This $3 wine challenge? One bottle was sort of palatable, but the other four weren’t even close
A 3-liter box of decent wine, like the Bota Box rose or the Black Box merlot, costs about $15, which is less than $4 a bottle. Do yourself a favor and buy one of those. Don’t waste your money on any of the wines in the WC’s fifth, almost annual, $3 wine challenge.
• Four of the five were noticeably sweet and a couple were very sweet. Which would be fine, except that these wines pass themselves off as dry.
• The Two-buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s smelled like old cheese. More yummy!
• The best of the five was Walmart’s Oak Leaf, which was thin, watery, and not obviously sweet, but sort of tasted like chardonnay. And it’s the only one that had any acidity, and there was even a touch of nicely done fake oak. Yes, that would be damning with faint praise.
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.
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.
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
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.
I drank a bottle of wine with dinner five nights last week to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? I tasted five merlots and a red blend from leading retailers in the United States. Each wine but one was non-vintage with an American appellation:
• Two-buck Chuck ($2.99, 12.5%), the Trader Joe ?s private label, 2012 vintage and California appellation. Call this the Miller Lite of the tasting; drinkable, with some berry fruit, but thin and not very memorable. It’s probably $3 worth of wine, but it raises the question of why you’d go to Trader Joe’s just to buy it. It’s not that much more of a value than most $6 or $7 grocery store merlots.
• Three Wishes ($2.99, 12.5%), the Whole Foods private label. Not offensive, but nothing more than that. Some dark fruit, but thin and the poor quality of the fake oak showed through. Not much in the way of tannins, either, and this wine needed tannins to balance the oak.
• Winking Owl ($2.89, 12.5%) from Aldi but may be available elsewhere. Real wine that mostly tasted the way it was supposed to taste — some berry fruit, fake oak that wasn’t annoying, and proper tannins. This is not top-quality merlot or even $10 merlot, but compared to the rest, it was right bank Bordeaux.
• Yosemite Road ($3.99, 12%), a private label for 7-Eleven. This red blend is one of the best sweet reds I’ve ever tasted, and a terrific value if that’s what you’re looking for. It wasn’t as sweet as a poorly-made white zinfandel, and there was fruit flavor (red berries?) to go with the sweetness. The catch, of course, is that the wine does not say anywhere on the label that it’s sweet, and the alcohol percentage indicates a dry wine. As noted before, this is dishonest and cheats consumers. Producers have an obligation to say if it’s sweet, and putting the words jammy, velvety, and soft on the label is not good enough. In other words, I wasted my money.
• Oak Leaf ($2.97, 12.5%), the Walmart private label. Almost a carbon copy of the Three Wishes, but with enough unripe fruit to give the wine an old-fashioned, this is what we used to drink from France in the 1970s feel. However, since this is the 21st century and there is no reason for that kind of wine to exist, it’s not a selling point.
• Southern Point ($2.39, 12.5%), the Walgreen’s private label. I had high hopes for this wine, given how well the drug store chain’s chardonnay did in a tasting several years ago. However, it was one of the worst wines I’ve drunk in a decade, combining poor winemaking and poor quality fruit. It didn’t taste like merlot, but like a cheap, alcoholic wine cooler without any fizz. This is the kind of wine that I have been fighting against for 20 years, but somehow still seems to get made.
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.
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?
The 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.
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.
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.