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Second annual five-day $3 wine challenge: The results

$3 wine

“The horror, the horror. …”

In one respect, this year’s five-day, $3 wine challenge was no different than last year’s: I made it through unscathed. But the results were also depressing in a way they weren’t last year.

I wanted to find a wine among the six — five $3 merlots and a $4 red blend — that I could enjoy without reservation and use as another example in my campaign to help wine drinkers understand that price is not the most important thing about wine quality. One was OK, one was undrinkable, and the rest were as brainless as bottled ice tea. With so much quality cheap wine in the world, and sometimes for just a dollar or two more, why do so many people buy these, often making a special trip to do so?

When that analysis comes from someone who has spent 20 years trying to say nice things about cheap wine, it means there’s very little reason to drink them. The sad details are after the jump: Continue reading

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Second annual five-day, $3 wine challenge

$3 wine challenge

You won’t need a pile of money to buy these wines.

In which the Wine Curmudgeon puts his money where his mouth is. Each night next week, I ?ll drink a $3 wine with dinner and attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Are the claims made by producers like Fred Franzia and the various anti-critics true, that most of us can ?t tell the difference and that it doesn ?t matter if we can?

Last year, when I did five $3 chardonnays, the results were mixed — mostly OK, but we expect more than OK from our cheap wine. This year, I’ll drink six merlots (yes, I know that’s one more than the days, but I’ll figure out the logistics). First, to do a red wine, and second, because merlot is the easiest red wine to make. It has fewer problems with tannins, and there shouldn’t be a problem finding quality fruit. All six wines were purchased in Dallas:

? Two-buck Chuck ($2.99, 12.5%), the Trader Joe ?s private label that was the first and remains the most famous of the very cheap wines. It ?s a California wine from the 2012 vintage.

? Three Wishes ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. It carries an American appellation, which means it ?s non-vintage and at least three-quarters of the grapes used to make it were grown in the U.S.

? Winking Owl ($2.89, 12.5%) from Aldi but may be available elsewhere. Also American and non-vintage.

? Yosemite Road ($3.99, 12%), a private label for 7-Eleven. The label says red blend, and is probably close to merlot. Yes, it’s $1 more, but I haven’t reviewed a Yosemite Road in five years, and this seemed like a good time. Also American and non-vintage.

? Oak Leaf ($2.97, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Also American and non-vintage.

? Southern Point ($2.39, 12.5%), the Walgreen’s private label, because I always tick off someone when I do a drug store wine. Also American and non-vintage.

I’m not doing HEB’s Cul-de-Sac this year, since it’s only available in Texas. I ?ll post the results of the challenge on Oct. 6, but you can keep up with the day-to-day action by following me on Twitter or checking out the Wine Curmudgeon Facebook page.

Again this year, all the wines but the Two-buck Chuck are made by The Wine Group, one of the Big Six and whose brands include Cupcake. And none of them have a screwcap, which I can’t even begin to understand. Why would anyone want to pay more for the tool that opens the wine than the wine itself?

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Winebits 316: Two-buck Chuck, Pennsylvania, Kickstarter

Winebits 316: Two-buck Chuck, Pennsylvania, Kickstarter ? But what about the terroir? Ben Robinson at The Thrillist challenges a sommelier to taste Two-buck Chuck to find out “which bottles are totally palatable and even enjoyable. …” It’s an intriguing exercise, and most of the eight wines do well enough (as regular visitors here know). The annoying bit is the post’s snarkiness, because this is cheap wine and it certainly can’t be approached seriously. The most interesting? That the sommelier could only identify the varietal in four of the eight wines. If someone whose entire wine reason for being is baffled by what’s in the glass, what does that say about how indifferent the winemaker is to varietal character? And, more importalty, given Two-buck Chuck’s popularity, it demonstrates that the producer understands that varietal isn’t as important as price with consumers. Not that I’ve ever argued either of those points.

? Finally, after all this wait? Pennsylvania’s state store system, in which the government owns the liquor stores, may finally come to an end. That’s the optimistic reading of this report from Morning call newspaper website: “A suitable deal has eluded lawmakers for the last three years ? really for decades ? as other Republican-led liquor privatization efforts have fizzled. … Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said he hopes to have a liquor reform bill passed and on [the governor’s] desk before the governor’s Feb. 4 budget address.” If Pennsylvania reforms its state state system, that could be the first domino to fall in reform plans elsewhere, including grocery store wine sales in New York. Which means, as the story also notes, that it probably won’t be as easy to change the Pennsylvania laws as everyone hopes.

? Another wine book: Congratulations to Alder Yarrow, the long-time wine blogger at Vinography, who raised $24,200 on Kickstarter for the publication of his new book , “The Essence of Wine.” That beat his goal by more than $6,000. Welcome to the club, Alder. The more I see this going on, the more convinced I am that self-publishing, using some sort of crowd-sourcing, is the future of the book business for those of us who aren’t Stephen King.

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The Five Day, $3 Wine Challenge: The results

$3 wineThe good news is that the five $3 wines that I drank with dinner last week were mostly OK, and the horror stories that I heard proved to be ? for me, anyway ? unfounded.

