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Cupcake Wines

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By Gil Kulers

Great Wine Is A Piece of (Cup) Cake

If you’ve been in the supermarket’s wine aisle in the past year or so, you are probably familiar with the current “it” wine—Cupcake.

You got a wine need? The folks who bring you Cupcake have a bottle for you. You want a chard? Covered. Cabernet sauvignon? Naturally. Merlot? Of course. Riesling? They’ve got two, one from Germany and one from Washington. Argentinean malbec? Italian Pinot grigio? Australian shiraz? Yes, yes and yes. They even have three different sparkling wines.

Cupcake Vineyards make a lot of wine and most of it is remarkably good.

Cupcake Vineyards make a lot of wine and most of it is remarkably good.

These types of outfits, which aim to be all wines to all people, are just the kind of wines that critics love to hate. When a winemaker is pumping out millions of cases a year, it’s hard to envision quality, hand-crafted wines, aging silently in oak barrels (the stuff wine critics love to write about). In 2009, Cupcake Vineyards produced 237,754 gallons of chardonnay alone. That’s enough chardonnay to fill an average backyard pool…12 times. Hard to get romantic about that.

Luckily, most operations that produce wine on a gargantuan scale make wine that’s pretty average, approaching awful. These are not fun to try, but they’re easy to ignore. But what if a mega-winery did make a whole lot of pretty decent wine and put it in a package that captured the attention (and money) of wine shoppers? Don’t these winemakers deserve some love or at least some admiration for pulling off such a feat?

The reigning “it” wine producer you might be familiar with is [yellow tail]. Considering the 20 or so different [yellow tail] labels, this Australian producer did a fairly good job of marketing. I was never completely sold on their rather jammy shiraz or their slightly sweet chardonnay, despite their redonkulous popularity. (I must note that [yellow tail]’s relatively new reserve line is a significant step up).

Cupcake is everything [yellow tail] is and then some. After avoiding the inevitable for several months, I recently opened the cutesy-labeled Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand with its cobalt blue cupcake icon and its smarmy description on the back that compares the wine’s flavors to lemon chiffon cupcakes. Ugh! I didn’t want to like this wine, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.

This spurred me to go to my wall of wines that I’ve been meaning to try but never seem to get around to. I swept together seven Cupcakes to investigate further (the chardonnay, the cabernet sauvignon, the merlot, the pinot noir, all from Central Coast, Calif., the shiraz from Barossa Valley, Australia, the malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, and the Riesling from Columbia Valley, Wash.).

The chardonnay and the pinot noir had a bevy of complex aromas and flavors that belied their $14 price tags. They were absolutely my favorites. Remarkably, though, all the wines were quite good—two thumbs up or better. That’s a rare event even for wineries with more limited production that don’t have operations on four continents and one island nation.

So, it’s not impossible to make a lot of wine from a lot of places and sell it for a pretty reasonable price. I can’t find too much fault with that. I raise my tasting glass to Adam Richardson and his team. Richardson is the wine director for Underdog Wine Merchants, which owns the Cupcake operation, and he is the winemaker of record for Cupcake.

Cupcake’s omnipresence may ruin its chances for special events or romantic Saturday night dinners.  But it’s nice have a go-to wine for mid-week mac-n-cheese nights or something you can throw in a glass when you kick off your shoes after a long day.

Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators. You can reach him at gil.kulers@winekulers.com.

2009 Cupcake Vineyards Chardonnay, Central Coast, Calif.

2009 Cupcake Vineyards Chardonnay, Central Coast, Calif.

• $14

• Two Thumbs Way Up

• Engaging and plentiful aromas of apricot, green apple, poached pear, cinnamon, vanilla and lemon zest. It has a bright acidity and flavors of green apple, pear and lemon-lime with a subtle toasted brioche, vanilla quality. It finished with a pleasant tangerine note.

2008 Cupcake Vineyards Pinot Noir, Central Coast, Calif.

2008 Cupcake Vineyards Pinot Noir, Central Coast, Calif.

• $14

• Two Thumbs Way Up

• Lots of aromas of bright raspberry, white flowers, new leather and cinnamon. It has pleasant and subtle flavors of dry cherry, candied apple, cream soda, chocolate-coved malt ball and a smoky, spicy cinnamon quality.

(Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from thumbs down, one thumb mostly up, one thumb up, two thumbs up, two thumbs way up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.)

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