Tag Archives: $3 wine

Follow-up: The fifth $3 wine challenge

$3 wine

Consumers have gone through a lot — and I mean a lot — of empty $3 wine bottles since Two-buck Chuck debuted 18 years ago.

Does the continuing popularity of $3 wine, which isn’t all that tasty, tell us more about the wine business than the wine business wants to know?

Five times I’ve tasted $3 wine to see if wine drinkers can survive on ultra-cheap wine. Five times, the answer has been no – and the wines have tasted worse each time I have done it. So why do these wines still exist?

Welcome to the deep, dark dirty secret of the wine business — and which is rearing its ugly head this year: We buy wine on price, and if the price is low enough, nothing else much matters. Despite all of the hoopla about premiumization and trading up, $3 wine exists because people buy it. And we buy lots and lots of it.

Trader Joe’s has sold more than 83 million cases of Two-buck Chuck since the wine debuted in 2002, about 4.6 million cases a year. That would make the Charles Shaw brand the 10th biggest winery in the country by volume in 2020 if it actually existed. And, surprisingly, that total is closer to No. 9 Jackson Family and its ubiquitous Kendall Jackson chardonnay, than almost anyone could imagine.

It’s also worth noting the success of E&J Gallo’s $7 Barefoot, which is estimated to sell $1 billion worth of wine this year, about 18 million cases, That would make it the fifth biggest brand in the country if Gallo didn’t own it. And, when we parse the data, isn’t the popularity of White Claw and the rest of the hard seltzers about price? Why would someone buy flavored spritzy water with a bit of booze if it wasn’t cheap? Like Two-buck Chuck, they’re certainly not buying it for the sensual experience.

The other thing that fascinates me about $3 wine? That its adherents take it as a personal affront when I criticize it. How can you be such a snob? they ask (and not always that politely). We’ll ignore for a moment that I may be the least snobbish person in the wine business. What matters is that they need affirmation that buying on price is OK, because that’s the exact opposite of the way the wine business works.

And in this, they miss the point of my criticism. The first rule – and really the only rule – for wine is to drink what you want, but be willing to try different things. They can drink as much crappy, thin, and watery wine as they want. What does it matter what I think, as long as they enjoy it? So should the question they ask not be what I think, but if they really enjoy it?

cheap wine

The fifth, almost annual, $3 wine challenge

$3 wine challenge

Who knows? Maybe one of these $3 wines will be a best buy.

The almost annual $3 wine challenge: The Wine Curmudgeon will drink $3 chardonnay with dinner every night this week, because that’s what Google says the Internet wants

The Wine Curmudgeon hates writing this post, but not because the wine is usually so terrible. It’s because, no matter how terrible the wine is, people still buy it and “enjoy” it because it costs $3. How many times do I have to write that cheap wine isn’t good just because it’s cheap?

Nevertheless, since this remains one of the most popular features on the blog and I regularly get emails asking me to do it again, here we go for the fifth time: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Or are the ultra-cheap wines just cheap, without any other reason for being? The details about the first four $3 challenges are here, here, here, and here.

This year, I will taste five chardonnays (all purchased in Dallas). In addition, the results will run in the weekly Dallas Observer; food editor Taylor Adams asked me to write a fun and creative wine story. I’ll post the link to that story here on March 6,  and include the highlights from the tastings. So, once more unto the breach, dear friends:

Two-buck Chuck chardonnay ($2.99, 12.5%). The Trader Joe’s private label was the first — and remains — the most famous of the very cheap wines. It’s a California appellation from the 2019 vintage, and made for Trader Joe’s by Bronco Wine.

Three Wishes chardonnay ($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 anywhere in the U.S. (though most probably came from the Central Valley in California). It’s made by multi-national The Wine Group, which is best known for Cupcake and the big Franzia boxes.

Winking Owl chardonnay ($2.95, 12%) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere). It’s a California appellation but non-vintage, so 75 percent of the grapes came from California but from different harvests. It’s made by E&J Gallo, the largest wine producer in the world. The price is price is seven more than the last time I did this.

Oak Leaf chardonnay ($2.50, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Also made by The Wine Group, American, and non-vintage. The price almost 50 cents less than the last time I did this.

