The past few decades have seen an unprecedented emphasis on branding, and the wine world has hardly been immune. Wineries, especially big ones (and the corporations that often own them) toil doggedly to (a) establish brand identity and (b) get consumers to develop brand loyalty.

Nothing wrong with that, at least on the surface. In fact, particularly when it comes to wines over $20, I tend to favor brands over vintages.

But in the real world human nature intercedes on several fronts. Even when a Silver Oak succeeds mightily in building a huge base of fiercely loyal followers, it falls into a bit of a trap: Those folks know what a Silver Oak cab is supposed to taste like, and come to expect that exact profile year in and year out -- as well they should, given the $60 to $100 price tags (not to mention that whole customer-is-always-right thingie).

A Silver Oaks executive admitted to me a few years ago that its vintners aim to reduce, if not eliminate, vintage variation. Which, frankly, is a solid business model even if it seems a bit boring and means that the winemaker is like the "chef" at a spendy steakhouse: Your job is to take these great ingredients and equipment and not muck it up.

This M.O. is not nearly as useful, at least to the wine-buying public, at the lowest price points. Unlike Silver Oak, which even while expanding has had to be judicious in choosing its grape sources, high-volume producers selling wines for less than $10 can ill afford to be picky. So they end up with a range of quality in their sourcing, and as so many winemakers say, you can't make good wine with bad (or mediocre) grapes.

I was reminded of this at a recent lunch with a local blogger, who had visited a bulk-oriented winery and found some wines that didn't taste as good as the samples both of us had been sent. Same grape, same vintage, different wine. I told him that I always had avoided recommending such wines because I feared/figured that the juice in one vat might be vastly different from another, that the sample bottle I received might be better than what pops up on the shelves bearing the same label a few months later.

I had learned this lesson more than a decade ago, upon noticing that the red blend Marietta Old Vine, a Ward household staple, had fallen off in quality. I subsequently heard that in ratcheting up production, the winery had started buying grapes from some places it perhaps shouldn't have. The wines soon got back to their previous standards and remain a solid, dependable buy in the $12 to $15 range, with a "house style" that makes them sort of a poor man's Silver Oak (but zin- rather than cab-based).

Some bulk choices work

The past decade has seen a proliferation of new bulk brands, especially from Bronco, whose labels include Crane Lake, Picket Fence, Fox Hollow and Red/Green/Pink Truck. Gallo has debuted Black Swan from Australia, Red Bicyclette from France (whose pinot noir turned out to be ... well, not pinot noir) and Barefoot from California. Cutesy names such as Middle Sister and flipflop seem to pop up on shelves every week.

I have sampled quite a few of these wines -- wine reviewers kiss a lot of frogs in search of princesses -- and some of them have been tasty. But too many of them are not reliable enough to recommend, especially those that don't have a vintage year on the label. It's frustrating to not be able to tout very many wines under $10, but there you have it.

That doesn't mean consumers shouldn't give these wines a try. You might find a gem (but keep in mind that if a wine is not to your liking, it's not a bargain at even $3 or $7, because to you it's worth exactly $0). And it's a safe bet that if you come across one that makes you go "yum," and then buy that brand a few months later and go "yuck," the problem is not your palate.

Bill Ward •