We Conducted a Frugalista Wine Tasting: Is Cheap Wine All Really That Bad?

Bargain wine is not difficult to find. You can walk into many gas stations and convenience stores and leave with a $3 bottle of wine… or what is technically considered wine. But will you actually enjoy drinking it?

Just as we learned with our inexpensive beer tasting last month, you don’t need to sacrifice quality for price. Palatable wines at ultra-frugal price points do exist, but savings-savvy shoppers may find that finding these wines can be a bit of a crapshoot. Fortunately, we were up for navigating the minefield that is extreme budget wine.

wine-tastingInstead of going at it alone, we scoured the Internet for advice on drinkable wines that even the most frugal budget can afford. From there, our rules were simple: wines had to be less than $6 and available in major U.S. stores. Here is a chart to show the wine costs per bottle and type of wine we sampled:

chart_2 (3)
Our fearless tasting panel was made up of seven professionals in their 20s and 30s who were up for the daunting task of tasting 14 wines in one evening–for the record, we don’t recommend trying this at home. We sampled a mix of whites and reds, boxed and bottled. All of the wines were purchased at Walmart, Trader Joe’s, or Target. Wines were scored on a scale of 1 through 5, with 5 being a wine someone would buy regularly and 1 being a wine someone would never drink again (on purpose).

The results were somewhat surprising—the highest-rated wine received four 5s and wasn’t a top contender going into the tasting. The lowest-rated wine was one of the most expensive and had the advantage of strong brand recognition.We consider the experiment a success, and not just because we’re still feeling the effects of the tasting. Here are our results:

14. Target 2011 Chardonnay

Scored a 1.29 out of 5

Price per 1.5-liter wine cube: $11.99

Just because you enjoy Target and boxed wine doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy them together.

At $11.99 for 1.5 liters, or about 2 bottles of wine, this was one of the most expensive wines we tasted. Coming in dead last with a full point less than the next lowest-scored wine, it’s also the wine we’d all be least likely to drink again. Our testers found nothing redeeming about this full-bodied Chardonnay, which they described as too bitter and harsh.

We agreed this Chardonnay should be shelved next to cooking wine–because really, we don’t think you should consume this unless it will be heavily masked by food, which may not even be possible. Even then, we’re not sure that’s a great idea.


13. Franzia Chardonnay

Scored 2.29 out of 5

Price per 3-liter box: $11.97

After receiving scathing comments like “bitter water” and “not exactly blowing my skirt up” from our testers, it’s no surprise Franzia was awarded the second lowest score.

However, this wine did prove that sometimes your judgment depends heavily on your surroundings. In a less clinical environment, Franzia fared significantly better: the rest of the box was later polished off poolside with zero complaints.

Please note, at a full point higher than Target’s variety, Franzia is the clear winner in the battle of the boxed Chardonnays.


12. Blue Fin 2011 Pinot Noir

Scored 2.29 out of 5

Price per bottle: $3.99

Blue Fin is one of three wines we tested which are carried at Trader Joe’s. It’s often touted as a superior alternative to Trader Joe’s dollar-cheaper Charles Shaw brand, which–spoiler alert–ranks higher on our list. However, our panel threw popular opinion aside and concluded this wine stinks. Literally.

“Lunchables” and “cat urine” were both used to describe the aroma of Blue Fin–ouch! Things didn’t get much better after the first sniff, either. Testers complained this was too bitter for a Pinot Noir and had a strong aftertaste. Once they got past the odor, however, most of the Pinot Noir aficionados on our panel agreed they’d drink this if they were in a bind.


11. Barefoot Pinot Grigio

Scored 2.43 out of 5

Price per bottle: $5.97

As one of the most expensive wines on our list, we had higher hopes for this Pinot Grigio made by one of the more reputable budget wine brands, but our feelings for this wine could best be summed up with one word: indifference.

With a dry finish and a subtle flavor, this wine certainly goes down the hatch without issue–but it’s almost too subtle. Several of our testers described Barefoot as tasting like “nothing.”


