Two Buck Chuck is perfectly drinkable. No, seriously. If you like the taste of it and you don’t mind being giggled at every now and again, bottoms up! Keep in mind, though, that it’s inexpensive because it’s mass produced in a factory (as well as the fact that they’ve figured out some clever engineering on the bottle weight, thus saving shipping costs). The goal for Charles Shaw is to churn out truckloads of cheap wine, not to craft anything sophisticated. Charles Shaw is the Pabst Blue Ribbon of wines.
Most people have no freaking idea how to tell the difference between prestigious expensive wine and a ten dollar bottle from the grocery store. That’s just fine. Most people also can’t hear the difference between a song played on a streaming music service like Pandora and a song played from an actual CD or from vinyl on a good turntable. If you are like most people, you may appreciate when a friend plays A Night at the Opera or Blonde on Blonde on a Linn LP 12, but you’re otherwise fine with your smart phone and a Bluetooth speaker.
Ain’t metaphors grand?
The key to enjoying wine, of course, is to figure out what you like and stick with that. Simple, right? Like anything else, you generally get what you pay for; if you’re spending in the teens, you should be alright, or if you can swing twenty bucks, go for it. For taste it’s trial and error, something you could’ve figured out on your own without reading this article, but you’re already reading so finish, dammit!
Where to start? The first thing is to know your varietals. If you don’t want sweet wine, you’re probably not going to like Chardonnay no matter the label and you’re definitely going to hate Alsace Gewürztraminer. If you don’t like the taste of black cherries or plums, you won’t be drinking any effing Merlot. Generally, white wines go with light meats like chicken and fish, red wines go with darker meats like steak. Vegetarians, feel free to figure out what works for you.
The list below should help you get started. By the way, the assumption here is if you’re reading this, you’re likely somewhere in the North American continent, so we’ll skip over varietals like Albariño and Ugni Blanc because you won’t be finding those at Safeway. If you’re in Europe, you probably already know plenty about wine and if you’re in Australia don’t try to impress anyone with Yellow Tail.
- Asti Spumante – A sparkly white similar to Champagne or Prosecco, but sweeter. Oh, and those other two get bubbly due to a second fermentation, Asti is bubbly ’cause they put carbon dioxide in it, like soda pop. The most common brand is Martini and Rossi. If you’re hanging around anyone snooty, get a less common brand, or better yet, get Prosecco.
- Cabernet Franc – A red similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but not as heavy. It’s found all around Europe, but if you’re spending fifteen bucks, you’re likely getting something from Napa or Sonoma in California. In that case, it’s been described as having flavors of olives and brewed coffee… by crazy people, apparently. Forget the olives, it more like eating berries after an espresso shot. Have this with dark meats (or a shiitake if you’re herbivorous) or foods with a peppery flavor.
- Cabernet Sauvignon – A red similar to Cabernet Franc (well how ’bout that?). If the tastes of things like black cherries, plums, and anise get you excited this is the wine for you. The crazy people mention olives again for this one, as well as tobacco. Actually, this one would pair well with a cigar, like that Dominican Robusto you got for three bucks, or you can have it with beef (it’s what’s for dinner).
- Champagne – You know this one, right? …Right? Champagne gets its name from having met a snooty list of criteria and its geography. Supposedly it comes only from certain areas in France, but you’ll find bubbly wines labeled “Champagne” from California that taste pretty much the same. Of course this pisses off the purists. Flavors can vary wildly, probably more than any other type of wine, and there are even red Champagnes. The main thing to know is the sweetness of each type, which in ascending sugary order are Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-sec, and Doux. Most people go for Brut.
- Chardonnay – A white wine that’s kind of fruity and a little sweet, not to be confused with Shardonae, that barista at Starbucks who’s kind of obnoxious. It gets described as “buttery” a lot, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Serve this with fish or chicken, unless you want something less sweet, in which case you should go for Sauvignon Blanc.
- Merlot – Forget what Paul Giamatti said, he was playing an asshole in that movie. Merlot is a red that’s a bit easier to drink that Cabernet. It’s also very common, especially in California. It’s been described as having flavors of herbs, cherry, chocolate, and… WHAT? Goddamned olives again? Merlot goes great with red meat or pasta.
