Tag Archives: Two-buck Chuck

Winebits 483: Chenin blanc, Two-buck Chuck, three-tier

chenin blancThis week’s wine news: Dry Creek releases its 45th consecutive vintage of chenin blanc, plus the history of Two-buck Chuck and a loss for three-tier

Keep it coming: Dry Creek Vineyard has released its 45th consecutive vintage of dry chenin blanc, which the winery says is a record for California. Given how little respect chenin blanc gets, and especially in California, that’s probably true. In fact, the Dry Creek chenin is a marvelous wine, a regular part of the $10 Hall of Fame, and an example to the rest of the wine world that you don’t have to make chardonnay, chardonnay, and more chardonnay. But what else would you expect from a winery that ends the news release about the chenin with this quote? “Instead of getting sucked into the increasing corporatization of the industry, we are bucking the trends and are an increasingly rare breed.” No wonder I like the wine so much.

Cheap wine: The Thrillist website recounts the history of Trader Joe’s Two-buck Chuck, the first ultra-cheap “premium” wine. The piece is mostly well done, and includes quotes from Chuck Shaw, who started the winery whose name – sold for $27,000 to Bronco Wine – was eventually used on the first $1.99 offering from Trader Joe’s. And, for the most part, the story confirms my most recent assessment of Two-buck Chuck: Where’s the antidote?

Three-tier takes a hit: The state’s supreme court has struck down a South Carolina law that said no one could own more than three liquor stores. The court ruled that the three-license law “limits are arbitrary and do not promote the health, safety or morals of the state, but merely provide economic protection for existing retail liquor store owners.” This matters not just for South Carolina, but in every state that limits the number of stores one person can own, which includes Texas. It’s not legally binding outside of South Carolina, but it does offer a precedent for judges to to use elsewhere. Also worth noting is that the suit was brought by the Total Wine chain, which has sued other states to overturn three-tier laws. Finally, if I may pat myself on the back, this appears to be part of a trend I wrote about last month, noting that a new generation of judges and regulators sees liquor law differently than their parents and grandparents did.

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?

Big wine

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

$3 wine

“The horror, the horror. …”

Results: The third $3 wine challenge 2017

Results: The first $3 wine challenge 2013

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.

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.

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?

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.

$10 Hall of Fame 2019

The Five Day, $3 Wine Challenge: The results

• Results: The third $3 wine challenge 2017

• Results: The second $3 wine challenge 2014

$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:

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?