Greetings and Salutations!   Happy 2018 to each of you wine sleuths — may you each have good health and happiness this fledgling new year!


One of the interesting side effects of writing a wine blog is that, intentionally or otherwise, your college-aged daughters tend to pay attention to both your wine collection and the wines you recommend in the blog.  As one of my daughters is now officially 21 and the other one seems to think that she is (“Dad, I have been 20 for about, um, 10 years now!), I will confess that it was duly noted that my private wine stash was thinned a bit over the Christmas break from their respective colleges–including a world-class Hall Stag’s Leap Cabernet that was more or less innocently consumed by a late night movie-watching binge without the Sleuth’s knowledge or permission–but that is a whole ‘nother story.   I digress.


Said daughters are more than delighted to have a glass of world-class Cab or Pinot Noir with dinner on my tab, but both told me during the break that my column needed to focus more on college and new grad budgets, rather than 50-something budgets.  Point taken, and as a result this Chapter will focus solely on Value Wines that retail (in this case, all the subject Value Wines were acquired at the local Trader Joe’s supermarket–a shout out to my new friend Isaac, who assisted me with my acquisition) for a modest $11 or less per bottle.  Two of which, as a matter of fact, cost exactly $1.99 per bottle, since I thought it only proper to boldly include a couple of bottles of “Charles Shaw” wines–a/k/a “Two Buck Chuck”–featured by Trader Joe’s.


As someone who has done his fair share of wine tasting (and then some!), I will confess that I haven’t always spit after sampling fine wines in Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Paso Robles and Burgundy, respectively.  However, I took the liberty of placing a large, economy sized spit bucket for this tasting comparo for the benefit of our tasting panel.  Although we have established that I am a giver,  Lucille and Hal didn’t raise a fool, either!


Without further ado, I will introduce the selected wines and their respective tariffs–which, I might add, in the aggregate set me back only a modest $75.21, including sales tax extracted by the Great State of Texas.  We got your Value Wines, you college sleuths!  Representing the Value Bubbles category are Zonin DOC Brut Prosecco (@ $7.99) from Italy and the private label Trader Joe’s Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine (@ $5.99) from France.   I was told that college students, and especially coeds, love bubbles.   Take note college males, but if you know either of the Sleuth’s daughters, please stop reading immediately!  Representing the White Wine (Chardonnay) category are  Blason de Bourgogne Macon Villages (@ $7.99) from Burgundy, France and and Edna Valley Chardonnay (@ $8.99) from the California Central Coast.  Representing the Pinot Noir category are the Liberte Pinot Noir (@$9.99) from  San Luis Obisbo, and the Line 39 Pinot Noir (@$8.99) from various California vineyards.   Representing the Big Red category (sadly, there are approximately zero Napa Valley Cabs that qualify for our tight budget) are Gascon Malbec (@ $10.99–our highest priced wine) and La Finca Malbec (@ $4.49), each of which are imports from Argentina.  Last but certainly not least, we snagged the Two Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw) Merlot and Chardonnay, both in theory from California and each costing a very modest $1.99 per bottle, or approximately the same as a bottle of 16 ounce water at the local Mini-Mart.


Since we have 4 main categories and 2 wild card wines, we will (a) name a winner in each of the categories and (b) try to honor my sainted mother by saying something nice about each of the 2 wild cards.   Your  humble Wine Bargain Sleuth will give each of the 10 wines every opportunity to shine by using fine Riedel stemware, which experience has convinced me can truly make a difference in even lesser wines, which I fully expect each of our contestants to be.  I also managed to convince some brave and possibly foolhardy wine buddies to join me on the tasting panel (a big shout out to my lovely bride, her friend London and my wine buddy Duncan!) for the proceedings.  Hopefully, we shall all be pleasantly surprised!


One final note for the record.   If, as the wiley Duncan speculated,  this whole exercise is an inside joke played upon the Sleuth by his clever daughters, then I hereby officially and irrevocably declare that this $11 US per bottle and below tasting is, and shall be, a ONE TIME AFFAIR.  Candidly, I don’t have that many friends to start with, and I suspect I may have a few less after this tasting panel.


And now, onto the results.   The envelopes, please….


Value Wine — Bubbles Class.

