Charles Shaw: The tasting report
Remember the Charles Shaw phenomenon? In my last article of the old year, I mused about this mysterious wine - sold exclusively at Trader Joe's food stores in California and 17 other U.S. states, mostly in the West Coast and Northeast - that retails for a remarkable $2 in California and around $4 elsewhere.
The wine didn't attract much attention when it went on sale early last year - perhaps the $2 price tag was low enough to discourage interest from serious wine enthusiasts. But by autumn, publicized mostly by local advertising and word of mouth - the wine began to attain a sort of inverse "cult" status. Wine wits dubbed it "Two Buck Chuck," and those in the know started hauling it out by the case to use as an everyday "house" wine.
Rumors abounded, none of them true. No, it wasn't fine wine dumped by an airline no longer able to use corkscrews aloft. Nor was the fire-sale price the result of an ugly divorce in the Shaw family.
The real story is more prosaic: It's anonymous, bulk-produced wine bottled by Bronco Wine Corp., a major California-based marketer of modest wines, recycling the brand name of a 1970's-era winery that had gone out of business a generation ago.
"Two Buck Chuck" simply reflects a glut in wine grapes in California and around the world. With supply exceeding the demand for all but the most sought-after grapes, it's easy enough to make passable wine for less than $1 per bottle. Add another dollar to cover the bottle and cork, and it's still economically feasible for a California producer to make and sell a drinkable wine for $2 within the state, with distributors tacking on an additional profit to raise the price elsewhere.
With no Trader Joe's in this part of the world, I wasn't able to provide tasting notes with my Dec. 30 report. A friend in California has helped me correct this lapse, though, by sending me three varieties of Charles Shaw: The 2000 Chardonnay, 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2000 Merlot, all of which bear the broad "California" appellation. (Because Shaw lists its "winery" location in Sonoma or Napa, depending on the label, some consumers had assumed the wines are from there; in fact, of course, it's the "appellation" or geographical designation on the front label that counts.)
To keep myself honest, I tasted the wines in three groups, pairing each Shaw variety with a similar but more expensive wine made from the same grape: I matched the Shaw Cabernet with Clos Robert 2000 North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, which sells for $9.49. The Merlot was paired with Bogle Vineyards 2000 Merlot, $9.99. Finally, I matched the Chardonnay against a good-value French wine made from the same grape, Verget 2001 Chablis, $12.99.
Faced with competition from wines retailing for roughly five times its price, the Shaw wines showed up reasonably well. Although it was relatively easy to pick out the more expensive Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon on the basis of complexity and balance, the Shaw wines were more than serviceable, showing respectable fruit and appropriate acid balance without obvious flaws. The Shaw Merlot actually outscored the Bogle at first, thanks to round and ripe aromas and flavors that made it immediately appealing, showing its modest origins only as a vegetal "green-bean" quality developed with time in the glass.
To make a long story short, it's fair to say that the Shaw wines dramatically exceed expectations for $2 and even stand above the competition at $4 or $5. And in a world where so many wines have long-since crossed the $10 point, that's not a bad thing to say.
To avoid turning this edition into one of War and Peace length, I have presented only abbreviated tasting notes below. For more complete notes and label photos, check the first six listings in my online wine reports,
Charles Shaw "shootout"
Charles Shaw 2000 California Chardonnay ($2 at California Trader Joe's stores) - Very pale greenish-gold. Apple-like aromas, fresh and crisp, add a distinct note of butterscotch with time in the glass. Simple, clean and fresh, just a hint of sweetness; fresh fruit and butterscotch in a simple but crowd-pleasing wine that would be a good value for two or three times the California price.
Verget 2001 Chablis ($12.99) - Clear straw color with yellowish highlights. Cooking apples and delicate spice on the nose, like sniffing a bowl of homemade applesauce. Tart and "stony" flavors demonstrate classic, if simple, Chablis style; dry but round and ripe, fruit and cleansing acidity add up to a very fine Chablis at a competitive price.
Charles Shaw 2000 California Merlot ($2) - Very dark purple, almost black. Appetizing ripe-cherry and dark chocolate aromas lead into a big, mouth-filling flavor, a burst of fruit followed by pleasantly tart acidity and soft tannins, with distinct vegetal "green-bean" notes showing up with time in the glass.
Bogle Vineyards 2000 California Merlot ($9.99) - Very dark garnet color. Pleasant but rather simple and delicate black-fruit aromas. The flavor seems smooth and soft at first, but the fruit fades behind lemon-squirt acidity. Seems a bit disjointed, might benefit from a few months on the wine rack.
Charles Shaw 2000 California Cabernet Sauvignon ($2) - Clear ruby red. Faint, undifferentiated fruit aromas with pleasantly spicy nuances. Tart, ripe fruit flavors are simple but balanced. The shy aroma loses points, but the wine's flavor significantly exceeds expectations.
Clos Robert 2000 North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.49) - Dark ruby, with reddish-purple glints. Currant scents and a hint of eucalyptus offer a classic California Cabernet aroma; bright, fresh fruit flavors and spicy oak make for a straightforward Cabernet, with tannins becoming more evident with time in the glass.
Wine Lovers' Voting Booth: Favorite wine writer
As has been noted before, if you're seriously into wine, chances are that you enjoy reading about the stuff almost as much as you do drinking it. With the wealth of wine publications available these days, there's plenty of good wine writing to choose from ... you name it, the subject is as wide as the world of wine.
For this week's Wine Lovers' Voting Booth, we update a topic last addressed in 1998 as we ask, "Who is your favorite professional wine writer? To participate, simply click to
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is currently distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
When it pays to age a wine (Jan. 17)
The name seems familiar ... (Jan. 15)
When not to age a wine (Jan. 13)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Prime rib in a skillet (Jan. 16)
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Monday, Jan. 20, 2003