Best Two-Buck Chuck Wines at Trader Joe’s

Unless you live on a yacht and run in the same circles as Scrooge McDuck, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the bargain wines affectionately known as “Two-Buck Chuck”.

In 2002, Trader Joe’s debuted a store brand of wines under the label Charles Shaw, priced at $1.99 per bottle. Since then, the discount-hipster grocery chain has sold more than 800 million bottles of the value vino in the U.S. and the price hovers closer to $4 in some regions.*

Two-Buck Chuck is certainly popular, but is it any good? Charles Shaw has won some legitimate awards in the past, and some wine-tasters couldn’t tell it apart from expensive wines in blind taste tests. On the other hand, many sommeliers say it’s pretty darn bad, and you’ll probably get some side-eye if you bring a bottle to a dinner party.

But sometimes you just need a bottle of wine that’s cheap and drinkable.

To save you time and regrets next time you find yourself in the wine aisle of Trader Joe’s with an anemic bank account, below are reviews and a ranking of the best and worst Two-Buck Chuck wines.**

THE BEST 

Pinot grigio

Light, clean and lemony, the taste of the pinot grigio can best be described as a “generic white wine”, which is a good thing here. The flavor is fruity but fairly neutral, and you could definitely serve this to party guests without anyone being the wiser, if that’s your thing. Easily the best white of the Two-Buck Chuck, and in close first place for the best of the bunch.

Cabernet sauvignon

Extremely sweet and fruity, this tasted a bit like cherry pie filling, in a good way. It’s not as heavy and rich as true cabernet lovers might hope for, but it’s tasty. I’d hesitate to serve this to party guests, but if you just want something to drink with dinner with family, you could do worse for a few bucks. While I was checking out, I also learned from our cashier* that our local Trader Joe’s had a blind wine tasting, and the Two-Buck Chuck won best Cabernet in the store.

White zinfandel 

There’s no other way to describe the taste of the Two-Buck Chuck white zinfandel as anything but  strawberry Jolly Ranchers. And it’s strong — almost like a flat strawberry wine cooler. If that doesn’t bother you, and you’re a fan of white zinfandel in general, than you’ll almost certainly enjoy this. It’s the perfect wine to have on hand for a summer barbecue after the good stuff has run out.

THE MEH

Merlot

As a merlot, this is a failure. As a generic dry red table wine, it’s not terrible. The first sip is spicy and peppery, with faint citrus notes. But the burning, cheap-wine aftertaste is definitely there. Only purchase this if you’re resigned to buying a Two-Buck Chuck red and you absolutely can’t stand an overly-sweet cabernet for some reason.

Sauvignon blanc

I’m not saying this is good wine. It’s not. But I’m grading these on a curve, and for $3, it could be worse. There is a strong earthy, pungent smell after uncorking, and not in a good way. But once you get past the funky odor, the taste is just blandly acidic. There is no reason to buy this instead of the pinot grigio, but if your local store is out of stock, this one probably won’t make you gag.

THE WORST

Chardonnay

The first sip of this was okay. It was mild, buttery and a little bit oaky, just a run-of-the-mill cheap Chardonnay — and then BAM! It actually burned my throat going down. This is way too harsh and acidic to be drinkable. This tastes like Chardonnay-flavored nail polish remover and is a really, really bad wine in general. Do not buy this if you value your esophageal lining.

Shiraz

Perhaps as an alternative fuel or a drain cleaner, this would be useful, but as a beverage for human consumption, the Two-Buck Chuck Shiraz is an utter disaster. This is a harsh, bitter wine that tastes nothing like Shiraz and barely like wine — it has no flavor other than “alcohol”. It was so unpleasant that I couldn’t stand to take more than a few sips, and had to rinse my mouth out afterward. This was easily the worst of the Two-Buck Chucks and one of the worst wines I’ve ever personally tasted. The only circumstances under which you should ever buy this wine would be to give as a gift to someone you detest, or you are an employee of Guantanamo Bay. 

OTHER NOTES

I had an unusually difficult time opening the bottles. The corks kept breaking off or crumbling, and it turns out there is a reason for this other than my lack of skill/upper body strength. Rather than just use a plastic cork, like most bargain wines, Two-Buck Chuck uses one of the cheapest forms of natural cork, which is essentially just a bunch of cork pieces glued together. Just something to keep in mind if you’re prone to cork destruction/embarrassing displays of physical inadequacy.

