. But his latest efforts seem to be what he’s been looking for all along. Marrow, in Fountain Square, allows the chef to focus on his “globally inspired cuisine made from the freshest locally sourced ingredients.”

I had a reason to celebrate Jan. 6 so it was time to explore Marrow since its now been open over a year. How many times in life can you say, “That was the best meal of my life.” I’ve dined in many fine dining restaurants and the Marrow experience is at the top in Indy and one of best I’ve had.

We decided to explore the menu. Since I was celebrating we started with Camille Braun Cremant D’Alsace Brut Rose. It was about $50 and awesome. It was beautiful Loire Valley bubbly Rose’ of Pinot.

We chose pickles and corn muffins as our table snacks. The muffins were small with a nice crunchy exterior. But the sorghum-miso butter took them to extraordinary. The pickle plate feature squash, daikon, mushrooms, and pineapple. The snacks were $10 combined.



Crab and Avocado

We ordered a hot and cold appetizer. The cold was Jonah Crab and Avocado Salad ($17). The avocado salad was bright and refreshing while the small crab claws provided fresh tasting crab meat that took a little work but well worth it.

I ordered the Seared Foie Gras ($17). My dinner mate was certain she did not want to try it but I insisted – then she came back for more. The foie gras was seared beautifully to add texture and flavor. It was served with cheddar polenta, bourbon braised fennel and pear, crispy shallots and a slow poached egg! It was packed with flavor and a mixture of textures.

Our two main dishes arrived with a nice entry-level Elk Cove Pinot Noir ($54). The Pinot was really rich, smooth and minimal acidity for an Oregon Pinot Noir. This wine is widely available in Indiana in the mid-$20 range.


Scallops atop lobster risoto

My friend  order Duck Duo ($32) – a smoked duck leg and seared breast served with scallion pancakes, leeks, apricot hoisin, peanuts and steamed rice. That leg was smoked wonderfully with deep smoky flavor. The breast was cooked just right leaving a juicy bite that really countered the smoky leg.

I ordered Seared Scallops ($34) that was one of my all-time favorite dishes. The scallops were perfectly seared but it was the lobster risotto base that we both gushed over. I’d like a bucket to go, John! The dish included cucumber, pickled carrot and daikon, toasted peanuts, papaya rum sauce, sambal, and boiled egg.


We wrapped up with a couple of desserts. My friend enjoyed a really light Meyer Lemon Budino ($8) that was a nice palate cleanser. I’m always a sucker for Panna Cotta. I had the Buttermilk Pana Cotta ($8) with pomegranate and orange relish.

You follow along, you can see it’s not an inexpensive meal but it is one that will deliver on every dollar. We went all out because it was a special occasion. I have criticized a number of Indy restaurants – nary a negative word about Marrow. It’s worth your hard-earned, high-end, dining dollars!

Grape Sense Column Expands Reach


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In recent years, I have to admit I haven’t worked as hard at expanding the reach of the column as I did in the early years. There is no real excuse other than I’ve been doing this eight years. At one point, I had hit 23 newspapers in three states and circulation in more than  300,000 homes.

It’s hard keeping  track of who is and  isn’t running it – I just send it out. I know a few papers have dropped by the side but most of those 23 still run the column. A few of those papers regularly post Grape Sense to their websites.

I got a real boost this week when  I learned CNHI, a newspaper ownership group with a dozen or more Indiana  papers, is posting the column to their papers’ websites. Some of those papers download the column for print but some just let it run on  their web presence. I was urging papers to run the column as an “online extra” years ago.

But this week’s news was Kokomo, Terre Haute, Goshen, Jeffersonville, Logansport, Greensburg, Batesville, Hendricks County, Zionsville, Anderson, and Lebanon all have the wine column posted. (Those papers in  bold face were already running the column.)

Additionally, Grape Sense will be one of the features in a new Elkhart area entertainment weekly. The Hart will hit newsstands in the coming weeks.

The column, in many ways, has far exceeded some of my hopes from when I started in 2007. The reach across the Hoosier state has given me a platform I never dreamed possible.

Thanks to all of my editors and newspapers for sharing Grape Sense.






Mixing Wine, Politics Messy


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Mixing the world of politics and wine might be a bit like oil and water for some readers. But there comes a point, and it could come soon, that politically-based decisions could have a huge impact on wine and particularly the cost of wine.

President-elect Donald Trump’s repeated talk of deportation of some or all of the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers has thrown a scare into wine country.

grape-sense-logoAll across the nation many vineyard owners use mostly migrant or Hispanic workers to harvest the annual grape crop. While visiting upper state Michigan in 2010 winery owners talked about the lack of a strong labor market for harvest and the scare of immigration changes that could cost the industry dearly.

The numbers are big. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 67 percent of people picking fruit each year are immigrants.  The Ag department reports that harvesting costs represent 72 percent of labor cost in making Napa Valley wines. The only crop with a higher percentage of labor cost in California is asparagus.

If the harvest workforce was substantially reduced the impact would range from more expensive end products to the reduction of product in the marketplace. Hiring legal workers would, frankly, be more expensive.

The other alternative is to make the switch to machine picking. The two negatives with machine picking is the cost of the equipment and a hit to wine quality. The top bottlings from any region are almost always hand-picked and sorted.

