Wines under $5

Apr 19, 2004 (Updated Jun 9, 2012)

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The Bottom Line Wines that are more than just passable can be had for $5 or less, with the much-hyped Charles Shaw being the baseline, not the pinnacle.

Even though the grape glut is over, there seems to be no end in sight to bargain-priced dry table wines offered in standard 750ml bottles. These wines (along with the ever-improving 1.5 L offerings) fill a much-needed vacuum in the American wine market: wines that one wouldn't feel embarrassed serving to guests that are priced for everyday drinking. They are vin ordinaire or vino de tavola for the American table, filling the quality and price gap between jug or bag-in-box wines (inoffensive but often sweetened) and the $8-$15 offerings. Some of them are surprisingly good, some quite bad. Naturally, quality and price tend to be positively correlated, although this isn't always the case. I restrict my listing here to wines priced under $5.

I've been sampling some of these budget wines, which can be found at places like Trader Joe's and Cost Plus World Market. Consider this to be yet another "average Joe" guide to wine. The following are the results; stay tuned for more listings.

Nota bene: At this price, the wines get points for not being bad, and then for being good. Granted, some in this price range have received distinction as wine as opposed to as cheap wine--Delicato's shiraz comes to mind--but it's the exception and not the rule. For $3.50, we can't expect fine nuance and perfect balance, but do we really need or want it in an everyday wine?

One of the problems with under-$5 wines, and with writing glowing reviews of under-$5 wines, is that, aside from the giant producers like Charles Shaw or Moreau, once these wines are discovered, they usually go up in price. Now that people have figured out how good Montevina's Nebbiolo Rosato is, it's selling for $6.99. The review has been removed to my writeup of dry rosés.

Update (as of 28 March 2005)
I am rearranging this review to make it easy to use, breaking the wines up first into "Highly Recommended", "Recommended" and "Recommended Against," and then into reds, whites, and rosés, and doing away with the rather meaningless star rating. New wines will be added soon.

Highly Recommended

Autumnus White
(added 20 April 2011)

$4.99 at Trader Joe's.

From the state of Washington comes the best wine bargain I've seen in a long time.

What a stunner for the price:  a near-dry blend of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Chenin Blanc, with the floral and apricot notes of the first, lychee flavors and roundness of the second, and crisp acidity of the third.  It's far less sweet than (e.g.) Columbia Crest gewurz but has none of the bitterness that often condemns attempts at low-price dry aromatic wines to the saucepan.

Points scales are somewhat obnoxious, but note that Wine Spectator has given this one an 88.  I highly recommend this as a pairing for "Asian" food or spice-rubbed poultry, or just as an aperitif.  At $10 I'd still recommend it, but unlike the Echelon merlot reviewed below, Autumnus's low price isn't the result of a one-time overstock liquidation.

Cellier du Rhône Rosé 2009
(added 11 Aug 2010)

This is another Trader Joe's near exclusive, a dry rosé (probably mostly of grenache, but possibly a blend) from France's Côtes du Rhone appellation that they sell alongside a red and a white for $4.99.

While more muted than $8 rosés from the same appellation or similar wines from Spain and California, it has plenty of berry flavor and despite being 13% ABV isn't hot-tasting at all.

Lancers White
(added 3 Jan 2009)

Lancers Rose is an underflavored, bubbly pink wine.  The less well known Lancers White is easily the best widely-available "cheap" wine to pair with seafood.  Were it not for the extra fizz, it could be mistook for a very light vinho verde.  It's definitely worth considering for parties or if on a budget

See my full review for more information.

Echelon Merlot 2003
(added 13 June 2008)
$2.99 at Trader Joe's

A well-structured Merlot with lush cherry fruit and a kiss of oak for under $5? Sounds too good to be true, and it almost is; given that many online merchants sell this for $10, I suspect that Trader Joe's is liquidating surplus stock.

See my full writeup for more information.

Vitavin Egri Bikavér Bull's Blood of Eger 2002
(added 20 July 2006)
$3.50-$6 wherever wines are sold.

Short Take:
This $3.50 mass-produced red from Hungary blows Mouton Cadet and most $8 offerings out of the water.

Appearance: Ruby red

Alcohol: 12.5%

Imported by International Import Export, Los Angeles, CA 90058

Given the high quality of this $3.50 mass-produced wine, I suspect that Eger could produce reds to rival at least the mid-level offerings of Napa or Bordeaux.

