The most important thing to know about this experiment is that I desperately wanted it to succeed. I make my living writing about wine people can afford to buy, and what's more affordable than $3 wine you can pick up at the supermarket without scores, confusion or wine snobbery?
But it wasn't to be. I drank a $3 chardonnay from a national retailer with dinner each night last week, trying to find out: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Or are the ultra-cheap wines just cheap, without any other reason for being?
The answer, sadly, was the latter. The wines were mostly unpleasant and tasted cheap. They certainly didn't taste much like chardonnay, which should remind you of green apples or tart pears, and should be clean and have full feeling in your mouth.
But why should they? Wine quality depends on grape quality, and the grapes used to make these wines are the oenological equivalent of iceberg lettuce and rubber tomatoes. It's no urban myth that the cost of the glass used for the bottles usually costs more than the grapes used to make the wine.
How cynical are these efforts? Three of them are made for the grocers by the same company, the multinational Wine Group (best known for Cupcake and those 5-liter Franzia boxes). The wines use the same bottles, have the same label style and use the same artificial corks.
In this, these five wines aren't worth $3, even if your goal is to get drunk. They tasted that bad. A decent 3-liter box wine, like the Bota Box rosé or the Black Box merlot, is the equivalent of four bottles and costs about $15, or less than $4 a bottle. Do yourself a favor and buy one of those. Don't waste your money on these wines:
Two-buck Chuck chardonnay 2019$2.99, 12.5% alcohol, Trader Joe’s
The Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw private label was the first and remains the most famous of the very cheap wines. That doesn't mean it tastes any better. It sort of smells like green apples. But it also smells of overripe cheese, which is not the goal. The wine is tart, watery, almost salty and finishes bitter.
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Three Wishes chardonnay NV$2.99, 12.5%, the Whole Foods private label (made by The Wine Group)
It tasted more like pinot grigio than chardonnay — almost no fruit and watery, sort of like tonic water. Plus, there was obvious sweetness.
Winking Owl chardonnay NV$2.95, 12%, from Aldi
It’s so sweet you can smell the sugar, a kind of canned pineapple aroma and flavor. Chardonnay is not supposed to be sweet, and certainly not this sweet. But the wine, for all the sweetness, is still tart and bitter.
Oak Leaf chardonnay NV$2.50, 12.5%, the Walmart private label (the second Wine Group effort)
It was thin, watery and not obviously sweet, and maybe, sort of, tasted like chardonnay. That means some apple fruit and a lick of acidity, something that all wines should have but none of the other four did. And yes, that would be damning with faint praise.
Bay Bridge chardonnay NV$2.99, 12.5%, the Kroger private label
It's the third of these wines made by The Wine Group, and easily the most noxious. It smells of nail polish remover, a sign of a wine flaw called volatile acidity. It's sugary (sort of candied apple) and watery, yet somehow bitter as well. That's not easy to do.