A big labor problem could soon get worse. Of course, this isn’t a wine problem only. The cost of fruits and vegetables could all increase with a big increase in labor cost. Some crops could just disappear from the market shelf.

On another front, the end of the year brings Top 10 lists, surveys, and sales numbers. Wine trends are evaluated every month of the year but it’s worth sharing for those who aren’t inundated in wine news.

It is no surprise that red wine blends continue to be one of the hottest categories in wine retail. Blends are turning up everywhere. The market for blends is moving toward bigger and bolder. Wine buyers want rich red wine with grapes like Malbec, Petite Sirah, and Petit Verdot.

Another interesting year-end chart really jumped off the page. Wine sales can be broken down many different ways. Recently I saw a list of the nation’s best-selling wines based on actual sales.

The top ten sellers for the year were: Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Veuve Clicquote Yellow Label Champagne, Trivento Malbec Reserve, Hara de Pirque Hussonet Gran Reserva Cabernet, Meomi Pinot Noir, Rombauer Chardonnay, Miraval Rose, Clos du Val Cabernet, Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet, and Borgo Scopeto Chianti Classico.

There is a real price range in those top ten sellers. The Brancott sells for under $10 while the Caymus Cabernet domes in at $69.99. Five of the top ten wines retail under $20.


An Indy northside-inspired dinner


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So this blog is all about wine – well, at least most of the time. But the longer its been around the more often I get asked about some of the things I enjoy with wine – where I buy my wine, etc.

Let’s take tonight’s dinner for example. I made a big frying pan full of pasta/meat sauce that will provide a couple of meals beyond this evening. The wonderful sweet Italian sausage comes from Fresh Market at 54th and College. They also have a hot version for those a bit more spice inclined than me. it’s a wonderful upscale market. you can buy the mild or sweet sausage in bulk or large links. I like to slice up the links and combine with ground turkey.


Tonight’s northside ingredients

It goes over really tasty and firm pappardelle from Nicole Taylor’s pasta shop. This stuff is great. The little shop tucked in an older strip mall is just down 54th from Fresh Market. After crossing the Monon Trail and seeing Mama Carolla’s landmark restaurant on your right, turn into the plaza on your left.

Tonight my glass of wine is – brace yourself – Merlot from Blackbox I picked up at Fresh Market. I tried this a few months back and its even better this time. I have it in my Boxxle, which I wrote a column about. It’s great to have a small glass of wine without opening a bottle.

But do buy a lot of wine in the area. One of my favorite stops for great weeknight wine is Cork & Cracker on 62nd close to Keystone Ave and a short drive out of Broad Ripple. Ask if Ron is in and tell him Howard sent you.

Chocolate, Julie

Julie Bolejack

Even a Tuesday night dinner at home deserves a small dessert. I dug out a piece of chocolatier Julie BoleJack’s incredible dark chocolate Purple Sue from Chocolate for the Spirit. Let’s just  call it  a small bite of incredible dark chocolate, with raspberry-rose ganache, and a hint of violet liqueur. These are not inexpensive but you won’t regret it. You might even be like me and wipe Julie’s supply out on future visits. She has a small shop on Carmel Drive, Carmel, that she is closing at end of this month. But she will still be making chocolates.

Dinner from the northside – it works for me.

Gifting Wine for the Holidays


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Christmas gifts, holiday parties, and New Years are always occasions for a great gift of a good bottle of wine.

Gifting wine during the holidays is as much of a tradition as lighting the Menorah, decorating the tree, or singing the seasonal songs.

grape-sense-logoBut giving a friend, boss, or client a bottle of wine doesn’t come without some trepidation. Since beginning the column, now more than eight years ago, I’ve often tried to take a journalistic approach to Grape Sense. I’ve written recommendation columns and will do so again.

But to talk holiday giving I asked friend and wine retailer Ron Miller, owner of Cork and Cracker near Broad Ripple in Indianapolis. Ron’s shop is one you should wish was near you. He has hundreds of choices under $20 and two walls of wine at higher price points.

He’s used to getting the holiday gift question. “Oh yes, we get it a lot this time of year,” Miller said. “We get questions for a lot of corporate gifts where someone is giving to clients so they don’t know what they’re going to want so we stick to Cabernet or Pinot Noir or if its white more standard items like Chardonnay.”


Ron Miller

Whether It’s a gift for a friend, a client or your boss price point matters if you’re trying to impress. “What we get a lot is they want to get a name brand the recipient is going to recognize,” Miller said. “But we don’t buy based on names but we do have some well–known labels. If they’re in the price point, we’ll give them a name the recipient will recognize.

“But we don’t carry Silver Oak and Caymus, those are some labels a lot of people will ask for because ‘they’ll know how much I’ve spent.’”

If it’s a bottle for a friend or to take to that party, it gets a little simpler. “First we ask what kind of price point do they want to be in and do they know what their friend likes,” Miller said. “We always get the price point. if they know what their friend likes we try to match up something that we think they will like. If they’re not sure we kind of stick with the standard Cabs, Chardonnay, and Pinots.”

It’s safe to say the advice probably wouldn’t be much different at any other reputable wine store. But it’s better, I think, hearing from someone who sells wine for a living.

I’d end by echoing Ron’s advice. If you have any doubt go the safe route with a Cabernet, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. I’ll do what Ron won’t though and suggest you get up to at least the $20 price point for good quality wine.