There are lots of things to love about Trader Joe’s, and its collection of awesome, affordable wines is high on the list.
But what about the house blend?
Charles Shaw wine, also (infamously) known as “Two-Buck Chuck,” is certainly a cultural touchstone. Introduced in the early aughts at just $1.99 per bottle, the colloquial moniker isn’t quite as accurate today: The wine usually sells for $2.99 to $3.79, depending on your market.
Either way, a bottle of the stuff obviously isn’t going to break your piggy bank. But at that price, is it even drinkable?
Is Two-Buck Chuck Any Good?
Let me lay it on the table: Wine is a hobby of mine.
While I’m not an actual sommelier (yet!), I’ve studied wine extensively. I’ve even got a certification that required me to identify wines after a blind tasting. Fancy, right?
Basically, I’m a committed amateur. That said, I’m not actually a snob: My favorite wines are ones that exhibit high quality at surprisingly low prices. Heck, I even like boxed wines — so much so that I once strong-armed the whole TPH office into tasting a bunch of them to see which one was best. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t really require much strong-arming.)
So I’ve decided to do something similar to figure out how to get you the most bang for your two-or-three Chuck bucks.
I’ll taste all the Charles Shaw varieties to see which ones are worth your money.
That’s right: I’ll drink a whole bunch of really cheap wines just so I can tell you which ones suck the least… if I live to tell the tale.
What can I say? I’m not afraid to make sacrifices when it comes to helping you save money. 😉
Two-Buck Chuck: A Close Reading
Before we dive into the actual tasting (no, I’m totally not procrastinating), let’s take a moment to look more closely at some of the bottles’ subtleties. Even if you’ve been drinking Two-Buck Chuck for years, some of this might surprise you.
Here’s a telling detail: When I went to the store, I bought seven bottles of Trader Joe’s proprietary Charles Shaw, and one bottle of wine I actually wanted. The $30 total purchase price was about equally split between those two categories.
Now, I’m not saying there isn’t good, cheap wine out there. There is.
But in most cases, extremely cheap products achieve those low prices by cutting at least a few corners. And it’s especially easy to do with wine, since labeling laws in the United States are less strict than those in most of the rest of the world.
Notice, for example, that the wine is called Charles Shaw Blend. Indeed, the wine you’re drinking is almost certainly not entirely made of the advertised varietal (that is, grape type) — which, in the U.S, can be true even of pricy wines, since law requires the bottle’s label to display only 75% of the grapes in the bottle.
Another sneaky detail: although the bottles do technically feature the words “Napa” and “Sonoma,” these are definitely not Napa Valley wines. If they were, TJ’s could display those words on the front of the label, which, you’ll notice, instead reads only “California.”
That means the winemaker could have grown the grapes that make up the wine anywhere in the state and shipped them to Napa and Sonoma to be vinified (made into wine) and bottled.
Which means the producer can pick the cheapest — i.e., lowest-quality — grapes from around the state.
And, hey, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Vintners can work impressive magic with their blending skills, and these methods are a good way to get you a whole bottle of wine for less than $5.
But you should at least know what you’re drinking. And now that you do… I guess it’s time to get to it.
Heart (and liver), don’t fail me now.
Two-Buck Chuck: The Whites
As in normal wine-tasting protocol, we’ll start out with the whites.
Generally, there’s less quality discrepancy between cheap and expensive white wines than red ones. That’s because whites are (usually) less complex by virtue of the fact they lack tannin and are traditionally served chilled, which cuts back on our taste perception.
(Related: If you have a terrible wine you need to get rid of, just serve it really, really cold.)
Cracking into this first bottle, I notice Two-Buck Chuck offers another perk besides its price: You don’t have to cut the foil. It has a little pull tab, which seems both convenient and somehow condescending.
Taking a deep breath, I pour myself a glass.
The wine is very pale in color, which is normal for this grape. The nose is pretty mild, but I take a sip… and find it’s not bad at all.
Unlike other cheap pinot grigios I’ve had, this wine isn’t overbearingly acidic, although there is a pleasantly juicy quality. It’s got a nectarine, almost honeyed-apricot flavor that’s a lot riper and richer than I would have expected.
Pinot grigio isn’t my favorite varietal by a long stretch, but next time I want it, I see no reason to spend more than Trader Joe’s $2.79 per bottle.
Honestly, to me this is indistinguishable from a more expensive pinot grigio.
Moving right along, I get ready to taste my favorite white varietal. With its fresh citrus quality and herbal undertones, sauvignon blanc is almost always my go-to glass of white wine.
I notice Charles Shaw’s version has a slightly deeper color than I’d expected — it looks more like a chardonnay in the glass. The nose reveals a few classic notes, like taking a whiff of lime rind and grass.
On the palate, it’s less juicy than I’d imagined; it needs a bit more acid to be balanced. It’s also lacking that slate quality sauvignon blanc sometimes has, but there’s definitely an herbaceous flavor over top of a sweeter fruit — maybe lemon. Again, not bad.
Although it’s missing some of my favorite varietal characteristics, this sauvignon blanc holds its own.
OK — this one, I’m skeptical of. While chardonnay is an incredibly versatile grape, the American version is generally well-oaked and complex, creating a flavor that’s hard to imitate cheaply.
