News Section: Food and Dining
Three Buck Chuck vs. Winking Owl
$3 Wine Wars Get Local
Trader Joe's clearly picked the right spot to open their second Florida location (the other is in Naples), as their new store on South Tamiami Trail in Sarasota has been a mob scene since its grand opening September 7. Though the chain is popular for its competitively-priced organics, the first thing most loyalists shout at its mention is THREE BUCK CHUCK!, the store's exclusive discount wine by Charles Shaw. While many imitators have failed, Aldi's exclusive Winking Owl line has begun to build a similar cult following. Now that our area has both, I decided to see how they stacked up head to head.
Of course, $3 wine can be a risky proposition. But having done quite a bit of food & wine reviews in my career as a journalist, I've developed a taste for a good red that's not really in line with a writer's budget. But while I'm always on the lookout for a good value, I've come across enough bad vino to remain skeptical. It's not that you have to spend a lot for a decent wine. There are just a lot of really bad offerings in the crowded under $10 range, so you've got to know your way around. When it comes to $3 bottles, you've got to weigh the discount against the good chance that you'll wake up feeling like you've been shackled and drawn, assuming it's drinkable in the first place.
Three Buck Chuck's success has emboldened a lot of other stores to try their hand in the $3 wine game. Walmart's Oak Leaf label misses the mark badly. I tried it once, but it caused my eyes to water whenever the glass got anywhere near my face, which wasn't often as it tasted like something you'd find leftover in a plastic cup the night after a frat party. Total Wine's Pacific Peak wasn't as noxious, but its bland taste wasn't much easier on the palate. When Aldi's opened on West Manatee Avenue, I noticed Winking Owl (then priced at $2.36) and reluctantly gave it a shot, though by the first sip, I was applauding my gastronomic bravery. Their Cab stacked up against anything south of ten bucks and their Chardonnay was a hit among friends who preferred whites.
At less than $35 a case with tax (the price went up to $2.63 and then suspiciously to $2.89 a bottle when Trader Joe's opened), it quickly became my house wine and a standard offering at parties. Though I'd heard the Chuck lore, mostly from friends who'd moved from Ohio, I'd never had the chance to try it and was eager to compare the two discount wines. So once Trader Joe's opened locally, I made the trek south to pick up a $35.88 case of mixed varietals.
Three Buck Chuck (known as Two Buck Chuck in California, where the shipping savings are passed on to the buyer) is a line owned by the Bronco Wine Company, one of the largest vineyard owners and wine producers in the United States. The company markets its wines under nearly 60 different brands, but is most famous for the Charles Shaw line, a name it bought from a defunct California winery. So yes, there was a Charles Shaw; no, he has nothing to do with the wine at Trader Joe's. Fred and Joe Franzia started Bronco and believed that by owning the vineyards, as well as bottling and marketing the wine, they could create premium quality wines at highly-discounted prices. They were right.
Winking Owl comes from E.J Gallo, the largest exporter of California wines and on an interesting side note, Bronco CEO Fred Franzia is Ernest Gallo's nephew. Winking Owl is sold exclusively through Aldi's. In addition to their eponymous line of wines, Gallo has over 60 other brand labels, including the popular discount wine, Barefoot, which sells for twice as much as Winking Owl, yet tastes so bad that you assume there were actual bare feet involved somewhere in its creation. In fact, I'd definitely say that Winking Owl Cabernet is better than any other of Gallo's wines that I've tried, though most were priced in the $7-10 range.
Head to head, I found that the best red either line offered was their Cabernet. After several blind tastings (they were easy to distinguish), and pairing each with a dinner, I couldn't quite give the edge to either. Though I was determined to crown a champion, I honestly couldn't say one was better than the other. They were simply different, and both were competent wines that would fare well against any Cab under ten bucks. I was just happy that I now had some variation in my $3 wine world.
I love a good Shiraz, but it seems to be a tougher varietal to master at the $3 level. Both were certainly drinkable and still far better than anything else at the price point, but neither came close to Lindeman's Shiraz bin 50, an Australian wine that retails for $5 at Publix and for me has always been the standard in cheap Shiraz. Unless you really need that extra $2, I wouldn't say either are worth the savings, though I'd give a slight edge to Winking Owl here. I'm not a big fan of Merlot, but Trader Joe's was quite good, and a little better than Winking Owl. Neither offered the texture or complexity of Blackstone, who does an excellent Merlot for around $8, but again both were surprisingly drinkable considering the price, and are much better than other wines in this range.
When it comes to whites, Charles Shaw offers Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot. Winking Owl only offers Chardonnay, which is also surprisingly good, but here the slight edge goes to Chuck, which won “Best Chardonnay from California” and “Best of Class” at the Commercial Wine Competition of the 2007 California Exposition and State Fair. Shaw's Chardonnay earned 98 points. Its quality is just as impressive as the Cabernet when compared to other wines under $10.
Though I've reviewed a lot of high-end wines, including several in the $100 plus range, I find it utterly amazing that Bronco and Gallo were able to manage such skilled winemaking for about the price of a four-pack of Miller High Life pounders. There are certainly occasions where a nice upmarket wine is called for, but knowing that if I can't splurge on a movie at the Parkway Theater after Gnocchi Bolognese with a bottle of Paso Robles at Gio Portofino, I can still grab a pizza at Little Caesar's, a bottle of Winking Owl and a flick from Red Box for less than $10 – all on the same block as the former – is quite comforting. Talk about mixed use development.
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