Retro charm of big bottles still appeal to some

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Jug wine has long been scorned for its simple flavors, cheap prices and ample gallonage. In the last few years, though, jug wine has gathered some retro charm as a few winemakers tweak its down-market persona into something hipper and more contemporary.

The new 'tude toward jug wines has been particularly noticeable at Three Thieves, the California operation that scored big beginning in 2003 with wines served up in 1-liter jug bottles. The choice of a jug was deliberate, designed to generate as much publicity as possible.

"It was the most ridiculous thing we could do," said Charles Bieler, who calls himself "Thief No. 1." He and his partners, industry veterans Joel Gott and Roger Scommegna, chose to put their wines in the jug, because the container triggered such a reaction in people regardless of the quality of wine inside.

"That's what was intriguing to us," Bieler added. "We wanted to make a statement against the snobbery in wine and the belief that wine has to look a certain way."

Giving this idea a further spin is the Carlo Rossi line of wines from E. and J. Gallo Winery, a huge wine company not exactly known for a lively sense of humor. But there's a great sense of fun about Rossi's "Jug Simple" Web site (carlorossi.com), which even offers (presumably) facetious instructions on how to construct a couch using 41 empty cabernet sauvignon jugs, or fashioning a chandelier out of 33 chardonnay jugs.

"Think of it as Jug Shui for the home," the Web site declares.

Bieler loves the Rossi site.

"They're playing into who we played into, the contrarians who are confident about wine. They're not running away screaming [from jug bottles], they're laughing. We wanted people who got it to laugh and see how cheeky it was," he said.

Get the joke or not, the question remains whether jug wines are worthy of serious consideration.

Certainly, as Sterling Pratt of Schaefer's in Skokie noted, "jug" wines are selling fast in other packaging, from 3-liter cardboard boxes to sleek Euro-style collapsible cartons.

"There are a number of good jug wines out there in 3-liter boxes and 1.5-liter bottles," he said. "So much about wine is what it looks like on the table."

It's what's inside that counts, as Bieler will tell you.

"I've always heard it asserted that Americans make the best jug wine in the world," said Doug Jeffirs, director of wine sales for Binny's Beverage Depot. "Every wine person should taste these once in order to know."

What will they discover? I suspect they'll find some surprises, good and bad, and also a realization of how far the U.S. wine industry has come.

At one point, notably from the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 to the mid-1970s, jug wines were the only domestic wine available for most Americans. Two or three generations grew up with Gallo, Almaden and other wines with, mostly, faux French names on the label. These wines were simple, often sweet and astonishingly cheap.

A number were also very honest, sturdy wines that delivered what they promised. Even Robert Parker, now the world's most influential wine critic, famously had good things to say about Gallo's Hearty Burgundy.

Today, the standard 750-milliliter, bottle is the biggest seller, according to The Nielsen Company, a consumer market research firm. But Danny Meyer, vice president for client service with Nielsen's Beverage Alcohol Team, noted that the large bottles most often associated with jug wines generally are continuing to hold their own.

"The jug people just keep coming," said Brian Duncan, wine director of Chicago's Bin 36 restaurant. "Obviously there's a market for it, so why make it stop?"

He said jug wines may be a way to get people into wine.

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