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Tannic Panic! Issue #9: Two Buck Chuck or Two Buck Yuck?
Searching for Bargain Wine at Trader Joe's
WI-WI-WI-WINOOOOOOOS ASSEMBLE! And hold on to your tiny little seatbelts because it’s going to be a bumpy ride — this week is all about Trader Joe’s brand wines.
Trader Joe’s is famously the home of “2-Buck-Chuck,” a nickname given to Charles Shaw wine, a brand of bargain-priced wine sold in Trader Joe's grocery stores in the United States. This wine got its nickname due to its initial price of $1.99 per bottle when it was first introduced in California in 2002. Even though inflation and other factors have since increased the price slightly (NOW ACTUALLY 4-BUCK CHUCK), it's still commonly referred to as "2-Buck Chuck."
Are you a college student on a budget who just wants something with the letters ABV on the label? Then 2-Buck-Chuck is just the kind of wine for you! Or something you buy in bulk when you're hosting a party and want to impress your friends with your “generosity” while simultaneously not caring whether they use it to make Sangria or to unclog their drains. It's the ultimate "quantity over quality" bottle that's so shamelessly cheap, it might just be the perfect thing to bring to a gathering where you neither know nor particularly like the host.
In all seriousness though, in spite of not being our top pick (or second, or third, or fourth, ETC, ETC — especially after these tastings), it is a wildly successful brand, with the Bronco Wine Company being among the largest producers of wine in the United States.
But if it’s all plonk, then why is it so successful?
Affordability (duh): It’s cheap AF, so a lot of people see it as an incredible value, and it has remained an affordable option over the years.
Availability: It’s sold at Trader Joe's (lol)
Awards: Despite the low price, Charles Shaw wines have on several occasions received respectable scores in blind taste tests and have even won some awards. The 2002 vintage of Charles Shaw Shiraz was awarded a double gold medal at the 28th Annual International Eastern Wine Competition. Several years later, the 2005 Charles Shaw Chardonnay was named best Chardonnay at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.
Cool name, bro: The catchy nickname and the surprising quality-to-price ratio (in years past) helped 2-Buck-Chuck become a popular topic of conversation and spread its fame.
Story: The story behind 2-Buck Chuck also played a part in its fame — the wine's production is a result of a once novel strategy by Fred Franzia, CEO of the Bronco Wine Company, to capitalize on a surplus of wine grapes in California by buying up that excess fruit for cheap and cranking out low cost wine.
But times they have-a-changed — the momentum of being such a household name helps keep sales going, but pressure to maintain the low price (it remained around $2 for a long time, and $4 hardly breaks the bank for most everyday shoppers) means that as inflation and other factors increase the cost of production, CORNERS MUST BE CUT! I would be shocked, ~SHOCKED~ I SAY! if we see Charles Shaw brand wines winning any awards in the years to come. Wondering how mass produced wines cut corners to cut prices? Check out our post on mass market wines for the juice.
Trader Joe’s also carries a pretty sizable rotating list of slightly more “premium quality” branded bottles (most still priced at under $10, but some with the “Platinum Reserve” and “Diamond Reserve” labels running closer to $20) which can be found at almost all locations, though the selections will vary as we discovered (Zach shopping in Boston and Isaac shopping in Austin). I asked one of the sales associates for background on who is behind these reserve label bottles, and was informed that Trader Joe’s makes deals with outside producers (who apparently sell the same wines with their own labels for significantly more) to get an apportionment of their wine to sell as Trader Joe’s brand. That means the quality and availability will vary greatly from vintage to vintage, store to store.
We went into this with an open mind, to see if any of the incredibly cheap Trader Joe’s brand offerings are actually fantastic value buys, and here’s the verdict —
Of the 20 Trader Joe’s brand bottles we tasted, 5 of those proved to be good enough for us to recommend (or at least deem suitable for human consumption).
First, we’ll share those picks, and then, for you particularly curious little goose mongers, we’ve included our notes on “the rest” so that you can rest easy leaving them on the shelf next time you’re at the store.