Perhaps they already are, and we're not seeing them come to market here in the US. I'll content myself with Vitivin's Bull's Blood, then, a remarkably well-structured wine for the price.

Bull's Blood is a cuvée of at least 40% native Kéfrankos (the same as Austrian Blaufränkisch), a low-tannin and distinctly spicy red grape, rounded out with any two or more of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Kékoportó, or Pinot Noir. It's been difficult to find production notes on Vitavin's. Robust spice overlays a base of plum and currant fruit, and is complemented nicely by a touch of Hungarian oak. Medium bodied and without much of a finish, this won't "wow" you while sipping but it's perfect with food.

Le Grotte Reggiano Lambrusco NV
(added 14 August 2006)
$4.50 at Trader Joe's

Short Take:
"Drink Champagne and it tastes just like Coca Cola; c-o-l-a cola..."

Appearance: Deep ruby red

Alcohol: 8.5% ABV

Imported by Santini Fine Wines, Inc., San Lorenzo, CA

If you've seen the name "Lambrusco" before--an archaic Italian word for wild vines used to describe several grapes which, like Sangiovese, date back to Roman times--chances are it was on a bottle of Riunite Lambrusco, something your parents probably drank in the '60s and '70s. It's actually not a bad wine, and it was the only commonly seen Lambrusco in the US until Trader Joe's started stocking this regularly.

Le Grotte Reggiano Lambrusco is similar but a bit drier, more subtle, and less peppery. Aromas of violets give way to a cherry and raspberry flavor with a cola-like background. This is a soft, chillable red for Beaujolais-Villages drinkers and folks who think they don't like red wine. At 8.5% ABV, tart, and pleasantly fizzy, it's the rare thirst-quenching wine, perfect at parties.

While it goes well, predictably, with pizza, tacos, or beef stew, try it with unbuttered oil-popped popcorn. Trust me, it's up there with the classic pairings.

Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio 2005
(added 3 January 2006)
$4.95 at Albertson's

Short Take:
Don't take the label too seriously; this is a good but not extraordinary pinot gris.

Appearance: Light yellow with a hint of green.

Alcohol 12.5% ABV

Imported by W. J. Deutsch and Sons LTD. Harrison, NY

Is it Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio? If you ask a Frenchman you get one answer, an Italian, the other, although they mean the same thing in their respective languages. In US English, though, a Pinot Grigio is a wine vinified in the Italian (or Californian) style, with refreshing minerals and a taste that brings to mind limes and crisp, tart pears, whereas a Pinot Gris is a wine made in the French or Oregon style with a more melonlike or pineapplelike flavor, a slightly floral nose, and a much weaker mineral note.

What, then, do the Australians, standing upside down from our perspective half a world away, call Pinot Grigio and what do they call Pinot Gris? Beats me! Perhaps this wine was labeled Pinot Grigio because of the US's Italophilia, perhaps it was a coin toss, and perhaps all Gris/Grigio wines are called Grigio in Australia. Whatever the reason for the name, it wasn't what I expected.

It was still a good pinot gris, though, with a bouquet of lemon and violets (and a hint of kerosene, but that's not bad, trust me!) and tasting of honey, lemon-lime soda, and pineapple with a hint of melon. The label takes a shotgun approach at describing the flavor listing about everything characteristic of a gris/grigio except minerals (which were decidedly lacking). It's thus off the mark, but it got one thing right--it's perfect with fresh seafood, including the spaghetti and mussels I cooked the day I opened this bottle. Now that I know what I'm in for, I'll buy it again.

Moreau Blanc
(added 17 July 2005)
$3.99 at Trader Joe's

Short Take:
This well-balanced, NV French house wine is a sure thing.

Appearance: Straw yellow

Alcohol:11.5% ABV

Bottled by J. Moreau & Fils, Chablis; Imported by Golden Gate Cellars, San Francisco, CA

Like L'Authentique (reviewed below), the NV Moreau Blanc is the French equivalent to our jug wine. It's as consistent as Paul Masson or Carlo Rossi but not as sweet.

Moreau Blanc is somewhat "generic" tasting, but perfectly balanced and without any marks against it other than a slightly medicinal bouquet that, fortunately, doesn't signify the wine being "hot". Expect this to taste of minerals and citrus with just a hint of pear flavor. Pinot Grigio drinkers will love it.

Seeing how well-executed this is, it's too bad that Moreau's premium wines are hard to come by--I'd like to give one a try.

