Food Network Staffer Diary: Can My Friends Tell the Difference Between Expensive and Cheap Wines?

If you ever walk into a Trader Joe’s wine section or shop (depending on where you live), one of the most-glaring things you will notice is a vast selection of $2.99 wines by the name of Charles Shaw. But when he’s just kickin’ back, down the esophagi of his more frugal fans, he’s known as Chuck, Two Buck Chuck.

Since Chuck’s introduction in 2002, Trader Joe’s famed wine of “extreme value” has earned itself a reputation – hence the nickname – especially among those who wish to enjoy the finer things in life but don’t want to break the bank.

I am one of those people.

But is it any good? I ask myself, as many people do, when they come across such a concept as a two-dollar-something bottle of wine. I had to find out but did not want to volunteer myself as tribute.

With such a predicament, I decided I would make my friends do it.

Insert guinea pigs. Meet Wesley, Wen, Cat, Shreya, Nicole, Annie and Kimberlyn.

In search of answers, I acquired three bottles of Charles Shaw and three similar bottles of relatively expensive wine. And by “expensive” I mean just more expensive, and anything more than what I would pay for a weekday lunch. Listen, guys, I am only a wee baby 20-something-year-old college graduate with a degree in art history and English, irresponsibly paying to live in New York City instead of with my parents in Jersey. Cut a girl some slack.

And so I proceeded to ask my seven blind taste testers if they could correctly identify the Two Buck Chuck.


Two Buck Chuck: 2013 California White Zinfandel ($2.99)

Expensive Wine: 2015 California CK Mondavi White Zinfandel ($12.99)

As I expertly pour glasses of rosé (jokes, jokes — I spill several drops on the counter), I remember that there is a bit more to tasting wine than just drinking it. I am no wine expert, but I once went on a date with a guy who was in the midst of becoming one. Intrigued, I asked him to walk me through how to properly taste wine. He told me you look first, then sniff — really take the aroma in, let it linger at the back of your throat — and then you sip. This makes sense, since smell is as much a part of flavor as taste is.

So I ask my friends to look at and smell their samples of wine.

“Waft, I say, waft!”

So they do. They could just sniff it like normal people, but it is more entertaining to watch them waft. They say the expensive wine smells like “Trader Joe’s.” (Like the store?) And they say the Two Buck Chuck smells “better, juicier.” And then they taste, and then I ask, “Which one is the Two Buck Chuck?”

All of them get it wrong.

Result: 0/7 guessed correctly.


Two Buck Chuck: 2015 California Pinot Grigio ($2.99)

Expensive Wine: 2015 Barone Fini Valdadige Pinot Grigio ($12)

“Aren’t you, like, supposed to swirl it?”

Yes, you are. Especially if you dream of one day becoming a true wine connoisseur.

You aerate (swirl) wine because drawing oxygen in breaks the liquid down. Remember: Wine is made of grapes, which are fruits. When the wine is oxygenated, it “opens up” and releases more aromas into the air, which enhances its flavor.

Now that someone has mentioned it, I ask my friends to swirl away. I have to give that cheap wine the best chance I can.

I have hope for it. If Chuck is comparable to, if not better than, the others, I believe I will have found myself a treasure trove of economical, go-to wines. So they swirl, and smell, and taste.

“This smells terrible,” Annie says of the expensive wine. The others say that it tastes “not yummy” and “bad.” They say the Two Buck Chuck tastes “mild” and “OK,” but mostly it tastes “like water.”

Result: 5/7 guessed correctly.

Not bad. Maybe my friends were starting to equate bad taste with expensive wine.


Two Buck Chuck: 2013 California Merlot ($2.99)

Expensive Wine: 2013 Matanzas Creek Winery Sonoma County Merlot ($25)

I have no more tricks up my sleeve, so I ask them to do the same thing with this last set of wines. They say the Two Buck Chuck tastes like “juice wine.” And they say the expensive wine tastes like “medicine,” “a trash can,” “bad.”

I see a trend here.

Result: 2/7 guessed correctly.


So my findings have led me to believe that my friends are basic.

Haha, just kidding. (Am I?)

Based on my little taste test, higher price doesn’t necessarily equate with better taste after all. And of course I, too, tasted them, and in agreement with my friends, almost always preferred Trader Joe’s wines to their more expensive counterparts. I especially liked the Charles Shaw Pinot Grigio, since it is milder, but not too much.

Maybe it was just the particular wines that I bought, or maybe the “expensive wines” still fall into the category of Cheap (to some people, they would). If I am buying wine for an extra-special occasion, I am sure that wine at a significantly higher price point would taste better, but as far as choosing something for the regular low-key night in, it’s better to save your wallet and just go for the two-buck stuff.

In conclusion, Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw blends are apparently pretty darned good. In fact, the wines have received a couple of awards, like the double gold medal at the 28th Annual International Eastern Wine Competition, where Shaw’s 2002 Shiraz beat out 2,300 other competitors.

Not too shabby for a two- (OK, now three-) dollar bottle of wine.

Photos courtesy of Maggie Wong and Jason Roumas

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