Everyone knows Two-Buck Chuck, the Trader Joe's line of super-cheap Charles Shaw California varietals. At $1.99, a bottle is cheaper than one Bartlett pear at some San Francisco markets, and barely more expensive than a single Olde English 800 40-ounce. But not everyone is familiar with Three Wishes, Whole Foods' entry into the $2 wine market, released earlier this month. Whole Foods has kicked off a campaign to "chuck the Chuck," offering "ridiculously delicious" wines at the $1.99 price point set by TJ's.
Curious about this battle for the basement, I went ahead and spent slightly less than $14 on six bottles of wine, three of the same varietals in each brand, sharing them with two friends on a balmy Friday afternoon. Now, I know bragging rights for being the best $1.99 bottle of wine are dubious, like being the thinnest kid at fat camp. Nevertheless, we put Trader Joe's Two-Buck Chuck head-to-head with Whole Foods' Three Wishes to see which would be more palatable. Assuming either would be palatable at all.
Both brands offer a Chardonnay, a Merlot, and a Cabernet. After a slightly hungover discussion, my friends and I decided to blind-taste them, each of us taking notes that we'd compare afterward. I generally choose to write about wines I can be positive about, rather than be accused of exercising cliché wine snobbery. But in this case my better judgment turned out to be right: Though one of the brands was better than the other, both were only barely better than the taste of a well-used shoehorn.
The Three Wishes was redolent of aluminum and three-day old Riesling, and to quote one of my tasting companions, would have been better mixed with 7Up "to mask the taste of paraffin and sweat." The Two-Buck Chuck was slightly better, underripe and slightly bitter but more drinkable than the gruel from Whole Foods.
Here are some of the phrases we used to describe the Three Wishes: "otter pop," "rotting otter," "grenadine," and my personal favorite, "old dentist's chair." The Two-Buck Chuck was once again the better of the two ― at least it showed traces of fruit and some remote structure, though it tasted more like cherry Capri Sun mixed with Dr. Pepper.
I think I should use "Cabernet" loosely here, since neither really resembled the varietal ("fishing waders" is more like it). But as with the other two "wines," Two-Buck Chuck was the hands-down winner ― meaning if I needed a drink to steady my hands, I think I could get a couple glasses of Two-Buck Chuck down without cringing. The Three Wishes was almost undrinkable, with notes of prune juice, stale bread, and overripe apples.
Two-Buck Chuck for the win ... but it's definitely a shallow victory.
Of course, expecting too much out of $1.99 bottle of wine is absurd, but if retailers are going to market their wines as "ridiculously delicious," they should at least be palatable. We had to wash away the taste of these with a shot of Fernet and a bottle of Far Niente. Don't get me wrong, there are many incredible inexpensive wines out there ― check out our Cheap Wines That Don't Suck archives for tips on under-$10 bottles. But in the case of these fermented grape juices, I'd rather just chew the two dollar bills directly. Or, if you're in desperate need of alcohol and only have a couple of singles in your wallet, I'd recommend a Schlitz 24-ounce.