Bay Bridge chardonnay ($2.99, 12.5%), the Kroger private label; sold at Kroger, Fred Meyer, and Kroger-owned banners. It’s American and non-vintage, and the third of these wines made by The Wine Group.

Photo: “$2.99” by *lapin is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Follow-up: Just because it’s a cheap wine doesn’t mean it’s worth drinking

cheap wime

“What do I care if it’s any good? It’s cheap.”

Wine drinkers of the world unite: We have nothing to lose but crappy cheap wine

Ordinarily, a rant like last week’s Two-buck Chuck rose and cheap wine post makes a brief impression in the cyber-ether, and then it fades away. But not this time.

The Wine Curmudgeon is not the only one who thinks we’re getting played by the wine business. You do, too, given the comments and emails I got after the post ran.

Wrote one reader: “Thank you, WC, for some sanity on this ‘cheap wine is good’ chatter. Someone gave me the Two-buck Chuck sauvignon blanc. It was undrinkable – pungent, flabby and almost no SB flavor, so it may be worse than the rose.” And another: “I tried it just to test. Virtually tasteless.”

In this, those of us who want quality for our $10 are caught between a rock and a hard place. Premiumization has forced up the price of quite ordinary wine, so that we’re paying $15 and $18 for a product worth $10 or $12. But when we trade down to look for value, because who wants to spend $18 for alcoholic grape juice, what happens? We end up with foolishness like the Two-buck Chuck rose.

That happens every time I do the $3 wine post, when I drink five $3 wines with dinner for a week. Most of the wines are made with little concern for varietal correctness, and it’s rare when a chardonnay tastes like a chardonnay. Mostly, they’re made to cost $3, and if that means sub-par grapes, a grimy sweetness, less than ideal winemaking, and a poor quality product, so be it.

That’s why I’m here

But we buy it and hope for the best. Partly that’s because we’ve been taught that the only good wine is expensive, and we don’t want to believe that. Why, after all, am I here?

But it’s also because we believe that Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods or whomever won’t sell us a crummy product. We trust them in a way we don’t trust the phone and cable companies, and quality retailers spend millions of dollars to earn and keep our trust. And, for the most part, they do a fine job. Whole Foods may have its problems, but when I buy an organic tomato, I have no doubt that’s what it is.

So where does crummy cheap wine fit in? Because if a retailer sold chicken or piece of beef that tasted like these wines, someone would call the health inspector. It’s because it’s wine, and they can get away with it. If I buy bad beef, it’s easy to tell it’s bad. If I buy bad wine, how do I know? The store won’t tell us (and try to return a bottle that’s gone off – can’t be done). The critics won’t tell us, because they don’t review those wines. So we’re stuck assuming that it’s supposed to taste the way it does. And if we don’t like it, then we’ve been taught that we aren’t smart enough about wine to know the difference between good and bad.

Talk about a rigged game. It’s not so much we can’t find the bean under the shell; there isn’t even a bean for us to find.

Results: The fourth $3 wine challenge 2018

$3 challenge 2018

Does this guy know how lucky he was not to drink wine with me last week?

The $3 wine challenge 2018: The wines were awful again — how can anyone drink this junk?

The worst part of the $3 wine challenge 2018 is that I wanted to like these wines. I wanted to find something that cost $3 that tasted like wine and that I could buy and enjoy.

Fat chance.

Like last year, and the year before, and the year before, the wines were mostly hideous. This group was made to resemble grape juice with alcohol. Think Welch’s — an overwhelmingly grapey aroma, a little less sweetness, tartness instead of acidity, watery and thin, and without the tannins that every wine should have. These are wine for people who don’t like wine.

Which the producers understand. The bottle — with a cork, for crying out loud — cost more to produce than the wine itself. This should tell you how much appearance matters, and how little quality counts.

The $3 challenge 2018

I drank a $3 merlot with dinner every night last week to attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Or are the ultra-cheap wines just cheap, without any redeeming enological value? Each of the wines was purchased, and all but one was American and non-vintage.

