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Food & Drink

Cheap Wine Challenge

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If White Castle can bill itself as a romantic destination for Valentine's Day, then anything should be possible - even finding a decent bottle of wine for the price of a sack of sliders.

Not too long ago, wine was a luxury item. Picking one was a mystifying process, and a good bottle was tough to find for less than $15. Now merlot is as common as Welch's Grape Juice, and the $10 to $20 price point is packed with so many ridiculously good choices that it's actually more surprising to find something lousy than to hit on a crowd-pleaser. But what if even $10 is too much? What's a boy with lofty romantic aspirations but a virtually empty wallet to do this Valentine's Day? Can there truly be bliss beneath the $10 mark?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes...but with a few caveats.

As with most products, driving down wine prices to fire sale levels generally requires volume. Wineries try to make up for the low prices with sheer number of cases sold. And because so much wine is being produced, often those producers can't or don't take as much care in production - delivering what may be a solid product, but one that doesn't have quite the same character or soul as a wine made in a smaller batches and given more time and attention from a master vintner. On the other hand, in some cases you just end up with mind-bogglingly lousy wine.

We tasted some uber-cheap wines that can be easily found on shelves throughout the country to find out what category they fit in. The answers can be found below:

Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc - The first of two “Three buck Chucks” in the tasting, this is a Sauvignon Blanc cranked to 11, and not always in a good way. Charles Shaw wines are found only at the Trader Joe's grocery store chain and they are the standard bearer of the cheap wine movement. This particular bottle of white is incredibly crisp, acidic and, for lack of a better term, “green.” It tastes unripe, almost as if it was bottled before its time. That said, the wine's acidic tang make it a decent picnic wine if paired with strongly flavored food. BBQ or fried chicken would be solid choices. You could do a lot worse for three bucks.

Charles Shaw Shiraz - Smelling strongly of rose, the second Charles Shaw bottle pours a deep plum in the glass. Tasting of licorice and raisins, with jam flavors coming out more strongly as you drink, the wine has a slightly bitter medicinal aftertaste and a mouth-puckering tannin level. An acceptable wine to have hanging around the house to pop open for a movie, and a great value at $3, but definitely not the nectar of the gods Trader Joe's fans make it out to be.

Gazela Vinho Verde - Vinho Verde is a Portuguese style of wine that gained a serious following in the last few years. Named “green” for its youth rather than its color, it's a wine that's meant to be drunk within a year of being bottled. And at $4, Gazela is a solid example of the type. A pale golden straw color in the glass, ginger, grass and orange juice flavors dominate every sip. It's lightly fizzy and should definitely be chilled in order to mask the distinctly noticeable funk that hits on the swallow. Sort of the John Mayer of wines – it’s kind of offensive, but for some strange reason people still like it.

Yellowtail Shiraz-Grenache - One of the most common wine brands in the country, this blend can be found for as little as $5, and pours a dark purple. Reeking of raisins and pepper, and offering only a hint of oaky tannins, this is an extremely easy-drinking fruit-forward wine. The slightly leathery aftertaste is quickly washed away by its gentle alcoholic warmth. At this price, you couldn't ask for a better wine to share over pizza - first date wine at its finest.

Barefoot Wines Merlot - Generally available for $6, Barefoot Wines makes non-vintage wine, blending it for a consistent flavor in each bottle. The result is a merlot with tons of plummy sweetness, blackberry flavors, and soft tannins, but little of anything that could be called interesting or exceptional. Of course, sometimes you don't want interesting or exceptional. Sometimes you're looking for reliably enjoyable. So while Barefoot Wines probably didn't set out to deliver the “Happy Gilmore” of wines, it's not such a bad thing it did.

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