Columbia Crest Columbia Valley Gewürztraminer 2002 and 2004
(updated 30 June 2006)
$4.99 (on sale) at Albertson's

Short Take:

Smooth, refreshing, concentrated, and fruit-forward, this an outstanding wine for the price, and possibly the best value among both gewürztraminers and budget-priced whites. The only trouble: it's off-dry.

Bottled by Columbia Crest, Patterson, WA

Columbia Crest, in the Columbia Valley of Washington, has received much acclaim for both its low-end Columbia Valley wines and its estate wines, and if this gewürztraminer is any indication, it is deservedly so.

The 2002 Columbia Valley gewürztraminer is a straw-colored, well-bodied wine with a bouquet of flowers and spice. It is a "fruit-forward" wine, with concentrated apricot and fresh-grape tastes dominating, followed by a spicy finish. It has enough acid to be refreshing and to make it a more-than-adequate pairing with both Indian dishes and gumbo z'herbes (for the curious, I brought it to a potluck), which is almost perfectly balanced by glycerine and sweetness. The combination of sweet and sour flavors and its smooth mouthfeel, with no astringency or rubbing-alcohol burn, makes this a very refreshing wine.

The 2004 vintage was similar, but even heavier on the fruit and leaning more towards lychee than apricot.

Like most gewürztraminers, this is not a "light" wine and probably would be a poor choice to pair with delicate seafood. It's a little on the sweet side as compared to its Alsatian counterparts, as is the mode for American gewürztraminer. It would probably be a good pairing with Chinese or Thai dishes, or perhaps Creole jambalaya or dishes with light tomato sauces.

Columbia Valley Gewrztraminer is a well-balanced and concentrated wine. Gewürztraminers are usually rich and powerful, and this one is no exception. This is a compromise-free bargain and consistent from vintage to vintage. I'll certainly be buying it again if I can find it at the same price, and probably even if I can't.

L'Authentique Red Table Wine
$3.99, Trader Joe's

Short take: This wine had everything going against it: hokey name, no appellation, no vintage, no website, even--mystery meat is much less puzzling--but turned out to be surprisingly good. Put down your "freedom fries" and give it a try.

Alcohol: 12% by volume

Appearance: Brick red

Bottled by La Caumette, 34500 Béziers, France. Imported by Americal Beverage Group, Inc. San Clemente, CA 92672

I have to admit that I was skeptical. In fact, I'm not even sure why I bought this wine. From the name I suspected that this was just a way to play off of the strange mystique of French wine in American pop culture, selling a French nonvintage jug wine to Americans. The tag on the shelf (and the refreshingly straightforward label, which somewhat humorously includes the phrase "keep stored horizontally in a dark, cool area) must have been enough to get me to grab it out of sheer curiosity.

I opened it up to go with dinner tonight. The bottle was sealed by yet another one of those horrid composite corks which don't agree at all with my two-blade opener (although this one didn't go down into the bottle.)

The wine is medium-bodied, smooth, and, at least by comparison with American wines in the same range, concentrated. The nose was rather nondescript (I'm serious...I can't pin it down), but the wine itself tasted of grape with a hint of the forementioned spices. The finish was astringent, but not unpleasantly so, and although this wine is entirely dry, there is a pronounced aftertaste. Compared to other reds I've tried in this price range, this was a remarkably well-balanced wine, smooth yet adequately acid; relatively concentrated yet not the least bit offensive. Not a fine wine by any means, but a good wine, irrespective of price. I had a few sips of this on its own and then drank the rest of the glass along with my dinner of Madras lentils (and was thus in luck, with it being spicy) but can see this being paired very well with grilled marinated beef or perhaps lamb stew.

I'm not sure how consistent this product is from year to year; I'll pick up a few more bottles to have on hand for good measure, storing, of course, horizontally, in a dark, cool place.


Gaetano D'Aquino Chianti Riserva 2006
(added 9 June 2012)

$4.95 at Trader Joe's

For a $5 Chianti, this isn't bad.  Relative to D'Aquino's own non-"riserva" bottling it was less thin, had much less burn and considerably more oak.  A bit more aggressive (read: harsh) than the typical "fiasco" straw-bottle wines, it makes up for it with generously peppery oak flavors, ripe tannins, and fruit flavors to match.

It's a decent "red sauce" wine on a budget, but if you're not worried about matching high-acid dishes, anything this wine does, the Hungarian "Bull's Blood" reviewed above does better.

