During the distractions of the year-end holidays, you may have missed the news: Researchers at Michigan State University concluded that three corporations account for slightly more than half of all wine sales in the United States.
Wine's Big Three are E&J Gallo with 22.8 percent of the domestic wine market, the Wine Group (15.9 percent) and Constellation Brands (12.8 percent).
This may perplex wine enthusiasts who claim they never buy a Gallo wine and who can say honestly that they've never even seen a bottle of wine with either "the Wine Group" or "Constellation Brands" on the label.
That's because all three have amassed their grip on the American wine market by making wines under a wide range of imaginative brands. Gallo alone has more than 50, ranging from such historic brands as Louis M. Martini and Carlo Rossi to such modern and whimsical labels as Apothic Red and Polka Dot. The Wine Group's lineup includes Herding Cats, Cardinal Zin and Mogen David, while the portfolio of Constellation Brands includes Robert Mondavi, Monkey Bay and Simply Naked.
There's nothing new to the strategy. Even small wineries play it. The tiny Nevada County Wine Guild, for example, produces wine under five brands, including Our Daily Red, Orleans Hill and Well Re(a)d.
The intent behind such marketing is to fill the trade's numerous price niches, offer wines from an even broader range of appellations, and produce releases that will appeal to an ever-shifting demographic.
Interestingly, one of the country's larger wineries didn't make any of the charts and lists developed during the Michigan State study, and not because it is in remote and isolated Parlier southeast of Fresno. O'Neill Vintners & Distillers is a young but prosperous company, claiming to be the eighth-largest winery in the country by the volume of wine that emerges from its sprawling facility.
O'Neill flies under the industry radar, however, because most of the wine it makes is processed for its clients. O'Neill rounds up the grapes, processes the fruit into wine and then sells it in bulk to winery clients for bottling under their own brands. The identity of its clients is privileged information, but some of the wine O'Neill makes likely ends up as a product of the Big Three, which gets the credit.
Aside from its custom crushing, O'Neill has a few brands of its own, including Moscato Allegro and Pepi.
Another is Tin Roof Cellars, a brand O'Neill bought from Kendall-Jackson within the past few years. O'Neill, incidentally, takes its name from Jeff O'Neill, who founded O'Neill Vintners & Distillers in 2004 after building another large winemaking company, Golden State Vintners, into the nation's fifth-largest winery. With O'Neill, he continues a 20-year collaboration with his senior winemaker, Mark Rasmussen, who earned a degree in geology at UC Davis before commencing graduate studies in enology at Fresno State.
At any rate, with Tin Roof Cellars the two are showing that California can produce wines capable of competing in quality and value with popular inexpensive imports from Chile, Spain and elsewhere. All Tin Roof Cellars sell for a suggested retail price of $10.
As a group, the latest Tin Roof lineup holds in common clean fresh fruit, varietal faithfulness and a deceptive charm. Wines priced at $10 aren't expected to deliver much complexity, but in that regard the Tin Roof wines over-deliver. The 2011 sauvignon blanc is vivacious with suggestions of lime, grapefruit and jalapeño chile pepper.
The 2011 chardonnay, a mix of fruit from the Central Coast and Clarksburg, is pleasantly soft, with hints of apple and pear and a fleeting complexity from five months of sur-lie aging. The 2011 Red Blend, made of zinfandel, merlot and petite sirah grown at Lodi, struck me as a touch too sweet at first, but its lushness grew on me during a chili dinner. And the bright and aromatic 2011 cabernet sauvignon was all upfront cherries supported by the correct note of oak.
The only release not to bear a California appellation is the Tin Roof 2011 Lodi Zinfandel. This isn't your usually rich and concentrated Lodi zinfandel.
It's lighter and leaner than usual yet doesn't lack vitality and composure. From the first pour it pops with the smell and flavor of freshly harvested raspberries. All its brightness and restrained alcohol added up to a zinfandel consumed in record time when it was paired with a homemade calzone of prosciutto and spinach.
"It's a bit of a throwback wine, a more traditional zinfandel, from before they had to have 15.5 percent alcohol and (obvious) residual sugar," Rasmussen said. The wine was aged for about seven months in older barrels of American oak; thus the wood on the wine is more supportive than distracting to the fruit.
"Everything with this wine was done with a light touch," he added.
O'Neill Vintners and Tin Roof Cellars may not have made the Michigan State study of popular wine brands, but as long as they continue to fly under the radar that can only mean that the wines should remain readily available, at least until word of their quality and value gets around.
Tin Roof Cellars 2011 Lodi Zinfandel
By the numbers: 13.2 percent alcohol, 5,000 cases, $10
Context: Because of the zinfandel's youthfulness, freshness and restraint, Rasmussen recommends that it be poured with simpler dishes based on red meat.
"Burgers are always a good thing," he says.
Availability: In the Sacramento area, the zinfandel is available at Cost Plus World Market, Total Wine & More, Lee's Food King, A-1 Mart and Tallac Bottle Shop.
More information: Visit the Tin Roof Cellars website, www.tinroofcellars.com.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne's selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions and visits to wine regions. Read his blog at www.ayearinwine.com and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.