Cheap Wines: Top 5 Wines Under $3.00

It’s odd to be writing a review about wines without reaching for my dictionary to find elegant ways to describe them. But when I reach for a wine to have with dinner at home, it’s usually one of the very inexpensive, very ordinary, very drinkable wines from the Charles Shaw winery. These are not fine wines to be sipped snobbishly from crystal as you nibble , they are good everyday wines to have with a home-cooked meal, or with a cheese and bread cold lunch on the patio.

Charles Shaw wines are sold exclusively at Trader Joe’s stores, wherever local laws allow wine sales. Because of the $1.99 price in California, the wine acquired the nickname “2-Buck Chuck.” Where I live, because of taxes and shipping, Trader Joe’s charges $2.99 and we call it 3-Buck Chuck. Of all the wines in its price range, Charles Shaw’s wines are the most consistently drinkable.

The Wine Mystique

There are a lot of rules about wine. The only rule that really matters is this one: Does this wine taste good with this food? As a general rule, light flavored foods work best with wines that are light or mellow, and strong flavored foods need a wine that has a flavor strong enough to survive. For example, although a Chardonnay (white) is excellent with roast chicken, if the chicken was sauteed with liberal quantities of garlic and basil, a Merlot or Shiraz (red) might taste better. A few cuisines, such as Mexican and Indian, are usually best with beer or cider because the spices they use ruin the taste of the wine.

Opening red wines and letting them “breathe” is practical chemistry. The red color comes from the skins of the grapes. During the fermentation, tannic acids are extracted into the wine-to-be. Exposing the tannins to the oxygen in the air changes their flavor from puckery to pleasant.

The Wines from Charles Shaw:

The Charles Shaw label sells five wine varieties, three red and two white. They are “varietals” – named for the variety of grape that predominates in the wine. In California, at least 85 percent of the grapes in a varietal wine must be of that grape variety, which means the wines will have the characteristic flavor of the grape.

  • Merlot (red) The Merlot is full-bodied, smooth and mellow. The taste is often described as “soft” because it has less tannin than most other red wines. Pour a glass of Merlot and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and compare the two – they not only taste different, they feel different to your mouth. Merlot with mesquite-grilled chicken or salmon is delicious
  • Cabernet Sauvignon (red) Fruity, medium bodied, well balanced flavors. I like this with pot roast, beef stew and other “American home style” cooking.
  • Shiraz (red) Fruity, with a slightly spicy pepper flavor to it. This one is sturdy enough to stand up to garlicky Italian food. I use part of the bottle in the pasta sauce and serve the rest with dinner.
  • Chardonnay (white) Fruity, semi-dry, with a distinct aroma of pears or maybe apples. This is the perfect wine for drinking with a fruit, bread and cheese lunch.
  • Sauvignon Blanc (white) Faint taste of grapefruit, crisp and light . Drink it with roast chicken, seafoods and other delicately flavored food.

Why are Charles Shaw wines so cheap?

It’s cheap because California is growing a lot of wine grapes. During the dot-com boom of the 1990s, vineyards were expanding their acreage and amateurs were founding vineyards. When the young vines matured and production soared, the price of grapes dropped like a rock. With a huge supply of grapes and modern processing equipment, good-quality, low-cost wine can be produced.

Charles Shaw is part of the JFJ Bronco Wine Company. The owners, 2 brothers and a cousin from the long-time California wine-making Franzia family, bought the Charles Shaw name and revived the label as a “house brand” for Trader Joe’s chain of markets. The company owns and leases thousands of acres of vineyard and has several wineries. Bronco owns or leases 30,000 or more acres of vineyards, and when the dot-com millionaires burned through their money and couldn’t make the payments on the vineyards, the old wine families were there to buy the acreage.

According to a 2005 interview with Wine Business Monthly, the goal of the producers of Charles Shaw wines is “to get consumers to drink more wine by pricing it at levels where they can afford to drink it every day.”

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