- Pinot Noir – Another wine who’s popularity was influenced by good ol’ Giamatti. America started drinking more Pinot Noir ’cause a frikkin’ movie character said it was good. Actually, Pinot Noir sales were more greatly affected than sales of Merlot (Merlot didn’t languish, it just saw slower growth). This one gets described as having berry and cherry flavors with sometimes a hint of mushroom or barns and dry leaves (what the..?). Basically, if you like the taste of grapes or jams and the like, go for this one. Plus it’s kind of a crossover in that it’s a red that doesn’t make people roll their eyes if you pair it with poultry.
- Prosecco – Generally known as Champagne’s cheap Italian cousin. While it’s very similar (most people can’t really tell the difference), they’re made from different grapes. Champagne is usually made from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir grapes, while Prosecco is made from Prosecco grapes. Be warned, though, that your wine snob friends will tell you the grape’s name was recently changed to “Glera” to designate a geographical region for the same snobby reasons the French are so protective of the name “Champagne”. It goes well with poultry, mushrooms, or salmon. You of course could also christen a ship with it or make a pretty decent mimosa.
- Riesling – Look for “Australia” on the label for the dryer version of this varietal. Not “Austria”, that’s too dry. Dry means “less sweet”. Apples, apricots, and pears are fruits you’ll hear mentioned as people bury their noses in a glass of this white. It’s lighter than Chardonnay, and far less annoying than Shardonae, who does not go as well with a duck. It also compliments spicy foods like Thai cuisine because it balances out the flavors without washing them down with sugar.
- Rosé – Drink up, girls! It’s great by the poolside on a hot day! Oh yeah, and apparently it’s fine for guys to drink this now too. Drink up, guys. Never mind that it’s the most popular wine with teenagers and Kanye West, you won’t look like a total douche at all. It goes great with quiche. Alright… alright… all kidding aside, a nicely chilled quality Rosé on a summer day can be respectfully refreshing. Also, some minivans are great to drive and The Devil Wears Prada is a clever movie.
- Shiraz/Syrah – Basically these reds are made from the same grapes, Shiraz being from Australia and Africa and Syrah from France. In California many wineries use the “Shiraz” label to designate the more approachable batches made with younger grapes. This spicy, dark-fruity wine goes well with stuff you cook on the grill or with a gourmet pepperoni pizza. Hell, it’d probably go OK with that frozen pizza you got at Trader Joe’s too.
- White Zinfandel – Don’t. Just don’t. If the only wine you like is White Zinfandel, you don’t like wine. Have a passionfruit iced tea and be the designated driver.
- Zinfandel – Light and fruity, with raspberry and spice aromas, this wine is often described by sommeliers as having hints of old leather, soil, and tar (What the hell is wrong with those people, anyway?). By the way, you pronounce sommelier “sah-mull-yay”, so you don’t look like an ass trying to say it. Zinfandel is the most commonly grown grape in California, although most of it is cursed to a fate of being squandered by White Zinfandel producers. The non-white Zinfandel goes really well with stinky cheese. It also goes well with Cajun and Mexican cuisines (real Mexican, not that stuff you picked up at Chevy’s).
Keep in mind that this is meant as a guideline. If you show this article to your wine snob friends, they’re likely to find a hundred ways to tear it apart, and there aren’t even a hundred points made here. The main point is, using this as a taste-finding guide, you should be able to spend twenty bucks or less and have a decent beverage. Who spends hundreds of dollars on a goddamned bottle of wine? No you. After all, you’re reading this. Also remember that nothing pairs well with green beans or asparagus, because green beans and asparagus suck.
If you have friends who are of more sophisticated taste (or think they are), and you want to impress them with a bottle of wine as a gift, the key is to find out what they like and go with that. Don’t try to guess, even if you are of more sophisticated taste (or think you are) you’re likely to get it wrong. Of course the real key is to just put some care and thought into your gift and not worry about impressing anyone, but that’s another matter altogether.
Vinyard and Prosecco images by Legion of Weirdos / Christopher Mast
Fat guy with cigarette and wine image via Fotosmurf / 123RF Stock Photo
Thumbnail image (wine and cheese) via belchonock / 123RF Stock Photo