Review: Oak Leaf’s $1.97 Chardonnay and Merlot

How good can something cheap really be? When last I broached this topic I found there was some correlation between wine prices and quality, but that it was fairly weak. But that analysis doesn’t really apply to the rock-bottom pricing that rules the world of jug wines, box wines, and stuff like Oak Leaf, a new label of “Extreme Value Wines” (their words), which sell in California Wal-Marts for $1.97 a bottle ($2.97 everywhere else).

By now few are surprised by $2 wine. Two-Buck Chuck (aka Charles Shaw) has been a massive seller in these parts for years. I even know people that swear by it. (I can’t stand the reds but, if forced, I can stomach the whites.) It isn’t surprising that other labels would like to grab a little of Chuck’s market share.

Oak Leaf Vineyards is the latest challenger, and the company’s selling Chardonnay, a Pinot Grigio/Chardonnay blend, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and White Zinfandel. I tried the Chardonnay and the Merlot (all the wines are non-vintage, with no year specified) just to answer the question: How good (or bad) could this stuff possibly be? (After all, the label has actually won at least four medals at various wine competitions!)

The answer: Surprising, but not in the way I expected. Though “cheap white” is usually a better bet than “cheap red,” the Chardonnay was a miss, lacking much structure at all and reminding me more of the kids’ apple juice that had sat out too long and fermented than of real wine. The punch of alcohol is strong, feeling almost like a fortified wine (or at least a doctored one). I give it a C- at best.

The surprise was the Merlot, which was immeasurably better than the Chard, though still nothing to write home about. An initially decent mouthful of light fruit is palatable, but it ultimately gives way to some bitterness and green, vegetal notes. Again, that punch of raw alcohol, though much slighter here than in the white. It’s passably drinkable in a way that the Chardonnay is not, but it’s hardly something to treasure and hang on to for when you’re grilling a filet mignon. Let’s call it a C+.

Would I go out of my way to pick up a bottle of Oak Leaf? No, but the sheer feat of getting wine into a bottle at retail for 197 cents is nothing short of impressive. I will add that extreme value wines like this do serve one important role in the beverage industry: They expose people who’d otherwise be drinking beer, soda, or something else to wine in a positive way, rather than the overwhelmingly negative one associated with, say, Thunderbird. Oak Leaf, I would hope, might give drinkers a taste for wine… and then encourage them to aim one shelf higher with their next purchase.


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34 Responses to Review: Oak Leaf’s $1.97 Chardonnay and Merlot

  1. I found the Merlot to pretty much be junk in my opinion. The Cabernet Sauvignon and the Pinot Grigio / Chardonnay are well worth it. I also hope this brings some more wine drinkers in to the game. I think for a step up people should look into the Jacob’s Creeks Wines. At $6 for 720ml (a standard bottle) it is a great deal also. On my site cheapwinecritics.com I have seen goo feedback on both, but massive positive feedback on Oak Leaf Vineyards wine. All my site reviews is wines $12.00 and under.

  2. love your merlot wine. would love to order several bottles.

  3. I love the taste of your merlot wine. I would like information on how to order a case. I cannot seem to find it here in Pennsylvania.

  4. I bought the merlot tonight & it’s not amazing, but I’d be a liar if I said I wouldnt buy it again. I enjoyed it. Another favorite of mine is from the brand “barefoot’.

  5. Oak Leaf Vineyards (Ripon, Calif.) does not really exist as such; instead it is a production facility of The Wine Group, Inc. Oak Leaf wine is the private label non-vintage wine marketed by The Wine Group (the box wine people) only to Wal-Mart stores. (Not E&J Gallo as some reviews contend.)

    Headquartered in San Francisco (about 70 miles west of Ripon), The Wine Group’s labels include such well known brands as Corbett Canyon, Inglenook, Mogen David, Franzia, Almaden and Glen Ellen wines. The firm recently relocated their operations center from San Francisco to Livermore, Calif., about mid-way between San Francisco and Ripon.

    Privately held, The Wine Group was once part of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York. And being privately held, its operation and products are kept pretty much secret. It doesn’t even have a corporate website, although it does have brand-related sites. Strange for the second largest wine producer in California (more than 40 million cases produced annually), second only to Gallo.

