Bars are boringly empty around the holidays and it's cold outside and certain readers have long clamored for a Charles Shaw taste test, so I hereby present a very special Last Call: the proceedings and results of the sure-to-be-annual Christmas Eve Two-Buck Chuck Taste-Off™, in which eight broke winos attempt to make sense of Trader Joe's massive and almost distressingly low-cost selection of wines via a highly scientific (and also fairly tipsy) taste test. We blindly tried seven in total — every variety but white Zinfandel, because fuck white Zinfandel — plus two Yellow Tail wines as a slightly more expensive control group, in strict adherence to the scientific method.
First up, the whites: The opener, which would later be revealed as a Charles Shaw Chardonnay, was tart, mild, and pretty sweet — altogether harmless, but not mind-blowing. Next, the $2 Sauvignon Blanc had an acidic mouthfeel and a tartly funky flavor; taster Caitlin, ever elegant, said it reminded her of "the taste in my mouth after vomiting." Not awesome. Moving along, then: Number three, a Pinot Grigio, was manifestly the best — mild and woody and distinctly crisper and cleaner than the others. And finally, we tried the (disguised) Yellow Tail, purchased from a downtown Oakland deli and retailing at about three times the price of the others. It smelled — and, indeed, tasted — like vanilla extract, with the added unpleasantness of a back-of-the-throat tartness. Other members of the esteemed panel judged it "moldy tasting," "like eating lip balm," and "terrible." It was the easy loser.
After a snack break and some water, on to the reds: The Charles Shaw Cab Sav won on mouthfeel ("smooth") but lost on flavor ("funky"), while the Yellow Tail of the same variety had an unpleasant, peppery, palate-dominating sharpness that rendered it almost undrinkable. Emma thought it tasted "like I'd have a headache in ten minutes," which is to say that it tasted cheap —something you're generally trying to avoid when drinking cheap wine. Number three, a two-buck Merlot, was inoffensive and unmemorable; unsurprisingly, it finished exactly in the middle of the pack. My notes indicate the Shiraz was "smooth and slightly chocolatey," though by this time, to be honest, I was pretty drunk. And finally, the Nouveau (a name that has always stressed me out in the store, because nouveau is an adjective, not a type of wine) was delicious: peppery but not too spicy, sweet but not like a candy bar. It won with flying colors, and then I took a nap.
Lessons learned: Sometimes price does not, in fact, correlate with quality; if you're going for Charles Shaw, make it Nouveau or Pinot Grigio; cheap reds tend to be better than cheap whites; and don't drink nine glasses of wine on an empty stomach at two in the afternoon.