Riunite Lambrusco
(added 7 December 2006, moved to separate page 29 July 2008)
$4-$5 wherever wines are sold

Short take: This is one of those wines popular in our parents' day. However, it's not bad.

Appearance: Garnet color, slightly fizzy

Alcohol: 8% ABV

Imported by VB Imports, Old Brookville, NY
Bottled by Cantine Riunite, Campegine, Italy.

This "antique" wine, although certainly off-dry, isn't the cloying sugar bomb some people take it to be. Perhaps, like Blue Nun, it's changed with the times. It's a good choice for pizza, picnics, or parties.

Epinions's catalog update has allowed me to give it a full review.

Casarão Vinho de Mesa Tinto
(added 3 January 2006)
$3.99 at a local wine shop

Short Take: Yet another good budget red from Portugal

Appearance: Red with a hint of purple

Alcohol: 12% ABV

Imported by HGC Imports, Inc., San Jose, CA

I'm becoming a fan of Portuguese wines. Primavera Douro Valley Tinto Roriz, a bit too pricey at $8 to make this list, is the best budget red I've had and, without qualification, a good full-flavored red wine that can hold its own with wines in the $20 range.

For a few dollars less, as an impulse purchase, I bought this nonvintage table wine by Casarão at the same shop where I get the Primavera. It's been a while since I had it--I'll flesh this out a bit more when I'm on my second bottle--but I remember that it struck me as a good spaghetti wine. A lean red with enough acid to stand up well to tomato sauce, it had a plummy taste and strong but not overpowering astringency. The overall effect was reminiscent of Ruffino Chianti, although the grapes that go into this are probably much different. Try it with pizza or enchiladas.

Quivira Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2000
$3.50 at Trader Joe's

Short Take: Another example of wines with apellations being better, generally, than "California" wine.

Quivira is now offering this passable zin at bargain-basement price, mainly through the Trader Joe's chain. It's only 50 cents more, and far superior to the Shaw reds. This isn't on par with, say, Cline Ancient Vines or Ridge, but it holds up easily to zinfandels that cost twice as much as this bottle per glass at restaurants. My recommendation, though, is to stay away from zinfandel in this price range and pay a few dollars more for Gnarled Head or some of the truly good Zins now showing up in the $10 range.

Quivira Dry Creek Valley is a dark ruby wine, with a very strongly floral nose. (Jasmine, anyone?) The taste, however, is dominated by blackberry fruit with a hint of spice. It's rather smooth (smooth enough for a young zin, anyway) but between the nose and the taste something is definitely out of whack. The wine wasn't bad, but it'll probably benefit from a few more months in the bottle; if it's still available I'll definitely be revisiting it.

Charles Shaw 2002 California Chardonnay
(added 28 April 2004)
$2.99, Trader Joe's

Three stars

Short take: I have nothing bad to say about this one.

Appearance: Straw yellow

Blind taste tests of this unoaked Chardonnay was the original reason for the hype surrounding Charles Shaw wine. I don't find anything special about it, other than that it's a perfectly drinkable white at $3.

What else is there to say about it? This is the most generic of generic Chardonnay, tasting of grape juice and citrus with no distinguishing characteristics. No buttery or oaky flavors here, then again, I'm of the opinion that traditional barrel-aged or oaked Chardonnay is a completely different style of wine. It's the slightest touch sweet, not chalk-dry but much drier than boxed or jug chardonnay--dry by popular American standards. Unlike the Shiraz reviewed above, it doesn't taste watered-down. Moreover, there are no off flavors, no yeasty smells, no chemical lemon floor-polish note (I'll get to a writup of the Shaw Sauvignon Blanc eventually!), no sour or sickly aftertaste. You won't find much positive to say about it, either, other than that everything you don't want in a $3 white wine is pleasantly absent here.

La Boca Medrano Estate/Mendoza Chardonnay 2003
(added 19 May 2004)

Short take:
La Boca offers a Chardonnay which is vivid yet nuanced, balanced, and tasty, at Three Buck Chuck prices, to boot!

Alcohol: 13% by volume

Appearance: Straw yellow

Produced and bottled by Medrano Estate, Mendoza, Argentina; Imported by Classic Wines of California, Ceres, California

Trader Joe's carries many chardonnays in the under $5 range; sealing my decision to go home with a bottle of La Boca was not reputation--I haven't heard a thing about this wine--or store recommendation; it was the price. At $2.99, I could make a direct comparison with the Chuck and find out just what one can really expect for $3.

