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Three-Buck Chuck Gets Some Competition

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Charles Shaw/Three Wishes

For years, Charles Shaw wines, infamously known as Trader Joe's "Three-Buck Chuck," have stood unopposed at the bottom of the price spectrum. Synonymous with cheap wine, the Charles Shaw brand is the standard bearer for all low-priced bottles of vino. And while everyone from soccer moms to fraternity brothers have walked away from Trader Joe's with a $36 case of Three-Buck Chuck in hand, marveling at the deal they scored, a worthy challenger to its economical empire has now appeared: Whole Foods' Three Wishes wines.

First appearing in stores in October of last year, Three Wishes is Whole Foods' answer to Three-Buck Chuck, right down to the $2.99 price point ($1.99 in California). And while no one expects to be blown away by wine that costs less than a pouch of beef jerky, they also don’t want to get home and open up a bottle of disappointment. So which one would make for a better night in with a pizza and Netflix? We aimed to find out in a head to head battle pitting both brands' Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon offerings in a fight to the finish. May the best of the cheapest win.

Chardonnay – Both Three Wishes and Charles Shaw look like beautiful wines while sitting in the glass, glowing a luminous straw gold. Unfortunately, neither exhibits the oaky and buttery flavors of a typical Chardonnay. For those who don't particularly enjoy that varietal, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Both are easy-drinking in a way that Chardonnay almost never is and the Three-Buck Chuck comes across with some nice grapefruit flavors and slightly grassy, almost Viognier-style characteristics. Three Wishes, however, is somewhat watery and weak, with an off-putting metallic tang that makes it tough to pair with pretty much anything, but would be great for any fans of wines that can be described as gravelly. Winner: Three-Buck Chuck

Cabernet Sauvignon – Neither bottle bore any particular resemblance to the rich oaky wines that people typically associate with Cabernet. Both had a much lighter body and none of the deep ruby red color of a bold Cabernet Sauvignon, and would be a big disappointment for anyone looking for a big wine to go with a steak or other hefty chunk of meat. The Charles Shaw had some jammy fruit flavors and a touch of the mouth-puckering tannins a typical Cab would get from barrel aging, making it a decent pizza wine. The Three Wishes bottle was similarly light bodied, but featured an odor one taster described as “feet.” There are some tasty fruit and leather notes, but those dissipate on the palate quickly, leaving a mildew-like aftertaste. After the last glass was poured, one panelist noted “There isn't enough chocolate in the world to make this good.” Winner: Three-Buck Chuck

Merlot – The quintessential takeout wine that matches well with the four food groups of delivery: Chinese, pizza, BBQ and buffalo wings, merlot is usually fruit-forward with medium body. Three-Buck Chuck sticks relatively close to the crowd-pleasing formula that made Merlot one of the country's top-selling varietals and the target of Paul Giamatti's disdain in “Sideways.” It's easy drinking, with a somewhat musty undertone that comes close to being unpleasant, but doesn't quite make it there. The Three Wishes, however, is something of an odd duck. It's tangy, with a heavy alcohol aroma and a touch of raspberry and heavier tannins than is typical for a Merlot. With little body to stand up to those tannins, the balance is a bit off. Paired with a slight funky aftertaste, it's not unpleasant, but it doesn't quite hang together. Winner: Three-Buck Chuck

The Decision: Whether you call it a sweep or a TKO, the bottom line is that Three Wishes is a decent deal but Charles Shaw, the wily veteran, comes out on top. There are certainly better wines out there, but not for three bucks.