Which is also the bad news. Most wine, even $10 wine, is going to taste reasonably consistent from vintage to vintage. Yes, these wines were OK ? and a couple were more than that ? but that ?s no guarantee they ?ll taste that way again if I do this again next year. And, unfortunately, none of them made me jump in the air and fall back down with excitement, ready to re-do the $10 Hall of Fame. Dull is probably a better adjective.

More details on the challenge, as well as my analysis and a few suggestions for the retailers who sell these wines are after the jump:

First, the challenge. Each night last week, I drank a $3 wine with dinner to attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? I tasted five chardonnays sold at leading retailers in the United States:

? Two-buck Chuck ($2.99), the Trader Joe ?s private label. This was the weirdest tasting of the five, with lots of tropical fruit (banana even) and very little chardonnay character. It wasn ?t bad, in the sense I had to pour it down the drain, but it wasn ?t enjoyable, either. My guess is that there was a lot of very ripe fruit in this.

? Three Wishes ($2.99), the Whole Foods private label. I expected most of the wines to be burdened with badly done oak (chips, probably). In fact, three of them didn ?t taste of oak at all, and the oak in the Three Wishes was quite well done, assuming you like that style of wine. I don ?t, so it wasn ?t my favorite.

? Winking Owl ($2.89) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere). My favorite ? a straight-forward, 1990s-style jug chardonnay with apple and pear fruit and varietal character for those who remember Glen Ellen. It ?s not as well done as something like Bogle, but it does the job for $3 and I would it buy again.

? Oak Leaf ($2.97), the Walmart private label. This was the sweet one, probably a couple of percentage points over the line that separates sweet from dry. Again, not awful, but nothing I would want to drink again.

? Cul-de-Sac ($2.96), a private label for Texas ? H-E-B, one of the largest grocers the country. This was sort of sweet, in the way Kendall-Jackson was in the 1990s (stuck fermentation?), but also tasted like chardonnay.

Worth noting: I didn ?t list alcohol levels for the wines, most of which were around 13 percent, since several of the labels seemed inaccurate. The Winking Owl, for instance, was listed as 11.5% and sweet (the back label had a sweetness chart), but it wasn ?t sweet. Not even Aldi is sure, apparently: the wine on its website is not the current vintage. The Oak Leaf, which was most definitely sweet, had one of the highest alcohol percentages, so it probably wasn ?t accurate either.

Incredibly frustrating: None of the wines had a screwcap. Why did these need a cork, even an artificial one? A quality corkscrew is going to cost more than the wine, and I defy anyone who markets these brands to tell me that they need a cork to preserve some sort of romantic wine image. It ?s just $3 wine.

In the end, the quality of the wines didn ?t bother me as much as how boring they were, and this quickly turned into a school assignment and not wine drinking. By the fourth night, I was not looking forward to tasting another wine, something that almost never happens.

In addition, most of the wines did not taste like they did the last time I drank them. I had the Cul-de-Sac about a year ago, and had to pour it down the drain ? bitter and unripe. The Two-buck Chuck, two years ago in Santa Fe, was much more chardonnay like than this version. This, more than actual quality, is the biggest problem with $3 wine ? the consumer doesn ?t know what they ?re getting from bottle to bottle, and buying wine should not be like playing roulette.

Hence this suggestion: Why make varietal wines? Why not make the best $3 wine possible, using whatever grapes are available, be it French colombard or a blend? This would require a change in marketing, given that consumers have been trained to buy the best known varietal wines like chardonnay and merlot, but it would almost certainly produce more consistent and better quality wine.

Which should be the goal, shouldn ?t it?

The Five Day, $3 Wine Challenge

$3 wineThe Wine Curmudgeon talks a good game when it comes to cheap wine, but does he follow through? This question, always important, is even more critical with the upcoming publication of The Cheap Wine Book (just a couple of weeks away). Hypocrisy has no place in what I ?m trying to do.

Hence The Five Days of $3 Wine Challenge, which starts tonight and runs through this week. Each night, I ?ll drink a $3 wine with dinner and attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Are the claims made by producers like Fred Franzia and the various anti-critics true, that most of us can ?t tell the difference and that it doesn ?t matter if we can?

No one supports cheap wine more than I do. But being cheap isn ?t enough ? quality matters, and my experience over the past decade of drinking very cheap wine is that the quality of these wines is often lacking. So we ?ll put that to the test this week with these five wines, all chardonnays and all purchased in Dallas:

? Two-buck Chuck ($2.99), the Trader Joe ?s private label that was the first and remains the most famous of the very cheap wines. It ?s a California wine from the 2012 vintage.

? Three Wishes ($2.99), the Whole Foods private label. It carries an American appellation, which means it ?s non-vintage and at least three-quarters of the grapes used to make it were grown in the U.S.

? Winking Owl ($2.89) from Aldi but that may be available elsewhere. Also American and non-vintage.

? Cul-de-Sac ($2.96), a private label for Central Market, the high-end chain owned by Texas ? H-E-B, one of the largest privately held companies in the country. Also American and non-vintage.