My answer: One can expect quite a lot at $3. This was quite an enjoyable wine. Lime peel on the nose leads to key lime, citrus, and melon flavors in the mouth, soft on the palate and perfectly dry, with a clean, refreshing, perfectly dry finish, in which more lime peel and a hint of terpene or tea tree oil comes through.

Exceedingly well-balanced for an under-$10 wine, this seemingly unique, lightly oaked Argentine chardonnay was as refreshing as lemonade and a tad smoother. Its acid and its lime-peel zip make it good pairing for many summer dishes including lighter Italian and Greek fare, and although I'm usually partial to sauvignon blanc (such as the $11 Chateau St. Jean) for the purpose, this is the best bargain-priced pairing I've found for light Mexican food. Then again, this is the sort of wine worthy of sipping at the end of a long day. Interesting and delicious; a good wine, and a great one for the price, I'll be buying it again.

Update Since having a few more bottles of this, I've found that the wine is hardly variable. I haven't had a bad glass yet, but some is more fruity or more buttery than others. Look to, for example, the Montevina Nebbiolo Rosato for a better and more consistent summer picnic wine.

Estola La Mancha D.O. Reserva 1998
(added 9 August 2004)

4.98, Trader Joe's

Three stars.

Short take:
Other reviewers have called it the "poor man's Rioja." I won't go that far, but it is pretty good for an under-$5 red. Weak-flavored but well-executed.

Alcohol: 13% by volume

Appearance: Ruby red with a hint of rust

Bottled at its origin by Bodegas Ayuso S.C.; imported by Plume Ridge, Industry, CA

This wine was enough of an oddity to be another impulse purchase of sorts--despite it being one of the world's largest and most planted vine-growing regions, how often does one see wines from La Mancha imported into the US?

A Google search reveals that this is made from the Cencibel grape, a regional name for the Tempranillo which is the backbone of Rioja reds and the Tinta Roriz of Portugal. In other words, not quite as exotic as it seems at first glance. The closest comparison I can make is American table "burgundy", but this is worlds better.

But enough trivia!--what about the wine? Not much to say here; a very faint cherry nose, with flavors of cherry and a hint of coffee. This is a paradoxical wine; it is full-bodied and smooth, tannic but not harsh, with excellent textural balance, but its flavor is somewhere between unconcentrated and weak. Perhaps it's a sign of better things to come, but for now I can only say that, although it's lacking the solidity of wines like the above-reviewed L'Authentique, it's very pleasant to drink.

Recommended Against

ForestVille Chardonnay 2008-------------------------------------------(added 26 February 2010)
$3.50, Safeway
Short Take:
Malolactic fermentation isn't something ordinarily done cheaply.  ForestVille Vineyards attempted to butter up jug chard, and the result is off-putting.
Alcohol:  12.5% ABV
Appearance:  A very pale straw color
Cellared and bottled by ForestVille Vineyards, Sonoma and Napa, CA

Most cheap chardonnay is very fresh tasting, with a strong green apple flavor.  Go more upmarket, and that green apple taste fades, usually giving way to butter or tropical fruit.  This has little to nothing to do with the grapes; it is the result of a second fermation of the wine, by bacteria, in which malic acid is converted to lactic acid.

ForestVille Chardonnay, at $3.50 on sale at Safeway, is the cheapest chardonnay I've encountered that shows signs of malolactic fermentation.  It has a strong butter flavor and was given the corresponding oak aging, probably in steel barrels with wood chips.  Butteriness is often overdone--there's a lot of heavy, downright bad, one-note $15-$25 chardonnay on the market--but that isn't the problem here. The trouble here is that whatever shortcuts were taken to butter up ForestVille chardonnay left it with a funky, somewhat medicinal flavor, and an aroma to match.

If you're looking for a good, inexpensive chard with a creamy or buttery flavor, to serve with bean soup or similarly-flavored dishes, try the Fetzer Valley Oaks chardonnay, often available for $8 or less.  Under $5, stick to wines that haven't been given malolactic fermentation. 

Gaetano D'Aquino Soave 2002
$3.50, Trader Joe's

Short take:
For fifty-one cents more than the downright horrid "Three Buck Chuck" Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc, this far more palatable light white wine can be had. That comparison, however, isn't a way of saying that it's good.

