Domaine Ste. Michelle vs. Korbel—A (not exactly a) Smackdown

Just about a month ago I published an article about the top five American sparkling wines under $20. One of the choices I made, Korbel, was a bit controversial. I am not exactly sure why, but wine lovers across the country seem to love to bash Korbel and for a long while I was one of them. Perhaps it is due to the fact that they insist on still calling it “American Champagne” even though the French have made it abundantly clear that they do not think it is very “cool” to do so (feel free to interject your own comment about my use of “French” and “cool” in the same sentence). There were at least a few comments that fell just short of berating me for choosing the Korbel over the crowd favorite, Domaine Ste Michelle.240

I am the first to admit that I used to be a Korbel basher myself–until I stumbled upon the tasting room one day while driving around Sonoma. I had an hour or so before my next tasting appointment, it was blazing hot, and I was craving some bubbly. So I went in to what I called at the time “the belly of the beast” (I have a flair for the dramatic).

I have this in green, which is much classier

I have this in green, which is much classier

I was pleasantly surprised. The wines were all quite drinkable and some were even dare I say “good”? I even considered buying a bottle, but it was $30 (I do have my limits and after all, it was Korbel). I did buy a t-shirt though (to be worn in situations where it would seem ironic or iconoclastic) and left with an appreciation for the brand, but had yet to have ever purchased a bottle.

Until now.

As a result of the comments on last month’s article, I decided to have a little blind tasting of the two wines to see if I was way off the mark here. I went to the local PLCB store and picked up a bottle of the Domaine Ste Michelle ($12 found everywhere else on the planet for under $10) and a bottle of Korbel “Natural” ($17 at the PLCB and $14 everywhere else including Korbel’s own website).

Then I took a moment.

Not only did I just buy my first bottle of Korbel, but I paid $17 (plus tax) for it.

Whoa.

At the last minute, I decided to record the event and as you can tell by the video, this is not my day job. My older son was using his mother’s iPhone to record and at the last minute, my younger son expressed a desire to be in the “production”. I figured he would be a natural since 1) he is a complete ham; 2) he loves sparkling wine; and 3) he has me wrapped around his little finger so I really could not refuse.

I know my video skills need work, and I have a huge forehead, but let me know what you think

About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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21 Responses to Domaine Ste. Michelle vs. Korbel—A (not exactly a) Smackdown

    • Yeah, really. Both were “good” but they were very different. The DSM was much more of a tart, fruit focused aperitif, while the Korbel was creamier, nuttier, and more of a food wine.

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  1. Your son is adorable!! I have never tried the Domaine Ste Michelle, but coming in under 10 bucks I might have to try it next time I am looking for a champagne-style in order to be able to compare.

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  2. I love it! All hail King Korbel!! :o)

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  3. I hope the Feds won’t go after you for having Sebastian drink wine on a video!

    Other than that, classic. Sebastian is a hoot, and he definitely lightens the mood. You need to lighten up, man! 😀

    Also, the part were you drink the second wine somehow was skipped on my feed…maybe my connection was wobbly, but there seemed to be 15 seconds or so missing….

    Nice job though.

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  4. ncenvoyage says:

    I think that the problem the French have with calling Korbel “Champagne” is the same one Americans have with Chinese making phony iphones, or whatever. If you have any belief in intellectual property, or the creation of a reputation through a charter of quality, France’s AOC’s must be understood as “brands.” They are based on a reasonably strict definition of what is in the bottle, so that the name “champagne” mean something. It guarantees, at a minimum, grape type, maturity at harvest, concentration, method of bottling (which produces the sparkle)… If you buy a bottle of wine (from France) labeled “champagne,” you know a great deal about what you are buying, what happened to get it there, and what taste you will have on the palate.

    The anger that the French feel towards Korbel has nothing to do with whether or not they make good, drinkable wines. It has to do with whether or not they sell them by piggybacking and demeaning a brand established across generations by hard-working (uncool, I know — oh those French) farmers and other vineyard workers. People who labored, and still labor, to make the word “champagne” mean something (note that you do not compare Korbel to a champagne, but rather to an honestly-packaged sparkling wine).