Two-buck Chuck merlot 2014 ($1.99, 12.5%). The Trader Joe’s private label had the blueberry aroma it should have had, though a little forced. Very fruity, with sweet berries, plus unexpected tannins. They weren’t especially natural (liquid tannins, perhaps?), but at least they were there. Surprisingly drinkable and merlot-like, and the only one that tasted anything like wine. But not as well made as the Black Box merlot, which is about the same price.

Three Wishes merlot ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. How can a retailer that prides itself on quality sell something this wretched? Smelled like expensive grape juice, and tasted like it, too. No tannins, no acidity, and a dirty chocolate fake oak taste on the finish.

• The Winking Owl merlot ($2.89, 12%) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere) had a thick and heavy taste, even though it was surprisingly light in color. Smelled like merlot, with some blueberry, but that was as palatable as it got. There was noticeable residual sugar, even though the wine claimed to be dry; the usual missing tannins; and battery acid-style acidity.

Oak Leaf merlot ($2.96, 12.5%), the Walmart private label was more of the same — the Welch’s grape juice approach, both in aroma and taste; so of course, no tannins. Plus, and oddly, it was a little heavy in the back. A very annoying effort.

Bay Bridge merlot ($2.99, 12.5%), the Kroger private label and sold at Kroger, Fred Meyer, and Kroger-owned banners. This, as it usually is, was the worst of the five. Smelled like blueberry Kosher wine, and a little tinny for good measure.  Charred chocolate from the fake oak (oak powder?), plus a little varnish-like taste in the fruit.

More on the $3 wine challenge:
Results: The third $3 wine challenge 2017
Results: The second $3 wine challenge 2014
Results: The first $3 wine challenge 2013

cheap wine

The fourth, almost annual, $3 wine challenge

$3 wineYou asked for it, so the Wine Curmudgeon will endure. I’ll drink $3 wine with dinner every night next week to see if ultra-cheap wine matters

Each night next week, I’ll drink a $3 wine with dinner; can they offer quality and value for so little money? I don’t do this to break new enological ground, given how crappy most of the wine was in the first three $3 challenges. But this remains one of the most popular features on the blog, and I regularly get emails asking me to do it again.

So once more unto the breach, dear friends (and I wish I had his sword). Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Or are the ultra-cheap wines just cheap, without any other reason for being?

The details about the first three $3 challenges are here, here, and here. This year, it will be five merlots (all purchased in Dallas):

Two-buck Chuck merlot ($1.99, 12.5%). The Trader Joe’s private label was the first — and remains — the most famous of the very cheap wines. It’s a California appellation from the 2014 vintage, and made for Trader Joe’s by Bronco Wine. The price surprised me; it has been $2.99 for a couple of years.

Three Wishes merlot ($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 anywhere in the U.S. (though most probably came from the Central Valley in California). It’s made by multi-national The Wine Group, which is best known for Cupcake.

Winking Owl merlot ($2.89, 12%) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere). It’s a California appellation but non-vintage, so 75 percent of the grapes came from California but from different harvests. It’s made by E&J Gallo, the largest wine producer in the world.

Oak Leaf merlot ($2.96, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Also made by The Wine Group, American, and non-vintage. The price is a penny less than the last time I did this.

Bay Bridge merlot ($2.99, 12.5%), the Kroger private label; sold at Kroger, Fred Meyer, and Kroger-owned banners. It’s American and non-vintage, and the third of these made by The Wine Group.

Results: The third $3 wine challenge

$3 wine
No need to do a $3 wine challenge again, given how awful these five wines were

The best news about this year’s $3 wine challenge? The wine was so awful I’ll never have to do one of these again. What’s the point? Only one of the five white wines was anywhere close to what it should be, and it wasn’t all that close. One was a sweet wine masquerading as pinot grigio, and the rest were an insult to anyone who drinks wine. That was the worst performance in the three years I’ve done this, and the wines have gotten worse each year.

I can’t decide what makes me angrier: Is it the arrogance of the retailers who sold these because they assumed that no one would care? Or because they assumed we would be too stupid to know the difference? We do and we aren’t, even if we barely drink wine. These wines were the equivalent of the dollar bin at a discount store, where you know the crap you’re buying isn’t very good but you don’t care because it costs a dollar. But these wines didn’t cost a dollar.