Alcohol: 12% by volume

Appearance: Straw yellow, with a slight greenish tint.

Bottled by Elledi Dolo; USA Agents D'Aquino Italian Importing Company, Duarte, CA.

Soave is a light white wine produced in the Veneto region of Italy, around the town of Soave, east of Verona. Naturally, it has picked up an association with Shakespeare's famed ill-fated lovers, although it isn't clear whether Romeo was referring to Juliet or the wine as being "soave."
Made from the relatively nondescript Trebbiano grape, (Italy's most widely-grown grape, also used in producing traditional acieto balsamico and condimento,) and sometimes blended with Garganega, Soave, while a novelty here in the states, is one of Italy's most widely available and popular wines. The best bottles are held in high regard, but most of it is said to be of relatively poor quality.
The D'Aquino Soave almost lives up to the name. The bouquet is of fresh grapes; the mouthfeel, smooth. The flavor is of fresh grapes with a hint of straw or dried grass. This is all, however, ruined by a pervasive rubbing-alcohol note and a highly acid, even downright sour and sickly finish. Perhaps 2002 it was a bad year, but I have a feeling that D'Aquino, like Charles Shaw, is bottling mostly inferior surplus and selling it in newly wine-drinking America. The again, D'Aquino is said to import some of the better budget-priced Italian wines, most notably, their Montepulciano, Chianti, and Pinot Grigio. The Soave is drinkable if somebody else is serving it; pass, however, if you're buying.

Gaetano D'Aquino Valpolicella 2002
$3.50 at Trader Joe's

Short Take:
Not a bad wine, but pucker up.

Alcohol: 12% by volume

Appearance: A medium ruby color, darker than a pinot noir but lighter than most cabs.

Bottled by Elledi Dolo Italia; sole USA agents D'Aquino Italian Importing Co., Duarte, CA 91010

D'Aquino must be the Charles Shaw of Italian wines. A few of the local stores (including Trader Joe's) are offering a slew of varietals with this label, including the Soave reviewed above and this Valpolicella. Like the Charles Shaw, this stuff isn't consistently bad.

This Valpolicella was much better than the previously reviewed Soave. Valpolicella, by the way, is sometimes called the Italian Beaujolais; it's light, fruity, and meant to be drunk young. Unlike Beaujolais, though, it's to be served at room temperature. I've tried it both ways just to be sure--chilling severely dampens the flavor, letting nothing but yeast come through.

The D'Aquino offered nothing unexpected. Cherry fruit on the nose, a pleasantly fruity taste, and a crisp finish. Prehaps overly crisp, though; this wine was almost as tart as lemonade. The acid makes it a good match for, say, pasta with tomato sauce (yes, all cheap Italian reds say this is a good pairing, but for some it's truly better than others,) and other foods that can balance it, but makes the wine a tad unpleasant on its own.

Charles Shaw California Shiraz 2002
---------------------------------------- $2.99 at Trader Joe's 
Short take: This is possibly the best of the Charles Shaw offerings, certainly the best of their reds. It's nothing to write home about but a drinkable table wine.

Alcohol: 12.5% by volume

Appearance: Dark fuchsia, like the color of raddichio.

Bottled by Charles Shaw Winery (aka Fred Franzia's Bronco Wine Co), Napa, CA

Nota bene: The wine bears no Napa appelation; the grapes and juice are taken from surplus originating anywhere in California.

Between hype, reviews positive and negative, and social commentary, much has been said about Charles Shaw wine. I've seen people walking out of Trader Joe's with full cases of this stuff. If anything, we owe Fred Franzia and Trader Joe's our thanks for making wine an everyday part of American tables, thus chipping away at the credibility of the teetotalers, who never saw a "regulation" (restriction) of the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages that they didn't like, and see the end of the world in grown adults (especially those between 18 and 21) having a glass of wine with dinner. But I digress...

I first sampled the Charles Shaw Shiraz on New Year's Eve. After having been disgusted by the Sauvignon Blanc and disappointed (in face of the hype) by the Cabernet and the Merlot, I was pleasantly surprised by the Shiraz. Compared to a good shiraz, or even one of the better budget shirazes like Jacob's Creek, it's like listening to Berlioz symphonies through a $5 transistor radio, but it struck me as being rather smooth and drinkable for the price, especially given that it's a red wine.

I was nearly disappointed when I bought a bottle to take home to use as table wine through the week. The wine had a nose dominated by yeast smells and rubbing alcohol. The first sip was bread-flavored, like drinking a very strange (and very bad) beer, with no harsh tannins but a medicinal finish.