*In Illinois, Charles Shaw Wines are $2.99 per bottle. So it’s more like Three-Buck Chuck.

**Note: All wines were purchased at a Trader Joe’s location on the north side of Chicago. Shout-out to cashier Danny for reserving judgment on this purchase during check-out. All bottles were 2014 vintage except for the white zinfandel, which was 2013. I tried the seven main varietals, but skipped the seasonal/regional varietals like the Beaujolais Noveau. 

Quick Take: Cameron Hughes Wine on Groupon

Starting a new feature here called “Quick Take.” We’re sharing a link – sometimes it’s an “affiliate link,” but today’s isn’t – because it’s something we think is a tremendous value. And it appears to be a “Limited Time Only” thing today. So, here it is…

Cameron Hughes WineCameron Hughes Wine on Groupon

Dave here, and, in the interest of full disclosure, I worked for the Cameron Hughes team for a couple years, mostly doing in-person wine events – “brand ambassador” stuff – and spent a ton of time talking up their stuff while standing at a table at a Costco.

[Hey, that reminds me, didn’t we do a post on buying alcohol at Costco? Yes, yes we did! Here’s a link.]

So this particular deal jumped out at me – because of what I know about their business model, and because of how I saw people BUY Cam’s wine at Costco, I can vouch for the following:

1. You’re getting more than $60 worth of wine

Supply, demand, etc. – there is a glut of expensive wine, especially in California, and Cam figured this out years ago. I used to tell people that the stuff will drink like it’s $30, but you’re buying it for much less.

2. Costco did “dry tastings;” the stuff STILL sold

You can’t sample wine at Costco – it’s a policy they may have tried to relax from time to time, but, for the most part, you have to take a chance.

When I did “dry tastings,” I often was politely ignored by people in the know; they’d reach right past me and take a few bottles or even a case. Without having sampled the particular wine before.

Word of Mouth and/or Cam’s marketing newsletter had told them it was coming to Costco. And because of the track record, spending $12-$15 on a bottle of wine was a worthwhile investment. THIS ONE IS $10 a bottle.

Enough already…where’s the link?

Again, this is not an affiliate link – I just found this and wanted to share it with the Metasip community. You should totally take a chance on this. Trust me.

Cameron Hughes Wine on Groupon.

PS – a number of different samplers. Red-only, white-only, and a mix. I’m not a huge Chardonnay guy, and any mention of the word “Meritage” gets me rather excited. So I’m going with the red.

Final note: I penned this on Thursday afternoon, November 20. You’ve got til midnight Central Time – TODAY – to take advantage.

5 Secrets to Buying Alcohol at Costco

Kirkland Bourbon

Behold, alcohol at Costco!

We really should have named this…

5 Secrets to Buying Alcohol at Costco That THEY Don’t Want You to Know About…

but that would have sounded way too much like an infomercial. And, of course, for maximum clickbait exposure, we should have said something like “#3 will blow your mind!”

But what we really want to do is make this as informative as gosh darn possible. So that’s what we’re going to do, darnit.

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Now, before we dive in, a little background. I spent many a Saturday and Sunday at Costco stores in suburban Chicago, peddling wine (for a brand that we’ll get to in point number 3 below). I learned quite a bit – not just about people’s wine-buying habits, but about how they buy beer, spirits, and everything else.

Yes, the Costco experience is something to behold – if you don’t have one near you, I feel bad for ya. And if you do have one near you but you live in a state with odd rules about buying alcohol, then this post isn’t for you. Unless you’re moving. Or you have a friend that can ship you stuff. Or you work out some other arrangement.

Without further adieu, here’s the post:

5 Secrets to Buying Alcohol at Costco

*One Editor’s Note as we get rolling: if you have a different sort of warehouse club by you, these rules MAY apply. But they possibly will not: part of my gig included the occasional trip to Sam’s Club. Comparing Costco to Sam’s Club is like comparing…actually, I just took a five-minute break, racking my brain trying to figure out if there is any real comparison. There isn’t. If you’re like us, the only reason you had a Sam’s Club membership is because it’s 12 miles closer than Costco and sometimes you absolutely need cheap gas. In fact, we didn’t really need the membership, because…segue…

Kim Crawford 2013 Sauvignon Blanc

You can maybe buy this at Costco.

1. You May Not Need a Membership to Buy Alcohol

We told you above that reason #3 might blow your mind, but, honestly, this one is the one that leaves people saying…WHAT?

