Tag Archives: Two-buck Chuck

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?

Results: The fifth $3 wine challenge

$3 wine challenge

Hopefully, that guy isn’t looking for a $3 bottle of wine.

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.

I tasted five $3 chardonnays with dinner last week – the complete story is in this week’s Dallas Observer. The less painful version:

• The Three Wishes from Whole Foods tasted like pinot grigio.

• The Kroger Bay Bridge smelled like nail polish remover, the sign of a wine flaw called volatile acidity. Yummy!

• 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.

More on the $3 wine challenge:
Results: The fourth $3 wine challenge 2018
Results: The third $3 wine challenge 2017
Results: The second $3 wine challenge 2014
Results: The first $3 wine challenge 2013

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 

Winebits 630: Two-buck Chuck, Italian wine fraud, winespeak

Two-buck Chuck

This week’s wine news: Two-buck Chuck costs $2 again in parts of California, thanks to the state’s grape glut. Plus, a 1-million bottle Italian wine fraud and the 2019 winespeak winners.

Just $1.99: Two-buck Chuck, the Trader Joe’s private label wine, costs $1.99 again in California, just like it did when it debuted in 2002. That’s a drop of about one-third for the wine, labeled as Charles Shaw. Credit the California grape glut for the discount, which has dropped the prices of the bulk grapes used to make the wine. However, the price remains $2.99 to $3.79 a bottle in the rest of the country, thanks to higher transportation costs.

A massive fraud: Italian police arrested five people, including two regional wine officials, and broke up a 1-million bottle wine fraud ring in the Oltrepo Pavese region near Milan in northern Italy. A wine co-operative in Oltrepo Pavese and several winemakers had worked together, combining sugar, additives and grapes from other regions to make fake Oltrepo Pavese DOC (PDO) and PGI wines for the 2018 vintage. This is the second major fraud in Oltrepo Pavese in the past five years; in 2014, police broke up a scam involving 200 people.

Good old winespeak: John Tilson at the Underground Wine Letter presents his annual list of the most stupid wine descriptions of the past year. As always, he brings a chuckle to the Wine Curmudgeon. My favorite descriptors this year are “treacle tart,” a sweet British dessert, and beef blood, which were used by two different writers to assess the same Spanish red wine. How, do you ask, can two completely opposite descriptions be used for the same wine? All I can say is that this is why wonder I wonder about the future of the wine business.

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.