    Oak Leaf wines are very similar to Bronco’s Charles Shaw wines (affectionately nicknamed “Two Buck Chuck”) which sells for $1.99 at Trader Joe’s stores. Headquartered in Monrovia, Calif., Trader Joe’s 300 stores has sold millions of cases of what the trade calls “extreme value wines.” Due to transportation charges to outlying states, the price can be a dollar more.

    The Charles Shaw label is a brand of the Bronco Wine Company (Ceres, Calif.) owned by John and Fred Franzia (formerly of Franzia Brothers wines.) The Franzias (nephews of Ernest Gallo) sold the Franzia brand name to The Wine Group and started Bronco Wines and they are competitors. The Franzia family, which now has no relationship to Franzia brand boxed wine, has made wine in California for over 100 years. Bronco is California’s third largest wine producer.

    Oak Leaf Vineyards (which doesn’t even have its own telephone number) is one of hundreds of wine brands bottled by The Wine Group in Ripon. It does not release the private labels of the wines it makes but there are many.

    Oak Leaf wines come in five varietals: Cabenet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio/Chardonnay and White Zinfandel. The standard 750-ml bottles with an artificial cork have an elegant label that shows four seasonal oak trees, one for Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter.

    We are not one to place a lot of importance on awards since it seems all wineries get them. But Oak Leaf Vineyards did win a gold medal at the prestigious Florida State International Wine Competition and Silver and Bronze at the 2008 San Francisco Wine Competition. Incredible for a $3 wine! And the Summer-2008 edition of “O at Home” magazine (an Oprah Winfrey publication) featured Oak Leaf wine on its cover with the tag line: “The $3 bottle of wine that will blow you away.” On page 19, they picture Oak Leaf Chardonnay and call it “The steal of the season.”

    I like the Cabernet Sauvignon best. It is a full favored, medium body wine with a fruity aroma of berry, spice, vanilla and oak …pretty smooth and no unpleasant aftertaste. This is not a sophisticated wine but a terrific value at $2.97.

    Wine snobs won’t like it because it is inexpensive and comes from Wal-Mart. But the fact is that it is better than one would expect. I certainly have had $10-$15 French wine far worse. Wal-Mart sells out of it fast, so I buy several bottles whenever they have it. So far, it has been consistently good …a problem with low price wines. One Bottle is good …the next not so good. It’s perfect for an everyday wine to compliment dine-in dinner. Goes with almost anything. I rate it an “80″ out of 100.

  6. Margery santoni

    I was given a bottle from a friend in canada, I would like some more. I really enjoyed it. Where can I find it.

    Howard beach new York

  7. Kenneth Eriaiubor

    The best wine ever and the best $2.97 wine ever. I never thought a wine cost this low will be good after I tried it at VA Wal-mart while on vacation, its good and the best

  8. Better than ok. Not full bodied like a shiraz, but merlot is generally not.

    What I liked in addition to the $2.97 price is that wines at the lower end of the price range can be very tannic. This wine is not tannic at all.

  9. I tried the Pinot Grigio/Chard & the Cabernet Sauvignon. I loved both! AND the price is even better. Well worth the buy!

  10. just got back from seattle tried the oak leaf pinot grigio and really enjoyed it…but i can’t find it here in monmouth county new jersey..does any one know where i can buy a few cases..

  11. I bought every type of wine by Oak Leaf ,they are pretty good ..for 2.97 .They are good table wine. If you don’t know to much about wines,they are a good starter wines. You can figure out what type of wines you like best….. Wal -Mart owns the winery I heared

  12. I stumbled into this wine last year at my local WALMART…curious I tried it….compared to ” 2 buck Chuck ” it is wonderful…BUT it is ” cheap ” wine”….my older brothers who enjoy mid range priced wine thought it to be fantastic for everyday wine….as they both have traveled a great deal in Italy and other wine producing countries they tought it to be the same produced by small family vinters their….myself I drink it when I have no one to share a more pricier wine ….for the price you can’t beat this product….

  13. Has everyone else figured out that “Fred M.” is a winespammer? He may be a company hack. He is posting identical comments wherever these Oak Leaf wines are being reviewed. Well, that said….

