Finding Good $3 Wines — No, Really

Elegant and refreshing

Two Buck Chuck is back! It has undergone some name changes and the price, inevitably (with inflation and rising energy costs) has gone up just a tad, but have you seen how many wines you can actually buy for $3 a bottle? I’m serious. That’s less money than you can normally buy a single glass of wine in a restaurant for, and that means any restaurant.

It amazes me that it is still possible to sell a soundly made wine, in a glass bottle, with a real label and cork (maybe plastic or composite) or Stelvin closure and still make a profit – all for the same price as a “tall” coffee drink. There are a bunch names: Oak Creek (not to be mistaken for Oak Leaf), Three Wishes and the like. They are all sound and they certainly sell very well.

I was shopping and casually passed another shopper as she asked one of the workers in the aisle about the wines. The worker said she had never actually tasted the wines herself, but that the stack of boxes they were standing in front of was double the size just a couple of days ago. I guess it was a good enough recommendation because the customer grabbed four bottles and put them into her cart. Price is certainly not a huge stumbling block for wine drinkers to at least try them out.

I haven’t tasted all of them, but what I have tasted is at minimum drinkable. At best they are good values. The one varietal in this price range that seems to really show well across the board is Chardonnay. I think the wineries or production facilities have the process wired for Chardonnay. In the grand scheme of things, Chardonnay is pretty easy to grow. The vine can give a relatively high yield without losing too much flavor. Use a bag of oak chips like steeping tea in a vat and you have a pretty plump, ripe and flavorful Chardonnay.

The reds to me are a little more suspect. They range from thin and tannic to a little “manipulated,” meaning there is a lot of color and vanilla without a whole lot in between. Do you think they add color? Um, yes. They also tend to run a bit on the bitter side of the spectrum. This is not to say that they are not enjoyable with food. Saying it is a “food wine” means really nothing to me, as I always enjoy wine with food. But food can make even lesser wines seem not so bad.

The one grape you will not find in this price point as it is virtually impossible to produce anything of quality with high-yielding vines (the ones most appropriate for making such a value oriented wine) is Pinot Noir. And that’s OK. I wouldn’t want any drinker’s first foray into Pinot Noir coming from a $3 version, lest they think all Pinot Noirs would taste like that.

I’m sure all my friends now want to blind taste me on some $3 bottle of wine to see if I can tell the difference. You know what?

I look forward to it. Because if I can’t tell the difference between a $3 bottle and a $30 one, I’m going to be saving a lot of money.

Recommendations: 2009 Stags Leap Wine Cellars “Hands of Time” ($29) This is a Cabernet blend from one of Napa Valley’s stalwarts. It has beautiful notes of crushed blackberries melded to sweet vanillin tones. It is really smooth on the palate, and leaves a nice flavor of toast and even a hint of cocoa on the finish. NV Scharffenberger Brut Rose ($22) Really nice fruit, elegant, joyful, refreshing. What’s not to like? Fabulous with fresh fruits and great with oysters.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. Email or follow him on Twitter @Pinotpusher.