If you’re lucky enough to have a Trader Joe’s in your town, then you already know about the infamous “Two-buck Chuck.” A favorite of just about anyone on a budget, T.J.’s (very) cheap Charles Shaw wine is surprisingly tasty. It’s $3 now, but the name stuck when it was put on the sales floor for the first time back in 2002. Thanks to living on a strict budget during my completed pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree and a handful of unpaid internships, I’ve come to know and love this affordable beverage. Why spend $10 on a bottle when you can spend $3? Let’s be real— most cheap wines taste like, well, cheap wine— no matter what the cost.
Before anybody starts judging me as a wine-drinker, please know that Charles Shaw is not my first choice. But you know, sometimes as a burgeoning freelance writer, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. When you’re pinching pennies but still feel the need to cut loose (or drunkenly binge on Arrested Development at home alone with your cats), it’s arguably the best option out there. However, with seven varietals (i.e. grape type) to choose from, I thought to myself— which is the best of the best? That was a question I was most-definitely willing to attempt to answer. So, I called up a few wine-knowledgeable friends, spent just over $20 on wine, and got to tasting.
Without further ado, here is the definitive ranking of Trader Joe’s “Two-Buck Chuck”.
7) White Zinfandel
Despite this being (secretly) tasty, this is obviously the clear loser. White Zinfandel is the nectar of freshman sorority girls, the #1 tip-off to a bartender that someone is using a fake ID. I’m embarrassed to say that I even let this one touch my lips, but alas— the things I will do for the sake of journalism. No one, and I repeat, NO ONE, should be drinking White Zinfandel no matter what the cost. Yes, it tastes like kiwi-strawberry Fruitopia. Yes, it is a pretty pink color. But seriously. You’re already drinking $3 wine. Do you really want to stoop as low as it gets? Think of that sticky, sugar-tinged hangover you’ll have the following day if you finish off a bottle of this by yourself. Excuse me while I go vomit just thinking about it.
6) Sauvignon Blanc
This white wine was like sucking down a sour candy, if the sour candy had no residual sweetness whatsoever. By far one of the oddest but common notes for Sauvignon Blanc is the aroma of cat urine, and this wine had no qualms about showcasing that. It was as if the bottle asked, “You want to drink cat pee? I’ll show you some cat pee.” Otherwise, I found the Sauvignon Blanc to be rather unremarkable. I’d pass on this one if I were offered a choice. It’s not terrible, but not anything noteworthy. Next, please.
To be completely honest, I hated this red wine. Full disclaimer: I do not like Merlot. There has only been one Merlot that I have fully enjoyed, and that particular Merlot is known for not tasting like Merlot. From the first sip of Charles Shaw Merlot my taste buds were hit on full impact by a bitter-bomb. As for my assistant-wine drinkers helping me with this project, they did not have the same opinion. They determined the wine to be drinkable with notes of chocolate and cocoa, which is why it isn’t dead last on the list. We decided it was a good wine to drink if you were at a stuffy dinner with older family members, but not something you should drink too much of.
4) Pinot Grigio
This Pinot Grigio is the best choice for relaxing outdoors. It screams, “Drink me on a warm summer day!” and, “Please, mix me up in some Sangria!” It’s light, refreshing, and definitely drinkable. This is a good wine for complaining with your co-workers after a long day at work, for lounging on your patio reading a book, for celebrating being done with weeding your garden. While it tastes a little bit like Welch’s white grape juice, there are enough floral notes to keep it from being too one note.
This was a huge surprise. When I think of Chardonnay, I picture bored housewives drinking from those kitschy wine tumblers filled with ice, because you know, chilled wine just won’t cut it. It needs to be freezing! I think of wealthy, bejeweled older women ordering the most expensive white wine at the type of restaurant that has white tablecloths and penguin-esque wait-staff. This Chardonnay does not fit that stereotypical bill. This is a picnic wine through and through. It’s crisp, full-bodied, and in need of attention. Drink this one over creamy brie, decadent prosciutto and a warm baguette with close friends in a picturesque park. I imagine that the relaxed people in the pointillism painting, “A Sunday On La Grande Jatte— 1884” by Georges Seurat would drink this wine.
This is my favorite, but to be without bias, I’m not putting it at #1 because my assistant wine-tasters disagreed with me— mostly because of a strange wet-cat food odor. This is what you drink when you’re trying to get turnt on a budget. It’s the perfect wine for Cards Against Humanity night at your house with friends, for social gatherings with the type of friends who know you better than you know yourself. This is the judgment-free wine. It is spicy on the nose and on the tongue, with fresh berry notes and delightfully-high tannins. It will sneak up on you if you’re not careful though, so don’t get too crazy.
1) Cabernet Sauvignon
After full consideration of all seven varietals, the big daddy itself, Cabernet Sauvignon, is the true winner. This cheap alternative for experienced wine-drinkers is full-bodied, highly-acidic and is a tad on the jammy side. It’s basically like drinking liquefied, not-quite-ripened blackberries and after one glass you will want to drink more. Drink it on a quiet night at home in the comfiest pair of joggers, snuggled under a warm blanket with the sole company of your thoughts and the soft dim of whatever you happen to be binge-watching. After all, isn’t that what drinking cheap wine is really for? Savor the money you’re not spending and don’t waste a drop. Drink up, friend. You deserve this.