Wines of Costco
Professor of Neurology, Otolaryngology, and Physical Therapy/Human Movement
Science, Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago IL, USA.
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Dr. Hain is not a heavy wine drinker, but still enjoys a glass or two every once in a while. Chicago is a great place to find good wine, and perhaps oddly enough, I generally get my wine from a local Costco.
Costco has very stiff wine competition in Chicago. Nevertheless, it has been my observation that Costco wine seems to generally be a "safer" choice than the majority of the "big box" wine stores in Chicago (which have too much unfamiliar labels to choose from), or my local stores in the area of Chicago that I live. For this reason, most of the wine ratings below are from Costco. A few are from my local Grocery, a few from "Binny's liquor", and a few were gifts from grateful patients.
It seems to me that there is a Darwinian "natural selection" process that goes on in liquor stores -- the good ones get bought. The bad ones stay on the shelf, and turn into vinegar. Thus, over time, the shelves of the liquor stores gradually fill up with awful wine. Of course, it is in the interest of the wine store to sell their old and bad wine to foolish customers.
Wine stores do not seem to have a "drink by #### date" system such as we see on milk in Walgreens. Instead, they seem to use a "buyer beware" or caveat emptor policy -- unload the old wines on the foolish. Of course, the wine store proprietors have a gigantic advantage over their customers - -they know how long the wine has been sitting there, how many bottles of vinegar were brought back, and how the wine is stored in the back room.
Costco has a different dynamic -- the one that I frequent probably has roughly 100 wines to choose from -- all in "warehouse" quantities. Clearly they do not keep wines for years. They are gone in a few months, and either replaced by newer vintages or just gone forever. One is safer with Costco than liquor stores, because their volume is so high, and their selection turns over so fast. One doesn't run into the vinegar problem much, excepting the "house" brands (Kirkland). I also would guess that if it doesn't sell, they don't order more, but they are stuck with the "Kirkland" brand as it is a house brand. Chicago has several Costcos, that have different wine selections, so perhaps the selection is somewhat idiosyncratic to the taste of the Costco managers.
Dr. Hain's wine selection system
My criteria for wine are rather simple - -nothing fancy like "nose" or "fruity" or whatever -- just these much simpler constraints:
- Does it taste good ? This is completely subjective. I favor white wines that are a little sweet, but not dessert wine sweetness. I do not like wines that taste like water or Koolaid with alcohol added to it or kerosene (I call this "metallic"). It has been my experience that chain hotel restaurants, such as Marriott as an example, generally provide wine that tastes metallic.
- Can I afford it ?
- I favor wines that are in the $12-20 price range. Nothing against cheaper ones, but they tend to be more dangerous in terms of hangover risk. In wine, like other things, you tend to get what you pay for.
- Fancy restaurants in Chicago dispense wine in Dixie-cup quantities, at gigantic markups. It is conventional for a tiny glass of wine in Chicago to cost the same as a full bottle of wine at Costco. The small quantity can look very odd in the giant wine glasses favored for red wine. There is an obvious financial incentive to the restaurants as one sells more glasses of wine by dispensing it in tiny amounts. Lets see -- $10/glass of wine from a bottle that has 10 tiny glasses -- thats a x10 markeup. Not bad. Tiny amounts of wine also works well with the usual food portion size of the higher end restaurants, which resembles a postage stamp, suitable for dieting parakeets. We rarely see wine ratings given on restaurant menus.Usually the wines are either from the grocery store marked up x5, or have labels that we have never heard of, marked up x 10.
- Does it contain enough alcohol (12-14% is best)
- Is it a blend ? Blends seem to cause more headaches. There are a lot more variables of course.
- How bad a headache do I get in the near future and next morning ? -- In other words, how toxic is the wine ? The "two glass-headache test" means that -- if I drink two glasses of wine, will I wake up the next morning with a headache ? If this happens to me, I throw the bottle out or use it for cooking.
- Of course, if you overdo it, any wine will give you a hangover. Still, some seem to be a lot more toxic than others.
- According to a wine seller (who should know these things and I would think would be fairly reliable) who visited me in the clinic (not for headaches), toxicity is mainly related to sulfites. "Cheap" wines have more sulfites, and cause more headaches. According to this person, sulfites are added to cheaper wines to accelerate the process of getting them to market. This may relate to why cheaper wines are more dangerous. Interestingly, all of the wine merchants that I have seen as patients claim that they drink very little wine.
- According to neurologists (but what do they really know), toxicity depends on:
- The amount you drink
(Hesse and Tutenges, 2010). Obviously more is worse.
