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Wine of the Weel -- Satisfying a curiosity for Two-Buck Chuck

The other night, I drove 70 miles, roundtrip, to buy a bottle of $2.99 wine. And now I can say that I, too, have tried Two-Buck Chuck. Admittedly, I am late to the party; many others have already bought into the craze, including someone I know who proudly served the wine at her wedding not long ago. Millions of bottles of the wine have apparently been snapped up.

Just what is Two-Buck Chuck? It seems to me that it is several things. On one level it is a line of California chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc, made from surplus wine, bought up in bulk, bottled under the Charles Shaw label and sold exclusively at Trader Joe’s stores nationally. In California it goes for $1.99 — hence the nickname. In 11 other states where it is sold it will set you back from $2.99 to $3.39. (A sign at a New Jersey store calls it Three-Buck Chuck, but that doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?)

On another level, it is about taking part in an experience, of belonging. Two-Buck Chuck is the wine equivalent of the ’50s Hula Hoop fad. Everyone seems to be doing it. Get down to the store and buy yours. Talk about it. Share the experience. Tell others how to think about it, like the man who said, while carting away his fix, “You gotta try it, pretend it costs more and enjoy it.” I see. A fantasy wine for a tough economy, perhaps. “It’s functional wine,” a Trader Joe’s salesman told me. “That’s the best description I can give. If you keep your expectations reasonable you’ll probably like it.” I would soon find out.

Since, by law, you can’t buy wine at grocery stores in New York, I drove out to a Trader Joe’s in Westfield, N.J., that does sell it. And there they were, case upon case, stacked like a shrine to Charles Shaw, the name of a defunct California winery recycled for the Two-Buck Chuck line. They took up far more space than any other wine — or just about anything else in the market. I bought six bottles for $17.94. These days that will barely buy you a couple of glasses of wine in some restaurants.

So what about the wines? I tried the 2001 chardonnay, merlot and cabernet. They are, by any measure, altogether generic wines. The chardonnay is dominated by wood and alcohol with a bitter finish. I kept trying to identify some specific fruit tastes, but couldn’t put my finger on one.

The reds are a step up. Although both are soft with little structure, they show decent berry tastes and are not overpowered by wood, yet are far from satisfying when compared with some $5 or $6 wines I have had. Which is better? I would call them pretty much a draw. In fact, I even did my own homemade blend, mixing some of the cab with some of the merlot in a glass, with slightly more interesting results (memo to Charles Shaw).

Ultimately, Two-Buck Chuck is blue-collar wine masquerading as white and red. And yet, if it helps people discover wine, or helps satisfy a craving for savings that exists somewhere in all of us, then I’ll raise my glass to it, at least half way. A guy at work may have spoken for masses of cheap-wine drinkers when he remarked, on hearing about Two-Buck Chuck, “For that money, if it’s reasonably potable, I’ll go for it. I pay three times that for (expletive deleted).” A bottle of Two-Buck Chuck has his name written all over it.

But, if you aspire to go beyond “potable” and have a desire to begin exploring wine’s infinite variations and subtleties, I recommend that you quickly get the curiosity about “Chuck,” or the wine itself, out of your system, spend even a few more bucks and buy yourself some far more interesting inexpensive wines.

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