I have a few fond memories from my youth that involved experimenting with the cheapest booze I could get my hands on, but the best one involves a wine few people would admit to drinking.
A student’s budget and a general ignorance when it came to alcohol meant I tasted more than my fair share of oddities and abominations of the alcoholic kind.
But the worst of them all came into my life when my brother emerged from a B.C. Liquor Store with a bottle of red fortified wine called Bounty, a truly awful concoction with an alcohol level of about 20 per cent.
It featured a dramatic, square-rigged sailing ship on the label and a tagline that, if memory serves, suggested its contents promised us “the exhilarating taste of adventure.”
This was the sort of wine that was often seen on the side of the train tracks where the local alcoholics hung out. In fact, the only reason my brother bought it was because he spotted an empty bottle of it next to the train tracks that day, just a few steps from the liquor store.
We should have known drinking this ungodly elixir was going to be difficult. In the end, it had to be cut with a high ratio of tonic water. Even then it was still a challenge.
You would think, then, the same can be said for all cheap wine, that all of it is impossible to drink and nothing good can come from being a tightwad. And in many cases, this holds true. But sometimes you come across surprises – even if, deep down, you were hoping not to.
If you don’t know of Charles Shaw, you might have heard of Two Buck Chuck. Yes?
I was sad to find out Two Buck Chuck would never be known by that name again. It was heartening to know there was a wine out there that could be bought for less than we pay in taxes alone on a bottle of wine in the U.K., which is £1.91 per bottle + 20 per cent VAT. (Annoyingly, even at its new price it is still cheaper than what we pay in taxes.)
In an absurd way, I am happy to say I got to try two of the last bottles (by last I mean among the last few million, no doubt) before the increase.
Being able to drink an entire bottle of wine for just $1.99 – or even the new price of $2.49 – is mind-boggling, although I know this isn’t unheard of in other parts of the world (I am reminded of a roadside sign in Castillon, France, advertising ‘rosé’ for €2 a litre).
The fact it tastes nothing like ethylene glycol or acetone is an achievement the Bronco Wine Company should be proud of.
Anyway, the two bottles of Two Buck Chuck (a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay) I recently acquired came to me by way of my friend Mel, a Los Angeles native who now lives in London. During his trip to the city of Angels over Christmas, he had the genius – and I mean genius in the best possible way – idea to buy them for me.
I always knew about this wine, but had never had a chance to drink it. It was featured on the California wine series hosted by Oz Clarke and James May, and my own father drank it when he was in California a couple of years back . From what I’d heard, it was perfectly drinkable and innocuous, albeit bland.
The cabernet sauvignon, however, was a quantity I’d not come across before, but based on my knowledge of volume wines, I figured wasn’t going to be completely putrid. Perhaps it would be awful, but certainly it wasn’t going to burn through my stomach lining and cause me internal bleeding or anything like that.
Now, let’s take a step back here a moment. Think back to my experience with that bottle of Bounty. Or think back to your own experience with a horrendous, cheap bottle of wine.
If your first memory is that of a gagging reflex, you are on the right track.
But much to my surprise, the Charles Shaw wines didn’t burn as they went down my throat. They didn’t have obscene, rough flavours. They weren’t overly sweet like a lot of cheap New World wine. They were they were simply neutral, dry as they should be and, overall, completely inoffensive.
The chardonnay wasn’t over-oaked or flabby like many a bad California version, which should earn it a medal for that achievement alone. Meanwhile, the cabernet sauvignon didn’t have that sweet edge you would expect from, say, a Yellowtail wine, and if left to breathe for a while, had typical if uninteresting cabernet aromas and flavours, and tasted like an honest, if not complex, wine of acceptable quality.
Let’s remember here, these bottles were just $1.99. What else can you buy for $1.99? Here in the U.K., it won’t even cover the taxes.