Wine on the cheap

There’s a wine for every budget—and we mean every budget. The best wines for under $5.

Photo By David Robert

What about the legendary Two-Buck Chuck? Charles Shaw, as the brand is formally known, simply got lucky. The dot-com ‘90s ended in a glut of good California grapes, and in 2001, vintner Fred Franzia (of the old-school boxed-wine Franzias) bought the name from investment banker and would-be vintner Charles Shaw. The glut was unsustainable, though. Since that lucky moment, the popular wine’s quality and price have both wavered. As Wine Guy Larry Gralla puts it, “Two-Buck Chuck’s no longer what it used to be, and it’s no longer two bucks.”

Students! Musicians! Welfare moms! If you thought you didn’t have access to a decent glass of wine on your meager budgets, guess again. You don’t have to run around town spending your pennies on all the $3.99 swill you can find to figure out what’s palatable and cheap. We, the brave team of RN&R wine connoisseurs (plus a few people who actually know what they’re talking about), have done it for you.

We set out to find wines that retail at local stores for under $5 and assess whether they have any redeeming qualities. (The obvious purveyor is Trader Joe’s, but my car is broken, and if you don’t have six bucks for wine, maybe yours is, too. If you can get to an Albertson’s, Raley’s or Ben’s, you’re in the target demographic.)

Your guides:

Larry Gralla, official “Wine Guy” and instructor of wine appreciation classes at Nothing To It Cooking School.

Nicole Madden, sommelier at the new, already heavily lauded nouveau-Italian restaurant, Ciao.

Marnee Benson, learned collector of good wines, who learned upon her first whiff of an Italian Barolo 10 years ago that wine could provide a sublime sensory experience.

Brad Bynum, RN&R food critic and enthusiastic consumer of a nearly indiscriminate range of alcoholic beverages.

And myself. I am a writer. That means that while I lust and fawn over the occasional high-end cabernet someone slips me at a party, what I’m really concerned with is navigating the far reaches of extreme budget-cinching.

Gralla’s house in Caughlin Ranch is a veritable museum of wine paraphernalia. The kitchen trash can is a cask, the cork Christmas wreath stays on the door all year, and hundreds of antique corkscrews line the walls. Therefore, he hosts the tasting.

Don’t fill the glass more than about an inch full, he says. It would compromise your ability to critique the nose. (If the lexicon of wine characteristics seems intimidating, just remember these two: nose, the way it smells, and finish, the flavor left in your mouth after you swallow.)

“Almost everything you get from a bottle of wine, you get through smell,” Larry instructs. Swirl your glass, close your eyes, inhale, and there’s an initial burst of olfactory surprises, which you need no particular expertise to identify. You just need to pay attention.

Then you taste.

Sniffing Poppy
If you can part with $8-10, there’s usually something wonderful on sale in the wine aisle at Raley’s. But I stuck to the under-$5 rule. Two grocery stockers agreed the four varietals of Poppy Cellars (all $5) weren’t bad, especially the whites. I chose the chardonnay.

We pour. We sniff.

“I thought of Pledge,” says Marnee.

Nicole is more diplomatic: “Yes, citrus.”

“Pears.” “New-mown grass.” “Caramel.” “Popcorn.”

“In terms of a nose, this isn’t bad,” says Larry.

We taste.

“It has a soapy taste,” says Brad.

I remark that it seems slippery. It disappeared before I could finish tasting it.

“That’s called a short finish,” Larry explains. “That means the wine isn’t well put-together.”

Nicole announces, “I like the acidity. It’s the redeeming quality.”

We all agree. The acidity is nice, and the taste is entirely inoffensive. You could serve it to friends at a backyard wedding without being embarrassed.

A San Francisco treat
At Albertson’s, the butcher was the only advisor on hand, and he’s not a big wine drinker. Larry had recommended opting for a white when shooting in the dark, so I selected the Golden Gate Pinot Grigio ($4.50).

We sniff. Marnee comes in strong again with the household product references: “Suntan lotion, like vanilla or coconut or something.”

Official “Wine Guy” Larry Gralla helps the nondiscerning break down the nuances of even cheap wine.

Photo By David Robert

Nicole: “Honeysuckle, layers of melon.”

“Violets.” Lemons.” “Alfalfa.”

We taste. It starts out fruity, with a way-too-long, unpleasant finish that makes me want to take another sip to get back to the initial fruitiness. I wonder if this is designed into the wine to encourage consumption.

“I drink a lot to excess, and you could definitely do that with this,” says Brad.

Nicole relegates it to a halfway decent spritzer ingredient.

Larry agrees. “Picture this with about 75 percent soda and ice. It would be really nice.”

Cat’s meow (or mew)
The clerk at Ben’s Fine Wine & Spirits has always steered me right with best-for-the-buck beer selections and honest advice about overrated bourbons, so I was confident he knew what he was talking about when he advised against purchasing the Gato Negro Cabernet/Merlot blend for $3.99. But this Chilean budget bender is the only wine Ben’s carries in the allotted price range.

We sniff. Larry is diplomatic but disappointed: “Compared to most, this nose would turn me off.”

Nicole is suspicious: “It doesn’t have the cab/merlot nose.”

Brad is underwhelmed: “I could smell the glass more than the wine.”

I am confused. I detect a mysterious combination of alcohol, cheese and old basement. Larry explains, “In a funny weather year, they may add more alcohol for a bigger nose.” There’s one mystery explained, but there’s no way they add cheese.

We taste. Nicole concedes that it’s supple but says it has no balance. She deems it unfit to drink. But she’d use it for beef bourguignon.

Larry says he wouldn’t even use it in sangria.

Marnee reads from the label, descriptors that we agree are fabrications: “Gentle tannins, succulent.”

“It does suck,” Brad answers.

We pour it out.

“Let’s get our glasses cleaned out really well,” Larry advises.

Go Barefoot
You can get Barefoot wines just about anywhere for up to $10, but you can’t get them just anywhere for $4.50, which is why I had a friend pick up a bottle of Barefoot Cabernet at Trader Joe'’s.

We sniff. There is a seductively complex rush of aromas.

“I can smell it from here,” says Marnee, holding her glass a foot away.

Larry: “It smells like pepper.”

Brad: “Some kind of red thing.”

Larry: “Exactly. Blackberry is the dominant nose on a cabernet.” He continues, “I’m getting a teeny hint of smokiness.”

Nicole lists, “Violet, green pepper, toffee, a floral component.” Upon tasting, she announces, with approval, “I’m very surprised.”

Larry deems it tolerable as well.

I find it much better than tolerable. This is a wine I would serve unapologetically to guests. I keep tasting it. I wouldn’t mind another glass.

Brad agrees, “Definitely a good drinking-to-excess wine.” He points out that, handily, 7-11 carries Barefoot, so it’s available in most neighborhoods.

There you have it: evidence that a quality cup of grape need not be reserved for the upper echelons.

If you can go up just a couple dollars into the wine-pricing stratosphere, the $8-10 range is full of pleasant surprises. In particular, Australia and New Zealand are producing good grapes, and some new brands of boxed wine are gaining cachet. If, however, you’re dedicated to finding a decent bottle under $5, it can be done. But first get your car fixed; Trader Joe’s, which often purchases directly from producers and takes it easy on the markup, really is your best bet for a killer deal.