Bottom’s Up: Chuck the Chuck, cheapo

January 21, 2010

There’s nothing worse than being predictable. That’s why I shrink from serving Charles Shaw, or two-buck Chuck, as the bargain Trader Joe’s wine is affectionately known, at dinner these days. As tolerable and affordable—only $2.99 a bottle!—as the wine is, it’s gotten to be just too damn ubiquitous. (As a college student regularly subjected to Keystone and jungle juice, I consider the word tolerable to be quite a compliment.) Spend three bucks on a bottle of wine and everyone’s going to know it.

I’m not too concerned with how these wines taste—this is college, after all. For those of you with more sophisticated palates, go enjoy your nutty, impertinent Merlots and your full-haunched yet playful Pinot Grigios. This column is not for your kind.

Plus, one of the perks of shopping for wine at Trader Joe’s with a five dollar per bottle budget is that a reasonable baseline of quality is assured. Unlike inexpensive wine from, say, Towne, you need not worry about offending your friends’ taste buds with what might pass for fermented prune juice.

What really matters when buying bargain wine from Trader Joe’s is the label. And thankfully, for just a dollar or two more than two-buck Chuck, you can get wine that looks every bit as sophisticated as your parents’ favorite ‘98 Bordeaux.

Take the Aquila D’Oro Toscana 2008, a dry red Tuscan wine that will set you back a mere $3.99. With its name in a sweeping gold typeface against a muted black background and shimmering crimson red leaves lining the bottom of the label, the wine looks positively regal.

As for how it tastes? Red. Pretty good. Like I said, this is college.

If you want a wine that’s a little more mod-looking, I’d point you towards the 2008 Purple Moon Merlot. Also $3.99, the label of this California wine has a Cro-magnon-style etching of a man in what looks like a grass skirt triumphantly holding up a bunch of grapes. Triumphant, indeed.

I could go on. There’s the quirky Dr. Jebediah Drinkwell’s 2007 Meritage, the penguin-adorned 2008 King Shag Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and so on. Trader Joe’s has no shortage of four and five dollar bottles of wine that look as if they cost three or four times that.

For this, we owe our thanks, at least partially, to Fred Franzia, the wine mogul whose empire includes Charles Shaw. Franzia, though a multimillionaire, would fit right in at college; he believes any bottle of wine shouldn’t be more than ten dollars. Franzia snaps up established, financially distressed wineries. Then, he exploits their brand names to market thousands of gallons of wine, purchased on the cheap off the bulk market.

The result? A profusion of super-cheap, fairly tasty wines. And if you spring for a step above two-buck Chuck, no one at college will be any the wiser. Let us raise our glasses then, my fellow sommeliers, to bargain wine with luxury labels. Cheers.

Kick back after a long day and uncork Sam’s bottle of white at ssweeney@georgetownvoice.com.

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