But I discover, to my surprise, that it smells at least kind of like chardonnay in the glass. There’s definitely a woodsy scent, but it’s almost too pronounced, somehow — as if it’s been painted on. This likely indicates the use of oak chips instead of barrels to impart those classic, wood-aged characteristics.
When I take a swallow, I find there’s nowhere near enough body and none of the creamy, buttery notes that evidence malolactic fermentation. But it does have the tropical fruit quality many wine drinkers know and love about American chardonnays, with noticeable flavors of melon and banana.
Unless you normally buy expensive chardonnay, this wine will probably quench your appetite.
Two-Buck Chuck: The Reds
With their dark, complex fruit flavors and sturdy tannin structure, red wines are my favorites — but they’re also less forgiving to when it comes to shortcuts. Let’s see how Trader Joe’s red fare… fares.
Cabernet sauvignon is perhaps the most popular red wine in America and one of the best-loved varietals in the world. At its best, it’s rich and supple, with a dark flavor of cassis and a note of vanilla that indicates wood aging.
I’m pleased to see that the wine isn’t too pale in the glass — cabernet is a dense red wine and should be a deep ruby color.
Smelling it, however, is another story. This wine makes me audibly go “Oof!” on the nose — it’s way too fruity. And not good fruity. Like, Juicy Juice fruity. It almost has the scent of kirsch you’d expect with Beaujolais.
But I am not weak of heart, dear reader. I steel myself and take a sip.
My very first thought? “This isn’t terrible — but it isn’t cab.”
The wine has no backbone whatsoever, none of the tannin and acid that make good cabernet such a hearty, steak-friendly quaff. This is more like a grenache: medium-bodied, with light fruit flavors leaning more toward strawberry and cedar. It might make a good base for a sangria, but it only aspires to cabernet sauvignon.
Not undrinkable, I suppose… but it has no place being associated with the grape advertised on the label.
Shiraz, also known as syrah, is a dark, thick-skinned grape that can withstand relatively cold temperatures. It’s responsible for creating some of the fullest-bodied, densest, most flavorful red wines in the world, with characteristics ranging from roasted meat to blackberry and pepper.
But what comes from my bottle of Charles Shaw shiraz is… warm grape juice.
Even in the glass, the wine is way too pale and transparent for what should be a robust grape. The nose is simple and not very pleasant, with a scent I can only describe as “rusty cherry.”
Sipping doesn’t help. This wine has absolutely zero tannins and a strangely sour note. The closest flavor characteristic I can come up with is “Robitussin.” (Is that more or less flattering than “rusty cherry”?)
It feels depthless, stunted and flabby.
Looking for commiseration, I run a quick Google search and discover this varietal actually won an award in a past vintage. What?!
Something must have gone seriously awry since 2002, because the only award I could grant this bottle of Two-Buck Chuck is the first-place prize for “Wines Jamie Poured Down the Sink in Disgust.”
I cannot. I cannot.
I mean, it’s still technically wine, so it gets a couple of points. Kind of like how you get some credit just for writing your name on the SAT.
I’m already fairly snobby about merlot because unless it’s good, it’s generally really, really bad. And I don’t feel like this is going to be good.
Lifting it to my nose, I find the wine has a musty smell — like eau de grandma’s closet.
I carefully take a sip.
It’s not entirely without body. Merlot is supposed to taste like chocolate and berries, and spice. This tastes like… wine.
But I mean, I didn’t immediately pour it down the drain. Maybe I’m just getting tipsy at this point, but I’d call myself pleasantly surprised.
While this is by no means a great example of a merlot, it’s pretty drinkable — a good wine to turn to if you need an affordable, flow-friendly supply for a party.
While it’s technically a rose, I’ll include this abomination of merlot in its grape’s rightful category.
White merlot is what happens when winemakers allow only very brief skin contact with the pressed grape juice, creating its characteristic pink color. It’s almost always very sweet, very simple and very cheap — and not very good.
I’ll be frank: This wine was available for purchase, but I did not buy it.
I’m sorry. There are some lines I will not cross. Merlot should be DRY AND RED, DARN IT.
Score: Stop drinking white merlot.
What’s the Best Cheap Wine? It Depends on Your Taste Buds
Here are the winning wines in my estimation:
- Best White Two-Buck Chuck: Pinot grigio
- Best Red Two-Buck Chuck: Merlot
- Honorable Mention: Sauvignon blanc
In general, I’d recommend Trader Joe’s white wines over its reds.
But here’s the thing: Which cheap wine is best largely depends on your personal preferences.
There’s nothing wrong with buying bottom-shelf wine, especially if you can’t tell the difference between it and more expensive bottles. And many people can’t — in fact, picking out the individual flavor characteristics in wine is a learned skill that takes practice to maintain.
If you’re happy with Charles Shaw or Franzia, that’s awesome. To be honest, I envy you; my wine hobby takes up a serious chunk of my budget.
But dear reader, I must admit: When I was done with my Two-Buck Chuck tasting, I poured myself a swirl of $20 petite sirah from the Central Coast of California. It filled my glass with the scent of plums and chocolate, and it tasted like blackberry pie with a twist of fresh-ground pepper.
Alas. I will always spend my hoarded pennies on expensive wine.
Your Turn: Cheers! What’s in your glass?
Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer and WSET-certified wino whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida.