Slate's Mike Steinberger uses an article on cheap wine you can actually drink to lay into the now-notorious wines bottled under the Charles Shaw label available at Trader Joe's stores around the country. Available in huge quantities and priced at $1.99 in Southern California (as high as a whopping $3.50 in other parts of the country), the Shaw wines have become well known as "Two-Buck Chuck." Steinberger is having none of it:
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.I hold no brief for the current Shaw wines, particularly since Charles Shaw himself has had nothing to do with them in more than a decade. Mr. Shaw was actually something of a dreamer, believing that he could produce a really good wine from Gamay [the principal grape of Beaujolais] in the Napa Valley. The good news was that he was right -- I drank and enjoyed several vintages of Shaw's Gamay back in the 80's -- but the bad news was that no one particularly wanted a really good Gamay from Napa. New York Times wine writer Frank Prial provides as good a summary as any:
Charles F. Shaw was a Chicago investment banker who fell in love with the wine business and, in the late 1970s, bought 50 acres off the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley. There, he planted gamay grapes to make a California version of Beaujolais. The Charles F. Shaw Vineyard and Winery opened for business in 1979.All of which brings us back to Trader Joe's and my earlier promise to identify non-Chuck wines worth your time if you have a Trader Joe's market conveniently to hand.
Eventually, Shaw was making 10,000 cases a year of gamay and sauvignon blanc. But a dozen years later, after his gamay gamble had met with little success in cabernet country, Shaw declared bankruptcy and returned to Chicago. Bronco stepped in and bought the name, keeping it in deep freeze for about a dozen years.
My initial recommendation is Trader Joe's 2000 Vintage Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, identifiable by the painting of a rustic barn on the label. Here in Southern California, this wine seems to be in good supply and is selling for $4.99. While you can certainly get better Napa Valley Cabernets at four times the price, you can also find $20 Napa Valley bottlings that are not (and will never be) nearly so enjoyable as this much less-expensive version. And enjoyment is the point, is it not? The wine displays a surprising concentration of true Napa Valley cabernet character, albeit not on the epic scale of more costly and longer lived Napa Valley wines. It is very drinkable just now, in the company of a good meal almost certainly involving a grilled red meat, and it will probably remain so for several years.
A warning re possible confusion: there is a similarly labeled Trader Joe's Cabernet Franc, selling locally for $3.99. It is a more rustic, still quite enjoyable wine, and a nice exemplar of its varietal. It's just not cabernet sauvignon. If you like to stay out of a cabernet sauvignon/chardonnay rut [as well you should], the cabernet franc will probably pique your interest. Now if there were such a thing as a good inexpensive pinot noir, all would be right with the world.