This is not true in every state in the Union, and you’ll need to check your state and your individual club. But we know this for a fact in Illinois: at warehouse clubs such as Costco and Sam’s, a membership card is NOT needed to buy alcohol.

When you get to the front door and they ask for your membership card, say “I’m buying alcohol.” They’ll let you in, provided that’s the rule in your state.

When doing those promotional events I mentioned above, there were times when the person behind the counter when I was checking out didn’t even know the rule. Sometimes they’d just say “99” and ring me up. But other times, they’re calling a manager and asking around.

Keep this in mind – if you’re in one of these states where you don’t need a membership, you can’t buy anything else. Just alcohol (and maybe cigarettes, cigars, etc.).

Kirkland Signature Champagne

Since it’s “Champagne,” well, it’s French.

2. If It Says “Kirkland” on the Label…

This should really be in two parts: part one is that it’s been fully vetted, and part two – which might be a no-brainer to some, but is worth mentioning anyway – is that Costco didn’t make it themselves.

Really: if you see a Bordeaux wine and it says “Kirkland,” do you think Costco has its own winery in Bordeaux?

No. They don’t. They’re sourcing products of all kinds from throughout the world. Coffee from Rwanda is produced by Rwandan coffee growers, then Costco gets it to you through the magic of their distribution network. Alcohol has more hoops to jump through, but, since they’re America’s largest seller of wine, they’re on the case.

Kirkland Signature Vodka

NOT Grey Goose.

3. Some Kirkland Products Are Actually…

This is a good one: they won’t tell you what they actually are, because they can’t. But here’s where the fun starts.

An unconfirmed rumor is that Kirkland’s Vodka, the one made in France, is actually Grey Goose. Or at least made at the same place AS Grey Goose.

Mind. Blown.

Now, whether or not that’s true, we’ll never know. But, unless you are a brand-loyal vodka drinker, you can take a chance on a vodka, or a whiskey, or a gin, save some serious cash – $15-20 savings per bottle – and have a rock-solid libation in your liquor cabinet. This brings us to another mystery, and allows us to tell you a little more about who we were working for when we were at Costco:

Cameron Hughes Lot 416 2012 Pinot Noir

Cam knows his stuff.

4. Cameron Hughes Wine Figured This Out

Full disclosure: these are the folks I worked for, doing wine demos in Costco off and on for five years. There actually IS a Cameron Hughes and he’s the guy behind Cameron Hughes Wine.

What he’ll tell you about his approach is the same thing I would tell you if you bumped into me at Costco and I had the salesman badge on: some wineries will sell their “remainder” and he bottles that and sells it to you at a markedly lower price. After people gasp, I’d explain the economics behind the business model…

Take Winery X. They’re ready to sell their California Cabernet for $50 a bottle. They’ve got 10,000 cases ready to go and they learn that Winery Y is also ready to sell their premium Cab at $50 a bottle. And then Winery Z wants to do the same…pretty soon, you’ve got a glut – too much premium stuff.

Winery X, being smart and knowing about supply and demand, thinks they can fare better by cutting their own supply in half. They also know that the actual value of the wine itself is much lower than $50 a bottle – so they call up Mr. Hughes and cut a deal.

Next thing you know, 3,000 to 5,000 cases of a California Cabernet from Cameron Hughes Wine make it to Costco. But it’s a limited quantity (each wine gets a lot number) AND it’s priced to sell – their wheelhouse is $12-$16 a bottle.

You get a wine that drinks much more expensively than what you paid for it.

Sofia 2013 Rose

Francis’ Daughter, which you of course knew.

5. Costco’s 14% Rule

This is another secret – not well-kept but no one will give you the exact number. We’ve heard 13% and 15% – doesn’t matter, the bottom-line here is that they’ll mark the product up only to the limit, and not more.

Where this benefits you, the buyer of all things alcoholic, is mostly with the big names. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio will be cheaper at Costco than anywhere else you’ll find it, and the same goes for any of the big-name spirits – and even some of the smaller names (we thought Tito’s Handmade Vodka was cheap at our local Walmart, but Costco won that battle, too).

You can also have quite a bit of luck with those things that keep us humming along here at Metasip: the sub-$10 wines, and the craft beers. (A nifty combo of rule #2 and rule #5 is at play with the Kirkland Beer Sampler.)

Next time you’re at Costco, remember these tips. And happy drinking!