Whether you were throwing a dinner for people you felt compelled to not impress, or just hate paying $2.01 and up for literally anything, at some point you've likely been in a position to load up a shopping cart with a crapload of Two Buck Chuck, pray nobody from church sees you, and party down.
Here's the thing, though: some of it's actually pretty damn good, and could easily be sold as Nine-to-Eleven Buck Chuck without anyone being the wiser.
So we brought in two devoted tasters to blindly drink eight different types of Charles Shaw Blend, hit us with detailed notes, and determine 1) which bottles are totally palatable and even enjoyable, and 2) which should be avoided as if they were made by Chuck Woolery, who, it turns out, makes terrible wine.
Taster No. 1
Our resident sommelier for the evening, Sam Lipp is the current general manager of NYC's Union Square Cafe, and the former bar manager of three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park, which might not sell a single glass of wine that costs less than what these eight bottles do together.
Taster No. 2
Girlfriend, who previously displayed her capacity for providing next-level tasting notes when I made her and my sister drink 21 extremely strong beers on a brewery crawl. She got confused as to which was wine for a second here.
We had each of them give their impressions of each wine's appearance, smell, and, obviously, taste, provide a 1-to-10 overall rating (of general drinkability -- nothing's being compared to a Lafite Rothschild here), and then try to blindly guess each varietal.
Let's get down to it.
Sommelier: “It’s a very pale, going on green color. I get lavender. Like, soapy lavender. It reminds me of my dad’s bathtub [Editor's Note: Weird]. This is pretty damn palatable. There’s acid, there’s fruit, and there some semblance of a body to it. There’s certainly an element of fake oak, in the best possible way. It’s as if somebody took a whole bunch of the wood chips from when playgrounds were badass.”
What is it?: “Chardonnay.”
Girlfriend: "I know exactly what this smells like. A hippie. Not the kind of hippie that camps out at Phish concerts, the kind who gets acupuncture and wears crystals. Not the patchouli thing. It just smells like nature, I guess. This is the Jessica Simpson of wines. A little trashy, but you wanna like it."
Score: “This is a 7 for me.”
What is it?: “Yep, Chardonnay.”
Sommelier: "It smells like alcohol and paint thinner, which to me smells like alcohol. This could basically be the sweetest red wine I’ve ever seen passed off as a table wine. If you left it in a glass overnight it would have sugar crystals in it. If you poured me this wine at the end of a three-hour dinner, I’d swear this was totally appropriate."
What is it?: “This is either the Shiraz, or the Cabernet. Or the Merlot. This is the... Shiraz. No. Wait. It’s the Cabernet.”
Girlfriend: "Can you get high from sniffing too much wine? Just wondering. This tastes like a beet."
Sommelier: "What kind of beet? Red? Chioggia? Some other beet?"
Girlfriend: "I thought I was just doing well saying beet. Also Brie cheese. This makes me want to eat Brie cheese. This one’s good! This is good wine."
What is it?: “Shiraz. Also, I’m 100... no, not 100... 76% convinced that Trader Joe makes all his wine from Robitussin. I’m robo-tripping.”
Sommelier: "This thing smells like a pie. It’s the strawberry patch that nature forgot about, then rained and hailed on. Pure liquefied, alcoholic Jolly Rancher. I’m sorry I can’t give you more on that. Yet -- and this is serious -- there’s a useful quality to this wine. I would use this in college punches, as a sweetening product, when I didn’t need more alcohol."
Score: “A very soft 1.”
What is it?: “No wine has ever been more obviously White Zinfandel.”
Girlfriend: "It’s like vinegar. This is 100% Easter egg dye. It smells like Easter egg dye, it’s probably going to taste like Easter egg dye. Or maybe a scratch-and-sniff sticker. I don’t want anything to do with this wine. I want out."
Score: “I don’t even know that I can give it a 1.”
What is it?: “Oh, it's White Zinfandel, 100%.”
