Two Buck Chuck

For those of you who don’t know, “Two Buck Chuck” is the nickname for Charles Shaw wines. These wines are exclusively distributed at Trader Joe’s markets. (Pleasepleasepleaseplease open one in Northern Kentucky!) In California, where Shaw wines produced, you can buy them for $1.99 a bottle. Elsewhere, depending on taxes, you’ll likely find three-or-four buck Chuck.

There’s nothing magical about this wine. The genesis of the low cost, according to the Trader Joe’s website, “began as the result of an oversupply of wine and a great relationship with a valued supplier.” Said supplier, Bronco Wineries (connected with Franzia), was indicted on federal fraud charges and paid a $2.5 million fine in the early 90’s for misrepresenting cheaper grapes as premium Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Bronco’s bucked back with a vengeance, however — as Charles Shaw has become one of the best selling wines in the United States.

So, how’s it taste? Shaw wines have won major awards in national competitions, but I suppose I’m not enough of a connoisseur to understand why. I will say that they’re generally solid, uncomplicated wines you can drink easily enough with food, but often have enough flavor to drink on their own. In other words, for a sluggable, you’re talking about a decent bottle that’s cheaper than either Boone’s Farm or Night Train. Here’s the skinny on Shaw’s latest releases:

Charles Shaw 2006 Chardonnay — In 2007, Charles Shaw’s ‘05 chard won “Best in Class” and “Best in California” awards, but the ‘06 probably won’t follow in its footsteps. That certainly doesn’t mean that this is a poor wine. Although it’s a California chard, it’s not at all buttery, and only slightly oaky. The nose is light with some interesting peach scents. It’s got a crisp taste with some mineral flavor and is a little peachy, like an inexpensive white burgundy. You might also notice some flavors of bubblegum in there somewhere. Finish is medium — it’s got a little weight at the end. A very decent, straight-up, inoffensive chardonnay for drinking alone or with picnic food, baked fish, or chicken dishes.

Charles Shaw 2005 Merlot — Trader Joe’s patrons either skipped Sideways a few years ago or knew better than to pay attention to the “f’n merlot” rant. The Charles Shaw merlot is their top seller. I mentioned during Wine School the need to decant young and/or inexpensive wines. Here’s another case in point. If you try to drink this right after popping the cork, you’re going to get hit with a snootful of alcohol fumes. However, after a chance to sit and open up for a bit, it turns into a decent little quaff. The nose has a plum scent, almost like a syrah. The body is relatively light for a merlot. It’s easy to drink, with some dark berry flavor, but it’s not as rich as many merlots. The finish starts fruity, but then tannin kicks in and dries it out. With usual merlot foods like pork or grilled veggies, it would likely be very decent.

Charles Shaw 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon — Again, another wine that you’re going to need to decant before you drink. Straight out of the bottle, lighter fluid and berries. But after breathing for a good long while, it edges towards something a little more interesting. A little chocolate and blackberry on the nose. The taste — well, this may be the least dry Cab I’ve ever tasted. There’s a lot of fruit and some decent feel, but there’s almost no tannin to speak of until the finish. Almost more like a Zinfandel (and knowing the history…hmm…) than a cabernet. I’d recommend this as a wine to have sitting around during a barbecue, or perhaps as your third or fourth bottle of the evening when you’re not being choosy. If the latter is your reality, make sure you’re stocked up on B-12, ibuprofen, Gatorade, and ginger ale.

Charles Shaw 2006 Sauvignon Blanc — The big surprise of the bunch. In my experience, most “super-value” Sauvignon Blancs are either weak little wines or acidic enough to practically melt the bottle they’re stored in — not to mention your tongue and the underside of your jaw. The Shaw is neither. The nose is nicely fruity and approachable. The taste is a blend of honey and grapefruit. I’d almost describe it as “Viognier Lite.” The finish isn’t as crisp as a lot of SB’s, although there’s enough residual acidity to make it refreshing. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I agreed that buying a case or two each summer to have as everyday sluggables wouldn’t be a bad idea. A rock-solid pool wine, although I’d probably look elsewhere for food pairings, since there are so many good food-friendly Sauvignon Blancs at only a dollar or two more.

Charles Shaw also started producing Shiraz and Valdiguie. The latter is a clone of Gamay grown in California. I haven’t tried either. So, if you have, please chime in.

Remember to temper your expectations. If you’re going to pick up wine that’s this inexpensive, don’t think. You can only hurt the ballclub.

Photo from Wikipedia.

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Reader Comments

Fred Franzia is NOT affilited with Franzia wines. In his youth, this family was forced to sell their namesake company. Bronco Wines is his only business.

The 05 Chard won precisely because it is a departure from the over-oaked popcorn butter Chards. It was this award and all the hoopla over it on the bloggosphere that made me re-taste the lineup.
The 2006 Chard, I think, shows more power of extraction of fruit and may possibly be considered better in many people’s eyes - although more confected. That aside (and I may be wrong here) but I believe there is very little if any oak employed in its production. Overall, I think this wine is truly a very good value and the top of the lineup.

The reds tend to be pretty dirty and over-ripe. They are mostly (if not exclusively) from the San Joaquin (Central) valley. I have found them to be raisin-like, with notable reductive flaws in the past. I would agree that these reductive issues improve with some time and O2.

I was not thrilled with the S. blanc and have to disagree with you. The 2006 I tried recently was problematic. Too much garlic and onion - more thiol-related flaws - that were just far beyond the Kiwi-styled vegetal characteristics that can be quite charming. I felt this white ranks below the reds in quality.

All that pontificating aside, for $2-$3 a bottle I would stock up on several cases of the chard, not complain about the reds and dump the S. blanc and move on keeping the price point in mind.