OUR TOP PICKS (IN ORDER OF PRICE):
2020 Trader Joe’s Petit Reserve Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Uco Valley, Argentina / 14% ABV / 87 Points / $8
Profile: Blackberry, cherry, rubber, brown sugar, vanilla. Medium bodied, dry, medium tannins, medium+ acidity.
An honest representation of cab at a great price point. Of the Trader Joe’s single varietal cabs we tasted, this was definitely the winner.
Score: 87 points
2020 Trader Joe’s Petit Reserve Syrah, Uco Valley, Argentina / 13.5% ABV / 89+ Points / $8 (VALUE PICK!)
Profile: Blackberry, blueberry, spice, smoke/cigar box and leather. Surprisingly complex for the low price point. Medium finish, medium acidity.
This is a solid entry level Syrah with a varietally consistent flavor profile and doesn’t taste overly manipulated by “recipe winemaking” tactics.
Score: 89+ points
2021 Trader Joe’s Reserve Meritage Lot #239, Paso Robles / 13.5% ABV / 86 Points / $10
Profile: Black currants, licorice, caramel. Full-bodied and decently structured with medium+ tannins, medium acid. A little confectionary on the palate with a slightly bitter aftertaste — this one wasn’t amazing, but was certainly drinkable and recognizable as a Bordeaux style blend (a Meritage blend is an American version of a blend using the Bordeaux varietals — click here for more detail).
This wine actually blended incredibly well with the above Uco Valley Cab to produce a synergistic blend (~50/50) that outperformed either on its own. If you can find both, GIVE IT A GANDER!
Score: 86 points
2021 Trader Joe’s Reserve Syrah, Wahluke Slope (Columbia Valley AVA) Lot#237 / 13.9% ABV / 88 Points / $10
Profile: Blackberry, raspberry, black pepper, cocoa dust. Medium acidity and medium+ body.
Again, this is a solid entry level Syrah that tastes like real un-manipulated wine, which is refreshing to see at this low price point.
Score: 88 points
2019 Trader Joe’s Diamond Reserve Lot #4, Pauillac / 13% ABV / 91 Points / $20 (TOP PICK!)
Profile: Blackcurrant, raspberry, cedar, pencil shavings and a hint of green pepper. Full-bodied with fresh acidity, good tannic structure and a medium length finish. Overall, this wine has a balanced, classic Bordeaux profile with no sense of flavor manipulation. Impressive effort given the price and the Trader Joe’s label!
Truly tastes like a Pauillac we’d gladly fork over a few more bones for. A solid entry level left bank Bordeaux.
Score: 91 points
Because our top picks were all “reserve” or better in the Trader Joe’s hierarchy of quality (TRUST US, IT’S A THING) these have smaller allocations than the mass produced Charles Shaw and its ever-so-slightly up-leveled “Coastal” confederates. Unfortunately that means that unlike those cheaper mass production options, many of these are not guaranteed to be in stock year over year (or even month over month), nor available at every store. We hope you will be able to find all of our recommendations near you to try, but if not, we suggest you start your search for Trader Joe’s value at the “reserve” level (tread softly — still no guarantees there as you’ll see below LOL), with an eye peeled for bottles from some of the aforementioned regions.
THE PLONK LIST (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER):
2020 Charles Shaw California Merlot / $4
Strawberry fruit by the foot, butterscotch, corn tortilla. Medium body, medium+ tannins, medium- acid, off dry, short finish.
2022 Trader Joe’s Coastal Central Coast Merlot / $5
Blackberry, hot asphalt, IHOP syrup. Short finish, medium+ tannins, off dry, medium acid, medium body. Aftertaste of eating a truck-stop diner pancake drenched in artificial syrup.
2021 Trader Joe’s Grower’s Reserve Paso Robles Zinfandel / $6
Artificial strawberry puree (think discount daiquiri mix), Amarena cherry syrup, brown sugar, concord grape juice. Off dry, low tannins. Tastes like artificial cherry.
2021 Trader Joe’s Petit Reserve Amador County Zinfandel / $8
Pencil shavings & grape jam. Tastes how I imagine a smoothie made from pencil shavings would taste. High residual sugar for what should be a dry wine. Not good.