    In sum, these are separate issues. If you enjoy Korbel’s products, that is a tribute to one part of what Korbel does. But I would hope you don’t sanction their false advertising — another part of what they do. Out of respect for my friends in the vineyards above Reims, I will not try to validate your tasting notes.

    Yes, Sebastian is cute. Sorry for the buzz-kill. 🙂

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    • I think you know that I agree. I think it is entirely wrong that Korbel uses the term “Champagne” on their bottle, in their advertising, etc. I do not feel, however, that it is the equivalent of a Chinese counterfeit iPhone, nor is it a violation of intellectual property. As far as I know, the “traditional method” is just that, a method. It is not patented and is used by wine makers around the globe. Since in Korbel’s case the bottle is labeled “American Champagne” I also doubt that anyone is being duped into believing that the stuff really comes from France.

      My question is always “What’s the goal?” In this case, I think the Champenois have several goals in looking to protect the Champagne brand. Certainly, as you eloquently point out, one goal is to protect the brand itself–what it means to be called “Champagne” (although as a side note, there are some Champagnes that are truly not that good, but they are allowed to continue to put “Champagne” on the label solely due to the fact of the geographic location of the vineyards where they source their fruit–if you want to stand up to “protect the brand”, you need to do protect it from challenges from within as well). I get that and I agree wholeheartedly.

      There certainly is another goal and that is to protect market share. Let’s face it, it is as much about money as it is about prestige or “brand” (I know you have some difficulty at times believing your fellow country men and women could be looking to make a profit). Here, I would argue that if the Champenois would like to increase their overall profit, they need to produce wines that come in south of the $30 mark in the U.S.

      I can safely say that people who opt for a bottle of Korbel are not doing so because it says “Champagne” on the label. They are doing it because it is more than half as expensive as the cheapest bottle of “real” Champagne on the shelf.

      Do I excuse Korbel for its labeling practice? Certainly not. Like I said in the post–that was the first and only bottle of Korbel I have ever bought (and I am not running out for more even though it was pretty good). But to limit the argument to strictly the moral high ground that the Champenois like to claim in this debate is a bit disingenuous….

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  5. aFrankAngle says:

    Interesting … head-to-head blind is fair – You may want to consider making head-to-head a series.

    I don’t drink much sparkling, I still remember this oddity from Wine Spectator – their praise for Barefoot’s bubbly as a value.

    Come on Sebastian … next time, you have to pick one!

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  6. waywardwine says:

    Champagne came to an agreement with US producers that any product pre-2006 that carried the name Champagne could as long as it clarified itself as “Californian Champagne” or “Washington Champagne” et cetera. Now future brands should not pop any Champagne-ery onto their lables. Although slip ups still happen: http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/530767/obama-menu-champagne-blunder-threatens-entente-cordiale

    I would be careful not to lump all consumer habits under one explanation. Many buy Korbel solely because of its price, many actually do think it’s from France even though the label says otherwise (I’ve met a few) because consumers spend on average 3 seconds looking at a label or product, many know better.

    Since wine is an aspirational drink -for many brand association or bashing allows them to show off their cultural, economic cohesion or superiority- Korbel became subject to self-proclaimed fashion police regardless of its inherent qualities, value, et cetera. I say drink it. It has its place. Every wine has its niche and bubbly simply makes life better.

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    • Thanks for the comment. I guess it was my bent toward statistical analysis that was sneaking in there. While I don’t doubt that you might have run across a few people that thought Korbel was from France (there are no doubt many, many more that think it is “Champagne” since they attribute that term to all effervescent wine–I recently had a wine store employee respond to “Where is the Prosecco?” with the answer “With all the rest of the Champagne.”) I would think this is rather a small subset of their customer base and therefore statistically insignificant.

      I also completely concur about the desire/need to show off cultural superiority (myself included).

      And yes, bubbles make life better. My personal motto: “If it doesn’t sparkle it doesn’t matter.”

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  7. lolabees says:

    Love it! You are training Sebastian very well. I probably would have picked both also.

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  8. I love that Sebastian likes them both better! Spoken like a true wine aficionado.

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