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Charles Shaw Blind Tasting (or: Are we wasting $10 a night on wine?)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Slideshow: The Best (and worst) wines to buy right now at Trader Joe's

This is a guest post from RJ from RJ's Wine Blog. RJ and I did a cross-country blind tasting of these same three wines.

A few months ago, I tasted five different Charles Shaw (aka Two Buck Chuck) wines and it was not a very fun experience. The Sauvignon Blanc and the White Zinfandel both made it into my "Wines to Avoid" file and none of the others scored above 80 points. For 5 wines, that's not a good showing. But, I also did not blind taste them, so I have since wondered if my own biases didn't allow me to rate the wines any higher.

So, I decided I would tempt fate and connected with my wine blogging buddy Bob Dwyer over at The Wellesley Wine Press. We decided we'd blind taste three wines, all the same varietal, all under $12. As the Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon was the best of the 5 Shaw's in my original tasting, with a score of 80 points, this is the one that would go up against both a California and a Washington Cab. For California, we decided on the 2006 Louis M. Martini Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon and, for Washington, we landed on one of Bob's favorites, the 2006 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The only difference between our two tastings was that I had to use a 2007 Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon, where Bob was able to pick up a 2006 to keep all the vintages the same. We both blind tasted the three wines on our own and, at the time of this writing, neither of us have seen what the other wrote.

I'll be honest about my biases going in...The Louis M. Martini was my odds-on favorite. It is the most expensive at $12 (this is what I picked it up at, although I have since seen it cheaper) and Robert Parker gave it 90 points, calling it "one of the finest bargains in California Cabernet Sauvignon." My second pick was the Columbia Crest Grand Estates. It's one of Bob's favorite value picks, so I was very eager to try it, knowing he has great taste in wine. My third and very distant pick was the Two Buck Chuck - I've had it several times and I've been completely underwhelmed every time. This thing was a lock going in - Two Buck Chuck was going to fall...and hard.

Boy, was I wrong.

As I made my way through the wines in their perfect brown paper bag wrappers, I very quickly noticed that this was not going to be as easy as I thought. The first wine had a good nose of red cherry and dusty chalk, but a little too much vegetable, followed by some nice cherry, citrus and floral notes in the mouth. Light tannins, mid-acidity and a medium to long finish, I was off to a good start and automatically assumed this was either the Martini or the Columbia Crest. My rating: 87

The second wine didn't play well on the nose for me. Lots of plum (if you remember from previous posts, I'm not a fan of the plum - in GaryVee's vernacular, I can sniff out a "Plum Monster" a mile away), cedar, too much oak, ending with a surprising little sprig of mint. In the mouth, the plum once again dominated, along with must/dust, red cherry and an unhealthy serving of oak that went all the way through a weak and hot finish. This one was, without a doubt, the Two Buck Chuck. My rating: 83 (not a bad showing, considering the last time I rated it I gave it an 80).

The third wine had a better showing, thus confirming my suspicion that the previous wine was the Two Buck Chuck. Nice blueberry and dirt on the nose, with just a touch of vegetation and leather, followed in the mouth by blueberries, rhubarb, lemon honey and citrus on the finish. I thought this was probably the best balanced of the three wines, but I was surprised by how little complexity it displayed. My rating: 86

My assumption at this point was that wine 1 was the Martini, wine 2 the Two Buck Chuck and wine 3 the Columbia Crest, with my final ranking of 1, 3 and 2...just as I thought going in. Patting myself on the back and letting my wife know how smart I was, I started to take the bottles out of the bags.
What the? How the? Could it be? What will I say to my loyal wine blog followers, to my fellow bloggers who only occasionally think I'm full of it and to my wife who I just convinced that I was actually smarter than she might think? Could I face anyone who knows anything about wine?

Well, here goes (deep breath)...the Two Buck Chuck (wine #1) came in with a rating of 87, followed by the Martini (wine #3) with a rating of 86 and then the Columbia Crest (wine #2) with an 83. The Two Buck Chuck had pulled off a HUGE upset!

I couldn't believe it. So much so that I not only poured all the wines fresh and tasted them non-blind, but I also did another blind tasting an hour later to confirm my findings. For the non-blind, the Martini and the Shaw were still very close in all aspects, too close to make a meaningful call. The Columbia Crest still lagged behind and was falling out of contention very quickly. In the next blind tasting, there was a reversal between the Martini and the Shaw, but only one point, with Martini taking home an 87 and the Shaw an 86. Again, too close to reverse the original decision.

So, what can I say? This is why I love blind tastings - you never know what you're going to get. I can't say I'm going to go out and buy a case of the Two Buck Chuck any time soon, but I will be more inclined to pick up a bottle here and there. It will be interesting to see what Bob discovered in his tasting.

If you've had any of these wines, let us know - we'd love to hear your thoughts.

I tasted the same three wines on the east coast. Here are the results of my blind tasting of these same wines.

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