Starting with the sweeter of the two Euro Bubbles contestants, Zonin DOC Brut Prosecco provided the first tasting, um…opportunity.  The Zonin Prosecco was vibrant, fizzy and slightly sweet.  The taste was a bit of citrus with a hint of honey.  However, the sweetness was not particularly well received  by our brave panel, one of whom predicted this bubbler was likely to be a “wicked hangover inducer”.  On a practical note, the entire panel agreed that the Zonin Procecco would be a decent base for a batch of Mimosas or a fizzy cranberry cocktail.   Not terrible considering the price.  A slight deduction for the fury with which the cork suddenly disgorged, nearly blowing off the left thumb of the Sleuth.  Not necessarily a sign of a well-made sparkler.  Just sayin’….


The Trader Joe’s Blanc de Blancs Brut Sparkling Wine from somewhere in France that is not Champagne is a slightly dryer means of having one’s bubbles treat as compared to the Italian Prosecco.  Although our panel initially liked the dryer finish of the Blanc de Blancs, everyone agreed that the sparkling wine was not particularly a pleasing one, and seemed quite one-dimensional.  One panel member fairly commented that the wine was still far too sweet for her palate.  Of the two sparklers, the Sleuth and the panel gave a grudging nod to the French Trader Joe’s Blanc de Blancs Brut, primarily because it was dryer and appeared more balanced of the two…and for crying out loud, it was $5.99!  That being said, the panel gave a strong recommendation that both of these bargain bubbles need to be served very cold to the college crowd, primarily to disguise the lack of taste!


Whew!  One round done.   We can do this!   On to the Chards.


Value Wine — Chardonnay.

Next up was another French entry–the budget Burgundy  Blason de Bourgogne Macon Villages 2016.  The Sleuth has in the past expressed a liking for fine French white wines…but not so fast.   I am already assuming facts not in evidence here.  The pale straw color of the Blason de Bourgogne Macon Villages was a subtle hint of coming attractions, meaning that the taste was similarly pale and somewhat bland.   The panel agreed that this French offering was at the same time light in texture, flabby and mostly undefined.  Bluntly, a new record for dumping glasses was set with this one.  Even at a college-budget  friendly $8, this French Chard was a “no go.”


Then back to the good old USofA to hopefully quickly reset our respective palates, which thus far were severely underwhelmed.  Could it be Edna Valley Chardonnay 2016 to the rescue?  Not so fast, Cali breath!  In an apparent attempt to distinguish itself from the French competition, or possibly more focused on a weak imitation of the popular California Chardonnay style, the Edna Valley Chardonnay represented what several of our panel members liked the least about Cali Chards–“too much oak, too much butter.”  This Chard had a pleasant, even refreshing nose, but somehow it managed to pretty much tie the Blason de Bourgogne Burgundy for quickest dumping of glasses, as this white was borderline undrinkable for 3 of the 4 panelists.  Certainly it was a waste of $9.


Just for perspective, we bravely soldiered on for a third Chard in this category, the Charles Shaw “2 Buck Chuck” Chardonnay.  Perhaps it was that the two other category contestants were so spare, but the $1.99 retail Chard was not appreciably worse that the others in this category.   Of course, that was a pretty low hurdle to clear.  Desperately seeking a compliment for this  overly sweet bargain wine, Duncan opined that this Charles Shaw Chardonnay would probably be suitable for making a wine spritzer by adding soda and a lime.   Nice save, Duncan.  By taste, I’m declaring that this category is a three way tie, with a possible nod to the 2 Buck Chuck as a cocktail base and its bargain basement tab.


At this point, we lost a panel member.  We needed to pick up the pace, or I will be left with only the Sleuth, Priscilla the teacup Yorkie and Lulu the Pug on my panel.  Help!


Value Wine–Pinot Noir.

Based upon the first 2 categories of our experiment, your humble Sleuth was starting to have major worries about Pinots.  Virtually all wine fans can testify as to what a finicky, persnickedy grape Pinot Noir tends to be, and how much attention, care and feeding it needs to shine.  Somehow, I had reservations as to how much of those qualities that a collective $19 plus tax would bestow upon our brave panel, or what was left of the same.  Starting with the Liberte 2015 San Luis Obispo, we sniffed the nose and swirled the light-bodied red around our glasses with faint hope.  There was a slight smoke hint on the nose, along with undefined reddish fruit.   A taste, however, was a whole different thing.  The most fair comparison I could manage was cough syrup from the local CVS, and even 10 minutes in the glass did not improve this Pinot.  Dang!