- The amount of "higher alcohols" (these can make the wine more interesting but more toxic too). These are called "congeners" (Rohsenow, 2010). Bourbon contains more congeners than Vodka.
- The grape (white is safer). (Littlewood et al. 1988, Peatfield, 1995; Panconesi, 2008) Of the red wines, Merlot is usually safe. The conventional explanation is that aged wines are thought to have more "biogenic amines", such as tyramine. While this idea is logical and generally accepted, careful studies show no association between biogenic amine content and the propensity to have a headache. (Jansen, et al. 2003). Our thought is that the "biogenic amine" hypothesis may be wrong, but nevertheless stronger tasting red wines are obviously more likely to cause headache. Perhaps there are other reasons (such as congeners). We wish someone would put together an online headache rating system for wine.
- the amount of sulfites (less is better). The amount of sulfites is generally attributed to the soil in which the grape was grown. However, note that the wine sellers who have discussed this with me say that sulfites are added to the wines on purpose. A conflict here. There is no literature at all in Pubmed about sulfites causing headaches from their inclusion alcoholic beverages. Rather, sulfites are felt to be associated with asthma. Unfortunately, wine labels list alcohol content, but don't document sulfite content other than (yes or no).
- It also seems to us that some wines have longer term toxicity involving stomach upset, moodiness, and other things best left to your imagination. As these products are rather idiosyncratic - -why not ? Lets hope that nobody trys to regulate these things.
- Does it have a screw-top ? A cork ? A plastic "cork" ?
- Screw tops are much easier to deal with but often seem to be a sign of bad tasting wine (either metallic or kool-aid). The press suggests that screw-tops are better than corks. I myself prefer corks, especially if they are plastic rather than "real". I myself have not noticed any correlation between the "wine going bad after opened" phenomenon and whether or not there is a screw top or cork.
- Corks are messy and sometimes make the wine taste funny, especially if there is the funny white powder around the top.
- Screw tops also seem to be associated with more headaches. Perhaps related to an interaction by the maker of the wine choosing to pursue a more cost effective wine, and involving several compromises ? It would be hard to see why a cork vs screw top could cause more or less headaches.
Dr. Hain's Wine Selections -- by grape.
- Cabernet Sauvignon and mixtures -- quite a bit of variability. Can be wonderful.
- Artesia (reserve, 2005). Strong red, good taste, nontoxic.
- Kirkland Cabernet
- Taste is fair, very toxic. Does not keep well. Perhaps OK for cooking, but why pay so much for cooking wine ?
- Greg Norman Cabernet Merlot 2008 Limestone coast. Wonderful red, good taste, fairly nontoxic.
- Menage et trois. Funny label but avoid. Muddy mixture of 3 reds. Fair taste, toxic -- headache in morning from small amount. This observation was reinforced by a reader who emailed me that they were "sick in bed vomiting multiple times".
- Chateau Tanuda Grand Barossa Cabernet 2010. Has a gold sticker on it saying that it won a competition.This one tasted wonderful right out of the bottle, but after 2 nights in the fridge (opened), it had that "dirty sock" flavor/smell. Fungus I suppose. No problems with headache in either case though.
- Mercer, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013. This is a good one. (reviewed in 2016)
- Carmenere Terra Noble 2011 Gran Reserva Maule Valley. Good and notoxic.
- Cotes du Rhone (red) -- this seems to be a good grape.
- E. Guigal, 2006. Good red, minimal hangover from one glass. 13.5%.
- Alain Jaume, 2011. Good, minimal hangover. Has a cork. Keeps well.
- Alain Jaume, 2012. Good, screw top. Wish there was still 2011.
- Evodia 2010 Altovinum. Excellent Spanish red, no hangover from one glass, 15%. According to Wikipedia, this type of grape may not keep well.
- Le Brume, 2009, Rossa. OK
- General comments: Most Malbecs from Argentina or Spain seem to combine good taste and generally are nontoxic. Had good experience with one from Spain called "Prospero". Most Argentinian Malbecs from "Mendoza" seem fairly safe. Malbec's seem to vanish from Costco with alarming frequency. Malbec availablity in Costco seems somewhat seasonal, and when they vanish from Costco, the few that remain tend to be very toxic. Darwin again.
- Alamos Malbec 2012. Harsh and quick to cause headache.
- Chateu du Port Cahors 2009. Cuvee Prestige. This is a French Malbec. Very good. 14%.
- Fabre Montmayou Reserva 2011. Bought in a Buenos Aires grocery store. Very good.
