Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Wine Clubbing

Drinking wine can impair your judgment, like the time last spring when my judgment was sufficiently impaired to cause me to smack my forehead into a wine glass. And though my forehead won the contest easily, I was left looking a little bit like a badly drunk, 50 year-old Harry Potter.

Perhaps not as bad as permanent physical disfigurement, wine drinking, or more specifically, wine tasting can also lead to severely impaired judgment regarding wine clubs.

Now, there are two major types of “wine clubs” out there. The ones that you see in the back of magazines are independent rip off schemes. They’re not scams per se - if you sign up, you’ll get your wine. But typically these clubs are for the totally clueless and sell truly hideous plonk from labels nobody’s ever heard of at outrageous mark ups. Actually, they probably make most of their money on shipping, charging double what it really costs to ship the bottles.

Nancy sez, “just say no” to these kinds of wine clubs. Don’t even be tempted by their claims of getting “rare” or “limited edition” wines. Yeah, right.

The other type of wine club is much more enticing, partly because you can actually get some great wines from them. These are the wine clubs run by the wineries. Every winery in America, no matter how small, has it’s own wine club.

It’s the perfect gig. How many businesses have the opportunity to bring you in, get you tanked and then pitch you on the fabulous benefits of getting their incredible product automatically delivered right to your door? Trust me, every business on the planet would love to be able to do this.

And it works. Sadly, even on me.

Here’s how winery wine clubs work. You sign up (“It’s free!!”). Then, two, three, four times a year after that you get the thrill of receiving a credit card bill with an extra $50, $100 or even $400 on it. WTF!?!?! “Honey!! Have you been sneaking out to the casinos again? I thought we talked about your little ‘problem.’”

About the time you get out of the hospital, a huge box turns up on your doorstep full of bottles. Congratulations! You now have two or six or twelve new bottles of wine to drink!

Sounds great, right? Well, aside from the cardiac exercise that I get when the credit card bill unexpectedly arrives, I have some issues with wine clubs.

First of all, they don’t always give you the choice of wines that they ship you. You can imagine how thrilled I am to receive a half-case of chardonnay. “For this I paid $150?”

Second, it ain’t all great wine. For some reason, wines at the winery all seem to taste pretty darn good – especially by the time you get to the fourth or fifth winery. And even if you only sign up for wine clubs at wineries that are really good, nobody is great at every kind of wine. They might make a fantastic syrah but a crappy barbera. Guess which one they send you.

Third, they try to make you feel special. There’s the annual Wine Club Members Only barbecue. The annual Wine Club Members Only dinner and tasting. The annual Wine Club Members Only release party. The Wine Club Members Only special vintage (which of course, is not included in your quarterly shipment, and has to be purchased and paid for separately).

I get it already! I’m special! I’m especially broke from buying all this wine and making all these Members Only trips to some winery 100 miles away to hang out with other “special” people with whom the only thing I have in common is that we’re all especially stupid enough to join a wine club.

And when the Members Only dinner is over, we all hop on the short bus for the long ride home.

I’m not saying “do not join winery wine clubs, period.” I’m saying caveat emptor – let the buyer beware. If you’ve been out wine tasting all day, everything starts to taste pretty good. And after enough stops, your pliability and gullibility go up while your judgment goes down. Before you know it, you’re having cardiac moments with your credit card bill.

So stop and think. Do I really want to sign up for this? Is this wine that great?

P.S. Anyone want to take over a couple great wine club memberships? Fantastic wines! Great benefits! Anyone?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Chuck the Two-Buck Chuck?

Finally, the column you've been waiting for. After several months of anticipation, with the entire blogosphere rife with speculation as to when I would finally keep my promise, here it is: my review of the entire line of Charles Shaw fine wines, better known as “Two-Buck Chuck.”

Two-Buck Chuck, for the four of you out there who don't already know, is the house brand wine for Trader Joe's (that Mecca for middle-aged, middle-class pseudo-hippies looking for cheap natural foods).

Two-Buck Chuck is actually made by the Bronco Wine Company, which recently lost a lawsuit concerning their misleading use of the word “Napa” on wines not from Napa, but from Lodi (which is where most of your Chuck hails from). Bronco wines is a large and notable producer of lower end wines.

And nothing is lower end than Two-Buck Chuck. I mean really, $1.99 a bottle? You expect to pay 20-30 times that for a solid, but not top-of-the-line, Napa Valley Cabernet. The 2005 Chateau Latour is expected to debut at about 400 times the cost of a bottle of Charles Shaw.

Can this stuff even be drinkable? Or is it the greatest bargain in the world of wine?

Sadly, there's only one way to find out: Have a wine snob down the swill and report back to you. God forbid you should cough up two bucks and taste it yourself.

The only reason I subject myself to this sort of treatment is because I know that you get a sick and perverted pleasure from seeing a wine snob lower himself to your pitiful level and grovel in the common juice of non-pedigreed grapes. People like you love nothing more than seeing the mighty brought low. And what worse way to do it than to subject a highly trained and refined palate to the lowest of the low: the dreaded, the God-awful, the sewer-spawned Two-Buck Chuck. Damn you.

Charles Shaw 2005 California Sauvignon Blanc

Very light and grassy on the nose, typical of a good sauv. blanc, with hints of lemon peel and papaya. Yum. Light and refreshing on the tongue with citrus and herb notes. Overall, a bit like a non-sweet wine cooler. I'd drink this on a hot day without reservation. Hey, Chuckie-boy comes through with a wine that's actually non-toxic. I'm impressed! “Enjoyable.” 3 stars.

Charles Shaw 2005 California Chardonnay

Ugh. Chardonnay. Not my favorite. But this one comes off nice on the nose with strong hints of butter and cream with a touch of herbs thrown in. On the tongue it's very smooth, but light for a chardonnay (which I personally like). Not oaky at all, but very creamy. As a chardonnay hater, this is my favorite chardonnay of all time. “Drinkable+.” 2.75 stars.

Charles Shaw 2006 California Shiraz

2006? This thing is a baby. It should be illegal to drink this stuff. This is a very light wine. On the nose, this has some light fruit aromas, with a ton of vanilla smacking you around. On the tongue, very light and tart, no hint in sight of the typical shiraz blast of black fruit and black pepper. In a blind test, I would have guessed that this was a $10 Chianti. Not a “real” a shiraz – for shame. “Drinkable, but barely.” 2.25 stars.

Charles Shaw 2005 California Merlot

Smells like a dirt clod. No, a garden full of green peppers. And green beans. And unripe tomatoes. Maybe a couple of zucchini plants. Surprising and surprisingly attractive. On the tongue, not much fruit, but a nice complexity (for a $2 bottle of wine, anyway). A bit of a metallic taste on the finish, but that fades quickly. I actually liked this one a lot, but the unripe fruit flavors will only appeal to “old world” fans. Fruit-lovers stay away. “Yum (for me anyway)!” 3 stars.

Charles Shaw 2004 California Cabernet Sauvignon

Mmmmm…soap. At least, the first hit on the nose was definitely soapy, and we all know how good soap tastes. Also, a touch of dark fruit, a hint of vanilla, and a whiff of shoe polish. On the tongue, a strong hit of vanilla and oak (but not overpowering) and a bit of raspberry. Very tart and simple with mild tannins. Thankfully the soap smell doesn't carry over. Not impressive. Very light for a cabernet. “Non-toxic, but who cares.” 2 stars.

I'm amazed. None of these wines were the vile, dreadful, toxic sludge that I was expecting. And a couple of them were wines that I wouldn't mind actually drinking. So, drink up Charles Shaw fans, you could do a lot worse and pay a lot more!