Great cheap wines.

July 22 2003 12:16 PM

Wine for Tightwads

Cheap wine you can actually drink.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

There are a few things you should know about Two-Buck Chuck:

1. It is a wine, not the street name of a Mafia don or pimp.

2. Its price actually ranges from $1.99 to $3.50 a bottle.

3. It sucks.

4. In spite of this, sales are brisk.

Charles Shaw, as it is formally known, is the hottest thing in the wine world at the moment. It is the brainchild of a publicity-shy Napa Valley winemaker named Fred Franzia, who shrewdly decided to cash in on California's current grape glut by going downmarket—as low as you can go, in fact. Two-Buck Chuck, which debuted last year, is sold exclusively by the Trader Joe's supermarket chain and comes in four … well, let's just call them flavors: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay.

Two-Buck Chuck has found a loyal audience among the many Americans who drink only dirt-cheap wines (part of its appeal is surely aesthetic: It comes in a proper bottle, rather than a box or a jug, so people probably feel they are getting a more upscale product). But its renown has also spread thanks to some rather glowing press coverage. The media seem to have an unquenchable thirst for stories that somehow cast doubt on the worthiness of expensive wines and the wisdom of those who drink them; the subtext of many of the articles about Two-Buck Chuck is that the swill-guzzling masses have once again outfoxed the snobs by finding a wine that offers both value and quality.

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The success of Charles Shaw is also being portrayed as a sign of the times: Feeling a little less flush, people are cutting back, and one way they are economizing is by drinking cheaper wines.

Yet there is cheap wine and there is undrinkable wine, and while many oenophiles are surely more cost-conscious these days, it is doubtful they are doing their wine shopping at Trader Joe's. Having recently tried the Charles Shaw merlot, I can unequivocally state that I would switch to beer or go on the wagon before making a habit of this plonk.

Fortunately, it is not a choice that has to be made; all the hoopla surrounding Charles Shaw has obscured the fact that there is an amazing amount of inexpensive but good wine on the market these days. If you are willing to pay $8-$10, you can drink reasonably well; if you are willing to pay up to $15 a bottle, you can drink really well. (As wine has found a bigger audience in the United States, the definition of "cheap" has been revised slightly upward; $10-$15 is now considered a bargain.)

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