- Gascon Reserva Malbec, 2010. Its OK. Two glasses to headache.
- Susan Balbo Malbec (Argentina). Wonderful quality. Little headache (from one glass).
- Chateau Escot, 2010. (whole foods). Muddy with headache.
- Merlot -- in general, Merlot seems to cause less headaches than other reds.
- Beringer 1998 Founders Estate. Good tasting, fairly non-toxic. Two glasses put one to sleep quickly. 13.9%
- Pinot Noir
- A to Z. Thin tasting (Koolaid), Screw cap. Takes 2 glasses to get a headache. Why pay this much for Koolaid ?
- Bozeto de exopto 2011. It is "OK". Takes 2 glasses to get a headache.
- Montegru Antu (Chile). Metallic and toxic. Threw away.
- Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel, vintage 2006. 15.4%
-- I prefer the "unoaked" Chardonnay, from California. These seem to taste a little better than the "oaked", and also many of them don't have those corks. It may be that because it costs less to produce an "unoaked" Chard, you get a little more on the grape quality end of things for the same price.
- Bogle (2008 - from my local Treasure Island). OK taste, very toxic
- Cakebread cellers (from Domincks). OK taste, very toxic.
- Edna Valley Vineyard
- 2008, Paragon. Good taste, no hangover, cork.
- Frogs leap (From my local Treasure Island grocery store)
Kendall-Jackson, "vintner's reserve".
- OK taste, Fuzzy feeling and headache next morning - - toxic.
- OK taste -- not as good as Toad Hollow or Rodney Strong. 1-glass is tolerable. 2 glasses -- toxic headache.
- Kendall-Jackson, "Grand Reserve", 2010 (reviewed in 2012).
- Good taste, no hangover, cork. This is a good one. Availability is good at Costco
- Mondavi (not all brands) -- Mondavi is a gigantic winery that has a larger repertoire of wines, some of which are much better than others. The ones sold in local grocery stores for about $6 cause headaches for me.
- Starmont 2008 Chardonnay (reviewed in 2011)
- Good all around -- 13.5%, good taste, nontoxic, cork (wish they used a screw top).
- Toad Hollow 2007 Unoaked Chardonnay. Mendocino county. From Costco.
(gone now from Costco)
- Very good taste, 13.9% Etoh by volume, Reasonable price, No headache even after 2 glasses, Cork
- 2008 (worse)
- Somewhat metallic taste, frequent headache, screw top. Would avoid in favor of better options above.
- Rodney Strong 2008 Chardonnay. From Costco.
- Good taste, Reasonable price, No headache, Cork
- Simi Chardonney -- good taste, bad long term side effects. Stay away.
- French Columbard -- this is generally a good tasting, nontoxic, but low alcohol content wine.
- Macnab Ridge -- a little light on the alcohol content.
- Doesn't keep well. Tastes like vinegar after a few days.
- Gerwurztraminer -- Gewurz's spicy taste is not for everyone and also seems to be available only for a few months every year. I prefer the ones from California's Russian River Valley
- Claiborne & Churchill, Central Coast Dry Gewurztraminer.
- Pinot Grigio -- Italian Pinot Grigio's seem to be somewhat toxic. I prefer American PG.
- Kettmer -- this is a good solid Pinot Grigio.
- Navarro Vineyards 2008 -- bland and mildly toxic.
- Kings Estate 2005 Pinot Gris -- (from Oregon). Excellent taste and nontoxic.
- J. Good taste, nontoxic.
- Blanco de Blanco
- La Posta 2009 (cocina). From Argentina. Also good.
- Hesse, M. and S. Tutenges (2010). "Predictors of hangover during a week of heavy drinking on holiday." Addiction 105(3): 476-483.
- Jansen, S. C., M. van Dusseldorp, et al. (2003). "Intolerance to dietary biogenic amines: a review." Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 91(3): 233-240; quiz 241-232, 296.
- Littlewood, J. T., C. Gibb, et al. (1988). "Red wine as a cause of migraine." Lancet 1(8585): 558-559.
- Panconesi, A. (2008). "Alcohol and migraine: trigger factor, consumption, mechanisms. A review." J Headache Pain 9(1): 19-27
- Peatfield, R. C. (1995). "Relationships between food, wine, and beer-precipitated migrainous headaches." Headache 35(6): 355-357.
- Rohsenow, D. J. and J. Howland (2010). "The role of beverage congeners in hangover and other residual effects of alcohol intoxication: a review." Curr Drug Abuse Rev 3(2): 76-79.
November 12, 2016
, Timothy C. Hain, M.D.
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