2018 Charles Shaw California Cabernet Sauvignon / $4
Does not look like a cab — pale-ish bright red color, smells like a fruit roll up. Almost no perceptible tannins, with excessive residual sugar. Flabby. BAD!
2021 Trader Joe’s Coastal Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon / $5.50
Burnt rubber & sugar, skunk, burnt hair, chlorinated pool, cherry Kool-aid. Medium tannins, noticeably high residual sugar (though not as much as the 2-Buck-Chuck cab), and a bit bitter on the aftertaste.
2018 Charles Shaw California Shiraz / $4
VERY artificial looking color – almost fluorescent pinkish red. Smells like simple syrup, artificial vanilla and cheap sundae cherry with a slightly charred driftwood flavor. Tasted like an off-dry fruit juice of indistinct origin.
2021 Trader Joe’s Petit Reserve Shiraz, Barossa, Australia / $8
Ethanol, nail polish, plum. Tart, sanguine, medium tannins, unpleasant.
2018 Charles Shaw California Red Blend / $4
Semi-sweet, slightly oxidized, like a low quality off-dry port made from decomposing fruit. No character. Profoundly bad.
2020 Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc, California / $4
Unnatural yellow color that resembles urine after a hot day in the sun. Muted aromas of honeydew, rubber, vanilla, and new plastic. Oaked, flabby, off dry, reasonably smooth. Kind of like drinking Welch's flavored white grape juice.
2021 Charles Shaw Pinot Grigio, California / $4
Also unnatural yellow color, slightly lighter than the Sauv blanc. Aromas of cantaloupe, flowers. Not offensive, but does not taste like pinot grigio. The most impressive thing about this bottle is that it somehow manages to be both too sweet and have a bitter aftertaste that quickly follows its very short finish.
2021 Trader Joe’s Reserve Syrah Lot #237, Santa Barbara County / $10
Dark fruit (bordering on artificial), licorice, burnt rubber.
Trader Joe’s Grand Reserve Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon / $20
Raspberry, cherry, a dusty note, vanilla, fake oak, med acidity, med- tannins.
Tastes a lot like many other cheap California reds out there trying to mask the poor quality fruit with oak chips and recipe winemaking techniques.
2022 Charles Shaw California Chardonnay / $4
Unnatural golden color. Smells like stale bud light and tastes like it too. Maybe a hint of Mott’s apple juice, a very off putting grainy/malty flavor. Off dry, medium- acidity, no freshness. Not worth my time or your time. Very thin, little to no finish, which is a good thing in this case because a long finish on a wine this bad would suck.
2020 Trader Joe’s Diamond Reserve Cab, Oakville, Napa Valley / $20
Overripe red and black fruits (cherry, plum, strawberry fruit roll up), vanilla, maple syrup, hint of oak spice like nutmeg. Rich initial mouthfeel with gobs of fruit, medium tannins, medium to low acidity and a short/medium finish.
Surprisingly smooth for 15% ABV, but very little complexity and lacking any non-fruit flavors typical of cabernet (green pepper, tobacco, graphite etc). All around an OK wine, but nothing to write home about. Save your $20 for something better.
TLDR: Don’t buy 2-Buck-Chuck (it’s all bad), South American offerings (aka Argentina, Chile) are a decent bet for value, and Diamond Reserve labels have the potential to be excellent (but sometimes they fall flat — and they are generally the most expensive TJ’s branded bottles you can buy).
We may not have thought many of these were very good (TRUST ME, WE’RE RIGHT) — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t just what the doctor ordered for some folks (PRESENT COMPANY EXCLUDED).
Do you like Trader Joes brand wines? How about not-quite-2-buck-Chuck? If you do have a favorite, let us know in the comments. If you don’t, try some of our recommendations and tell us what you think!
And of course we would be remiss if we didn’t remind you that we’ve found some pretty good bargains from other producers Trader Joe’s carries (see our post on Barolo where we reviewed the incredibly great value buy Rosa Dell’Olmo) so we’ll do a deeper dive into other potential value picks from TJ’s in the weeks to come.
Until then — happy drinking, folks!
Isaac & Zach
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