? Oak Leaf ($2.97), the Walmart private label. Also American and non-vintage.

Why chardonnay? To give the wines the benefit of the doubt, since chardonnay is the easiest cheap wine to make well. And I won ?t pair the wines with anything that would show them up ? no cream sauces or haute French cuisine.

I ?ll post the results of the challenge next Monday, but you can keep up with the day-to-day action by following me on Twitter or checking out the Wine Curmudgeon Facebook page.

Each wine uses the same kind of bottle ? light and without a punt (the hollow in the bottle ?s bottom). And all but the Two-buck Chuck have the same foil and foil design, which isn ?t surprising since each is apparently made by The Wine Group, one of the Big Six and whose brands include Cupcake.

The Two-buck Chuck gold medal fallout

The Two-buck Chuck gold medal falloutTwo-Buck Chuck, the most notorious cheap wine of all, won three gold medals at a California wine competition last week, and the cyber-ether went wild. One member of the Winestream Media tweeted that the result proved that state fair wine competitions were worthless. Another left a comment on a blog, which had defended the medals, taking exception and implying that the competition had been rigged. And then there was this from a winemaker: ?Makes one wonder what the ?experts ? are drinking or smoking. ?

All of which demonstrated the Wine Curmudgeon ?s favorite adage about wine: That people who claim to be experts don ?t have to taste a wine to know that it isn ?t any good. More, after the jump:

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Private label wines, value, and quality

We ?re in the middle of a tremendous price war in Dallas, where retailers are selling some wines more or less at cost. Segura Viudas, one of my favorite cavas, is $6 ? about half of what it cost here a year ago (and about what it costs in Spain).

Yet the retailers don ?t seem especially concerned that they ?re giving away wine. Items like Segura Viudas are loss leaders to get customers into the store; once they ?re in, they can switch them to brands with better margins ? and, increasingly, these brands are private labels. In fact, private and store label wines, which are sold exclusively at one retailer, are perhaps the most important development on the retail side of the business over the past couple of years.

Some retailers, like Trader Joe ?s and Total Wine and More, focus almost exclusively on private label, but national grocery stores and regional chains are doing them as well, tucked onto the shelf next to the Kendall-Jackson, Yellow Tail, and Barefoot.

The question, then, is whether these private labels offer value and quality, or if they ?re just dodges to sell wine that consumers wouldn ?t normally buy. The answer, sadly, after the Wine Curmudgeon ?s recent private label experiment (unscientific, but worthwhile nonetheless) is that more and more, private labels are becoming the latter.

Consumers have long known that private label is not quite as good as the national brand ? the ketchup doesn ?t taste quite like Heinz and the peanut butter doesn ?t taste quite like Skippy. But they buy it anyway, because they ?re willing to trade quality for price, and the store brands are cheaper than the national brands.

In wine, the equation is more complicated. A traditional wine retailer ?s business is based on the premise that better wines are always more expensive, so any foray into private label sticks to that line. Kroger ?s private labels, for example, don ?t try to undercut the national brands, and you can’t even tell which are which on the shelf. However, more retailers are junking that approach in favor of ?this wine is cheaper and just as good ? or even better. ?

The most obvious example is Trader Joe ?s and Two-buck Chuck, which Two-buck Chuck ?s maker, Fred Franzia, insists is just as good as any bottle of pricey Napa wine. I ?m not quite sure anyone believes him (or that Franzia even believes it himself), but, as a marketing approach, it has been incredibly successful.

Total Wine, with 82 stores in 13 states, has taken this one step further. It identifies its private label wines as such, which almost no one else does, and displays them next to the comparable national brands ? complete with little cards under the wine, or shelf talkers, that say that its private labels are cheaper and better (or as much as it can without running afoul of federal regulations).

Are Total ?s private labels cheaper and better? Or is this just a cynical ploy to prey on consumers who can tell the difference between ketchups but who can ?t tell the difference between wines? I ?ve argued for years that the wine business is not as interested in educating consumers as it is in selling them wine, and it ?s easy to see how this could be part of that. Given how confusing wine is to most of us, our first instinct is to trust whatever the store says. They ?re not going to lie about their product, are they?

One distributor I asked, who doesn ?t have Total in his state, is convinced that the chain is counting on the consumer ?s ignorance. My experience, in the short time Total has been in Dallas, has been much the same. Their private labels are less expensive, but you can also taste the difference ? and not in a good way.

Case in point: Victoire Champagne Brut Prestige ($20, purchased), which the shelf talker claimed was half the price of branded Champagne and just as Champagne-y. I ?ve done this long enough to know that this is all but impossible, but I also pride myself on my open mind. Besides, what if it was just like Champagne at half the price?

The Victoire wasn ?t, and it wasn ?t even as well made as $20 cava or French cremant (or many $10 cavas, for that matter). The Big Guy tasted it with me; he took a couple of sips and asked if I had anything else to drink. The wine had little structure, and tasted more like apple juice mixed with club soda than sparkling wine.

No wonder it ?s easier to buy ketchup. Or that it ?s more popular than wine.