    I like what I taste in Oak Leaf wines. I just finished an enjoyable evening with a homemade chicken curry and a bottle of the Pinot Grigio/Chenin Blanc blend from OL, with tasting beforehand of the OL Cabernet Sauvignon and the Zinfandel. I’m looking forward to trying the Merlot and Chardonnay. The three wines I tried were all quite drinkable. I have paid 3x, 4x, and 5x more for wines and gotten better quality. I have also paid more for wine not as satisfying as the Oak Leaf. Generally these wines are sweeter and not as intensely flavored as their better, and more expensive, counterparts on the second and top shelves. But I give Oak Leaf the nod for best use of my money. This ain’t Ripple!

    The Pinot Grigio blend was light and fruity. The Cab was not so robust as a Cabernet Sauvignon ought to be, but seriously better than my memory of Gallo Red (mercifully distant memory). The Zinfandel was more interesting, more lightly flavored and sweeter than Zinfandel should be, but it carried some interesting nuance, and a bit of almond flavor that I liked. I found nothing objectionable in any of these wines, and my wife agreed. We will be purchasing more Oak Leaf. If we continue to be satisfied, this will be a solid vin ordinaire when no occasion calls for better stuff. We are paying lots more than $2 per bottle here in Ohio, but it’s still among the lowest price wines available, even at Wal-Mart.

  14. I have been cooking with it, and I have found that their Pinot Grigio works well with Chicken dishes, and the Merlot with beef. The taste is a little bland, but I have found that it doesn’t overpower the rest of the dish. Overall I have found them a great value, and I buy a couple of bottles a month.

  15. I was pleasantly surprised. The lady at WM liquor told me to try it when they didn’t have my favorite French Chardonnay anymore. I’m not an Oprah fan but she said that she had ‘endorsed’ it, I thought it can’t be that bad and got a couple bottles, like them both. I loved the Merlot mulled at Christmas. You can afford to use a couple bottles and do that more than once. The Chardonnay hasn’t been as consistant but I will still be buying Oak Leaf wines a lot, at $3/bottle you can’t go wrong with something that drinkable, better than the $12-15 I was spending. I’m buy no means a wine snop or expert but know what I like and don’t like and I like this, everyone that’s tried it did too.

  16. Pingback: Drinkhacker.com » Would You Ever Order the Cheapest Bottle on the Wine List?

  17. Tavares Florida--

    love the merlot & cabernet ………..the shiraz ?? interesting—amazing values for 2.97 here in florida—-i’ve been screwed purchaseing a 40.00 bottle of merlot—-give me Oak Lief at under 3 bucks !! Yippie………i’m a happy camper ——had a friend of mine feed me One Hundred dollar bottles of wine—-he also introduced me to gallo hearty burgundy—4 bucks a gallon….Wow,, WAaaay better (for the money)—Hmmm ? cookin with it ? gotta give er a go —-

  18. I acquired a taste for wine while visiting Europe last summer. It is interesting how inexpensive a glass of house wine (2 € to 3 €) is compared to coca-cola or other soft drinks (3 € to 5 €)! I would say that unless you are a real connoisseur of wine you wont be disappointed. Oak leaf is a great brand for getting started in the world of wine. Plus, while the quality may not be superb, it makes wine affordable enough to have a glass or two with a meal and not ruin your budget! I suggest trying a few bottles and then maybe going up in price now and then. I would not suggest bringing a bottle as a gift however, a bit too cheap!

  19. I just got 10 bottles of Cab, they just stocked the shelves… They are usually bare when Im there… The stuff flies off the shelf… Decent drinkable wine, for a great price… David Letterman makes fun of Walmart wine, but we all cant be a rich snob like that jerk…

  20. I liked it very much. I have not drunk any wine for years, but this was fine stuff at any price. It’s wine for all the rest of us, and frankly I think only a snob would fail to appreciate it. The Merlot has character and i liked the fruity taste of the White Zinfandel. I hope these guys are doing well because their hearts are definitely in the right place. We have noticed our WalMart has been consistently sold out of every variety every few days so someone must be appreciating it besides me.