After about 5 minutes this wine's disposition changed for the better. Aeration transformed it into the wine I had on New Year's Eve. It's surprising that a weak wine such as this would need decanting, but it did dissipate the worst of the unpleasant notes; the bread smell and the medicinal finish were both gone, and the yeasty taste was considerably reduced. Black-cherry flavors came through, both on the nose and in the mouth, and it was smooth going down. It was a thin, weak wine, thoroughly unconcentrated and with muffled flavor, but unlike the Charles Shaw Merlot and Cabernet, this wine showed characteristics of the varietal.

I again had problems with the cork. This time it didn't end up being pushed into the bottle, but it's too soft to properly use my "ah-so" type cork puller, and flakes easily. Charles Shaw/Bronco would do much better to switch to a synthetic cork, or better yet, a crown cap or a screw top.

There are better Shiraz in the $5 range, and truly good ones can be had in the $5-10 range, but this is not a bad wine for $2.99. I've had worse that cost as much per glass as this does per bottle. If you don't have a few extra dollars to spend or are looking for a red to serve at a party, this is a decent choice.

Lancers Rose

(added 25 April 2005, moved to full review 29 July 2008)

Ubiquitous, can be had for $4.99 on sale

Short take: Interested in culinary history? Drink this once. Else, pass.

Appearance: Rose Pink, literally

Alcohol: 9.5%

Produced and bottled by J.M. Da Fonseca Internacional Vinhos, LDA, Azeitão, Portugal. Distributed in the USA by Palm Bay Imports.

Lancer's Rose is an old wine, an old American wine from Portugal, if that makes any sense--it was launched in 1944 when wine merchant Henry Behar visited Europe looking for a rosé to appeal to the American palate, which he found being produced at Fonseca, or so the official story goes.

If you look back to cookbooks from those days--heck, if you look back at cookbooks all the way to the mid-1980s, you'll find that the American palate must have liked bland foods, and if the reality of Lancers coupled with the official history are telling, they must have liked bland wines, too.

See my full review for more information.

Gallo White Merlot
(added 17 July 2005)

Short Take:
Most Merlot is misguided, and this flabby, cotton candy of a wine is no exception.

Appearance: Bright Pink
Alcohol: 13% ABV

Gallo, makers of everything from premium Cabernets to Thunderbird, has yet another entry into the sweet pink stuff market, and it's a disappointment.

Merlot, as we all know, is and has been for some time a rather faddish grape. Consequently, it's overplanted and most Merlot is really bad stuff--aside from one taste at a local wine shop, I can't say I had a varietal Merlot I liked until I went tasting in Livermore, although maybe it was for lack of trying.

Hence I welcome efforts by wineries to make something other than really bad red wine out of these grapes. Merlot does make a nice off-dry rosé, usually with powerful cranberry fruit, and I suspect it to be an ingredient in the Paul Masson jug wine, among others.

Gallo, however, makes a really bad rosé instead of a really bad red. Their NV White Merlot is ridiculously flabby, that is to say, that it's sweet without balancing acid. Drinking this wine is like drinking orange pop. Beringer's offering--and some jug rosés--are much better, although if you're entertaining people with the kid palate, you might want to have a bottle of this on hand.

Barefoot Riesling
$4.50 at Trader Joe's
(added 13 January 2009)
Short Take: They can only get  away with this because
 it's a Riesling.

Appearance: Straw yellow.
Alcohol:  11.5% ABV

Vinted and bottled by "Barefoot Cellars" (now owned by Gallo), Modesto CA 95354

Barefoot makes thin wines.  Their reds are thin.  Their White Zin is thin, even for cheap white Zin.  And this, their very recent attempt at a Riesling, is thin.

Compensating for the thinness is a considerable amount of residual sugar that's not (unlike many an off-dry Riesling) really justified by acid.  We have here a wine that's both flabby and thin.

Were this not a Riesling, it'd be strange, sweet water, and undrinkable.  But it is a Riesling, with most of the aromas that implies.  Expect to smell peaches and honeysuckle.  Don't expect to taste them.  Expect to taste strange, sweet water.

Pay a few dollars more for a better California Riesling (such as Fetzer) or keep an eye out for Columbia Crest, which can also often be had for a little under $5.  Don't bother with Barefoot.

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Member: Bennett Kalafut
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