I have championed the cause of cheap wine for more than two decades, and often in the face of loud and obnoxious opposition. That’s because I truly believe that cheap wine can offer quality and value, and that well-made cheap wine is the first step in getting Americans to embrace wine the way so many in the rest of the world have. But given cheap wine as lousy as this, do I have any chance of convincing anyone to enjoy wine? They’ll just spit it out and give it the greatest insult possible: “It tastes like wine.”

The $3 wine challenge

I drank a $3 wine with dinner each night last week to attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Or are the ultra-cheap wines just cheap, without any redeeming enological value? There were two sauvignon blancs, a pinot grigio, and two pinot grigio-colombard blends. I wanted to do all sauvignon blancs, but several retailers stopped carrying sauvignon blanc, so I made do just like an ordinary consumer. Each of the wines was purchased, and all but two were American and non-vintage.

•The Two-buck Chuck sauvignon blanc 2015 ($2.99, 12.5%) from California was one of the worst wines I’ve tasted in some 20 years of professional wine drinking, even allowing for its notorious inconsistency. The Trader Joe’s private label tasted like acidic gasoline and bore no resemblance whatever to wine. It was an embarrassment to a retailer that prides itself on value, as well as to producer Bronco Wine, which claims to make great cheap wine.

Three Wishes pinot grigio-colombard ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. It smelled skunky, and not in a good way. The wine was watery and tasteless without any semblance of fruit, and what passed for flavor was a decidedly unpleasant bitterness. How Whole Foods can claim to sell “real food” and sell this junk is beyond me.

Winking Owl California non-vintage pinot grigio ($2.89, 11.5%) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere). This had the Italian pinot grigio tonic water aroma and OK lemon fruit, but the dollop of what tasted like white grape juice gave it an off-putting sweetness. Either sell it as sweet wine or sell it as pinot grigio, but don’t do both.

Oak Leaf sauvignon blanc ($2.97, 12.5%), the Walmart private label, was the only one of the five that came anywhere close to tasting like it should, with some California grassiness and a little citrus. But being bland and inoffensive does not mean it was worth drinking.

• The Bay Bridge pinot grigio-colombard ($2.99, 12.5%), the Kroger private label. This wasn’t as hideous as the Two-buck Chuck, but that’s small consolation for a wine that tasted like cheap cough syrup without any sugar to cover up the medicinal flavor.

Image courtesy of WikiHow, using a Creative Commons license

More on the $3 wine challenge:
Results: The second $3 wine challenge 2014
Results: The first $3 wine challenge 2013

cheap wine

The third, almost annual, $3 wine challenge

 $3 wine challengeWish me luck – it’s time for the third $3 wine challenge

Each night this week, I’ll drink a $3 wine with dinner and attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Or are the ultra-cheap wines just cheap, without any redeeming enological value?

This year, it will be two sauvignon blancs, a pinot grigio, and two pinot grigio-colombard blends. I wanted to review five sauvignon blancs, but several retailers stopped carrying sauvignon blanc, so we’re making do just like an ordinary consumer.

The previous challenges were chardonnay in 2014 and merlot in 2013. So far, most of the wines haven’t been worth drinking, which is one reason I didn’t do the challenge the past couple of years. What’s the point if the results are so depressing?

But once more into the breach, if only because so many blog visitors have asked me to take glass in hand one more time. The lineup this year (and the wines were purchased in Dallas):

Two-buck Chuck sauvignon blanc ($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 appellation from the 2015 vintage, and made for Trader Joe’s by Bronco Wine.

Three Wishes pinot grigio-colombard ($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 anywhere in the U.S. It’s made by the multi-national The Wine Group, which is best known for Cupcake.

Winking Owl pinot grigio ($2.89, 11.5%) from Aldi (but may be available elsewhere). It’s a California appellation and non-vintage, so 75 percent of the grapes came from California but from different harvests. It’s made by E&J Gallo, the largest wine producer in the world.

Oak Leaf sauvignon blanc ($2.97, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Made by The Wine Group, American, and non-vintage.

Bay Bridge pinot grigio-colombard ($2.99, 12.5%), the Kroger private label. It’s American and non-vintage, made by The Wine Group.

Again this year, none of these wines have a screwcap, which is stupid. Why would anyone want to pay more for the tool that opens the wine than the wine itself?