  21. I’m drinking the OL Cab Sauv as I type…not bad at all. I’m not a fan of the Shaw reds, but the whites are great! I haven’t tried OL reds, but I plan to as I lean more towards reds…but I’ve found that the cheaper the reds…the lower the quality. Hopefully this won’t be the case w/the OL!

  22. Where might I purchase Oak Leaf wines?

  23. my local walmart (indiana) also sells oak leaf in the sauvignon blanc (white, 12.5 %) and also shiraz (13%, red) which tastes much like merlot . i have tries all 7 kinds and they are all great for $3. thats all we buy now unless i want a reisling. wish they made that, but oh well. try it, you will not be disappointed for under $3.

  24. we just got back from florida to the UK, whilst there we drank the merlot from walmart, i thought it was really reasonable and considering it cost around £2 british pounds and most avarage wine s here are about £6 i thought it was a bargain, wish i could find a way of shippin it back home to the UK X

  25. I bought two bottles of this brand at my local rural Indiana WalMart. One was the Cardonney and the other was a Shiraz. (I have seen on this blog that Shiraz is not available, but I have an empty bottle that says otherwise). I really liked the Shiraz… but not as a Shiraz/Syrah… I liked it as a Merlot. It totally lacked the peppery aftertaste of a true Syrah/Shiraz. So the Shiraz is a good Merlot. The Chard was great… I drink mine at room temperature, so this might affect my experience compared to others you see here.

  26. I think they are all great.

  27. i get the merlot all of the time.. it is sometimes very bitter like the bottle i’m drinking now, but it’ll do for $1.97

  28. Came upon OL at our local Wamart. I was a little hesitant on the, at the time 2.97 cents a bottle, but thought, why not try it? I usually like the Kendall Jackson Cab and tried this Cab. I really enjoyed it and have heard that the Pinot is also quite good. Try blindfolding a wine snob and see what they like. Could be interesting. I am not a snob, but know wines and do enjoy the OL.

  29. I came across OL at my local Walmart. I was a bit hesitant, at the time 2.97 cents a bottle, but thought, why not try it? I was pleasantly surprised at the Cab and have heard the Pinot is also quite good. As I am not a wine snob but do know my wines, it would be interesting to blindfold a snob and see which one they like. Could be interesting. Even though I am a Kendall Jackson fan, looks like OL cab could be my new favorite.

  30. My favorite is the Sweet Red. I also like the Pinot Grigio and the Merlot. My local Wal-Mart just price dropped it to $1.67! Needless to say, I stocked up. It’s a great wine for the price.

  31. I love this wine. I recently moved to NY and the Walmart here does not sell it. I would love to buy some but need to know where i can get it

  32. Bought a bottle of Chardonnay at the Wal-Mart partner in Japan, Seiyu. 380 yen (about 4.75 dollars). It was a bit sharp for my taste and the body changed noticeably flat as I finished off the bottle during a the evening. I think it might be decent for cooking or for a white wine sangria but for a cheap Chardonnay I think I’ll stick with Jacobs Creek or another one of the South Australian wines, which go for about 780-980 yen here (9.75 dollars up). California’s Red Creek wines go for about 650 yen at Japan’s import food chain Kaldi. Another decent choice for cheap Chardonnay and Cabernet.

  33. I WENT TO IOWA ON VACATION. BOUGHT “2 BUCK CHUCK” AND LIKED IT A LOT. CAME HOME TO HOUSTON AND COULD NOT FIND IT. WENT INTO WALMART AND FOUND OL ON SALE AT $2.77. BOUGHT A BOTTLE OF EACH KIND THEY HAD. WHAT A SUPRISE! NOT A FAN OF RED WINES BUT THEY WERE OK. BUT THE ZINFANDEL WAS AWESOME!! ALSO THE PINOT GRIGIO WAS JUST AS GOOD. I THINK EVERYONE WOULD LIKE THESE 2 WINES. ANYONE THAT SAYS THEY HAVE TO SPEND MORE TO GET GOOD WINE MUST HAVE A LOT OF MONEY TO WASTE!! I HAVE BOUGHT $20 0R $30 WINES THAT DON’T TASTE AS GOOD!!!

  34. In Alaska Wal*Marts these bottles are $4.79… Still a good value for up here. I bought a couple to use as marinades and tasted them and they’re actually not bad!!

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