Next volunteer was the Line 39 2015 Pinot Noir.  It is possible that our collective palates were beginning to go into shock at this juncture, as my brain conjured up a taste of a slightly less offensive cough syrup, but with a surprisingly turpentine finish.   This was just bad, sleuths.   We all quickly dumped our glasses and quickly scrambled for beer to cleanse our palates of the terrible juice to which we had been subjected.


In keeping with the collegiate atmosphere of the event, Duncan showed his sportsmanship by bringing a sixer of PBR beer–that’s Pabst Blue Ribbon for the uninitiated.  Which, by the way, was a hell of lot tastier than the last 5 wines we had sampled.  I can’t in all good conscience declare a winner in the Pinot Noir category.  Just consider it a public service to be forewarned to avoid both offerings.  If you are on a budget and Pinot is your jam, save up for a decent Value Wine Pinot offering from Oregon such as Wines by Joe and A to Z, which sell at only $7 or $8 more than the contestants, but are definitely a quantum leap up in quality!


Value Wine — Big Reds.

After a well-earned beer break in which we collectively tried frantically to recalibrate their violated taste buds, the hardy panel sat down once again to take on 2 Big Reds–in this case, both were Malbecs from Argentina that still met our modest price caps.   First up was what was on paper the value of the tasting, excluding 2 Buck Chuck of course, in the 2015 La Finca Malbec.  Truthfully, before this sample our bold panel was to a person beginning to resemble a whipped dog, and each presented his or her glass with hesitation.  However, the La Finca Big Red brought a small smile from each member, eliciting comments like “How much does this one cost again?” and “This would be terrific with BBQ ribs.”   That was a pleasant change, and my friends scorecard began to revive after some significant hits.  Like most Big Reds, the 2015 La Finca Malbec is not a great cocktail wine, but it is definitely food friendly.  Things were looking up!


Our last contestant in the Big Red category was most expensive of the tasting, the $10.99 Gascon 2016 Malbec from Mendoza.  This wine, like the La Finca Malbec, induced smiles rather than recoil reactions after tasting.   Although it is not particularly complex or nuanced, it has the classic blue fruit and earthiness of a well-made Argentinian Malbec, as well as a reasonably elegant, dry finish.   I would not hesitate to pair this one with a juicy grilled burger or a sirloin steak.  Overall, the Gascon was my favorite of the tasting, and in fact was the only bottle I saved for a second glass the next day, but I have to tell you sleuths (and particularly you college sleuths) that the La Finca made it close, and the $4.49 price point of the latter offering is cheaper than a lot of middling beer 6-packs.


Value Wine — 2 Buck Chuck.

My notes on the  2 Buck Chuck Chardonnay are noted above.   When I solicited the panel on its inclination to sample the 2 Buck Chuck Merlot, the room immediately cleared, including poor Priscilla the teacup Yorkie and Lulu the Pug, both of whom suddenly felt the need to decorate the backyard.  This reality was really fine as, on balance, I predict that your humble Sleuth would have had a similar reaction to that of the now-legendary Miles character in “Sideways”, and I decided that I would NOT be drinking any &^@*ing Merlot this night.  Sorry, Mom.  Thus endeth the Tasting.  Don’t worry, no animals were hurt during the Tasting.


Wine Thought for the Day:


For the benefit of our young sleuths, what lessons can we take away from our “College Budget Value Wine Tasting?” Your humble Sleuth would ask you college sleuths to take away the following, in no particular order:

  •  Although there is not a direct link between quality wine and cost, $11 appears to be a point in which one must be very careful before bottle is purchased.
  • Do your research before assuming on Value Wines–really bad wine can trigger a reaction like that night when you discovered Tequila–“it was too much Tequila, or not quite enough…” as my man Jimmy Buffett once sang.  Enough said.
  • Even mediocre wine might be salvaged for the base on a cocktail, such as the Prosecco and 2 Buck Chuck Chardonnay reviewed above.
  • Don’t ever forget that hard work in the real world after college ultimately results in a budget in which you never, ever have to drink 2 Buck Chuck again!
  • Finally, when faced with really bad white wine such as the Chards reviewed above, remember that even the late, great Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis liked to plop an ice cube or two in white wine–trust me, you can’t do any more harm to these than the winemaker already did!


Until next month– Cheers!

© The Wine Bargain Sleuth 2018—All Rights Reserved