Sommelier: “This one has just a little more intensity to the color for me. When I smell it I also start to introduce the idea of ground black pepper. When you smell it, you should think about it like nestling your nose in a furry chinchilla. Oh my God, maybe we are high from sniffing it. If I hadn’t seen the labels of all eight beforehand, I’d take this for a cheap impersonation of a Loire Cabernet Franc.”
Score: “I’m going with a 7.”
What is it?: “I’m gonna say Merlot.”
Girlfriend: “Oh, I was thinking like a roasted red pepper. Anndd... hmmm, I had it but I lost it... oh, chocolate-covered cherries! What are those things called? Cherry cordials. It does that thing where your mouth goes dry when you’re done swallowing. It kinda shocks you, then it goes soft, then your mouth goes dry. This is really not bad!”
Score: “I’ll give it a 9.”
What is it?: “I think it’s the Cab.”
Sommelier: "It’s a bright, fresh, lively nose, sort of citrus-dominated, grapefruit, lemon, lime. Hmmm... now all of that potential in the nose has pooped out in the palate. It sort of feels flabby. But overall it’s really not that bad at all."
What is it?: “Gotta be the Sauvignon Blanc.”
Girlfriend: "It smells like a sausage casing and tastes like a knock-off peach Hi-Chew. It tastes a little peachy, right?"
What is it?: “Sauvignon Blanc, sure.”
Sommelier: “It smells like weed! Dammit, I think he poured us the Sauv Blanc now to show us how wrong we were. [Editor's Note: I sure did] Let’s get past the cannabis overtures. This wine tastes of every wine. It has zero defining varietal characteristics. This one is terrible -- it’s approximately half a step from Mad Dog.”
What is it?: “Pinot Grigio.”
Girlfriend: “Generally speaking, wine isn’t supposed to smell like skunks. Also it’s hard to sniff and keep your mouth open at the same time. It smells like grapes, for sure. And Laffy Taffy, the green one. And I was gonna say bananas, but you can’t squish bananas into a drink. We’re really selling this one. I can’t drink any more of this.”
What is it?: “Wine product, like the stuff you can get in a deli.”
Sommelier: "All the reds look absolutely the same to me. This is going to be easy on your stomach. It has no distinguishing characteristic as wine whatsoever. It just smells like grape. The problem with this wine is it just tastes like candy, the sugar is off the charts."
Score: “I’m gonna give this one a 3.”
What is it?: “I really hope this is not the Syrah. Let’s say Pinot Noir. Wait, it’s not the Pinot, but I’ve now bamboozled myself.”
Girlfriend: "This just smells like wine, you’re right. I was gonna say this one tastes like perfume, but no, it’s body spray. Like from Bath & Body Works. And don't get me wrong, I use it and love it, I just don’t want to drink it."
Score: “I’ll give it a 3 also.”
What is it?: “This is the Nouveau. 100%. Even though I don’t really know what that means. But that’s what I think it is.”
Sommelier: "I think if we poured you a glass of really good wine after this, I think you’d say you love this one. Mine looks nice. I think that this has an inherent strawberry characteristic. Maybe even other berries, like raspberry jam, or plum Smuckers. It’s light-bodied, just kinda quaffable. It’s got this real light rancidity under the freshness. I’m light, I’m fresh, I will tear you up in the morning. But the second sip is better than the first!”
What is it?: “I’m calling this that Nouveau wine. It could be Pinot Noir, too.”
Girlfriend: “It’s a little magenta-y. That could be the Christmas tree lights though. This is the closest to what I think wine should smell like. I can tell you right now this is the best wine I’ve had. Also it smells like Country Crock margarine."
What is it?: "I'll go with Pinot Noir. It really just tastes so margarine-y. But that's not bad for some reason. I really like it.”
How many they got right
The final scores, from best to worst
Cabernet Sauvignon: 7.25
Pinot Grigio: 6
Sauvignon Blanc: 2.5
White Zinfandel: Technically 1, but not really even.
Also we got pizza.
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This article originally published on January 2, 2014.