10. Beringer 2011 Pinot Grigio

Scored 2.57 out of 5

Price per bottle: $4.97

As the second wine we tasted during the panel, Beringer gave us a wake up call to adjust our expectations. Really though, what can you expect from a $5 bottle of wine?

On the upside, it’s crisp and refreshing. On the downside, it smells like cheap vodka. In that sense, this wine is all about compromise. Also, while you might be able to stomach a few glasses, one tester warned to “beware of a bad wine headache” the next day.


9. Rex Goliath Cabernet Sauvignon

Scored 2.57 out of 5

Price per bottle: $5.97

Our judges were split on this medium-bodied wine. While it was too strong for some, its light fruit flavor and hints of oak pleased about half of the group.

Rex Goliath has a great reputation for drinkable yet extremely affordable reds. This one mostly lived up to that expectation, but it leaves something to be desired if you’re hoping for robust flavor. For a more typical Cabernet experience, we think you’ll be hard-pressed to find it in this price range.


8. Oak Leaf Sauvignon Blanc

Scored 2.71 out of 5

Price per bottle: $2.97

Good luck keeping a straight face when you tell your next dinner party, “This is Walmart’s house brand of wine.”  However, if you want to play a trick on a wine snob friend, this wine might be able to pull it off.

We were stunned by how drinkable this Sauvignon Blanc is for the price point. It’s dry and packs significant flavor compared to the mostly bland whites we tasted. And here’s some perspective savvy shoppers can appreciate: at a measly $2.97, an entire bottle of wine costs less than most single-serving items at Starbucks.


7. Charles Shaw 2011 Merlot

Scored 2.71 out of 5

Price per bottle: $2.99

If you’ve ever walked into a Trader Joe’s, you’ve no doubt seen case after case of their shockingly budget friendly Charles Shaw wine line. This brand has achieved a cult-like following, but we suspect a lot of it has to do with the novelty factor considering it ranked in the middle of the pack. One of our testers is normally a huge proponent of this wine, known among its fans as Two-Buck Chuck, but this same person complained that it tasted awful compared to the other wines we tasted.

All in all, if you have $3 to spare and won’t be running a taste test, we think this makes a decent drinking wine that would please those looking for a softer Merlot.


6. J.W. Morris 2012 Riesling

Scored 2.86 out of 5

Price per bottle: $4.99

Most of the panel agreed this inoffensive Riesling tastes more like juice than wine. One taster even likened it to organic apple juice, which in most cases would cost you more but without a buzz, but that isn’t to say that it’s bad.

As the highest scoring white wine in our test, this is a safe pick for anyone who enjoys mild Rieslings. Even our red wine fans found this wine to be just the right balance of sweet and subtle.

It’s worth noting this was the top-rated, and most expensive, wine from Trader Joe’s that we tested.


5. Target 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon

Scored 3.00 out of 5

Price per 1.5-liter wine cube (2 bottles worth of wine): $11.99

We’ll start off by mentioning this was the last wine we tasted–after 13 previous wines, our judges were probably more generous with their scores. However, we’re still confident you don’t need to do a full wine tasting in order to enjoy this one.

At first sniff, our testers were weary of the highest-rated boxed wine we sampled. In the end, we found it surprisingly smooth considering its somewhat off-putting aroma.

As with the other Cabernet Sauvignon on our list, this offering from Target fell short of the complexity you’d expect from this varietal. That being said, if you’re looking to have a simple Cab on hand and also want your supply to last a few weeks–a huge perk of boxed wines–this is a solid choice.


4. Lindeman’s Bin 99 Pinot Noir

Scored 3.43 out of 5

Price per bottle: $4.97

As far as Pinots go, the only Australian wine in our line up is a little rough and lacking distinction. For just under $5, we have to say it’s a great value.

Despite its slight bite along with some sharpness at the back of the throat, our testers found that this wine grew on them with each sip. The taste was agreeable, and this would make a good everyday Pinot. You’d definitely be hard pressed to find much better quality for this price… unless you pick up the Pinot we have further down the list.


3. Oak Leaf Cabernet Sauvignon

Scored 3.43 out of 5 Points

Price per bottle: $2.97

The section selection from Oak Leaf proved that our earlier success with Walmart’s house wine was not a fluke! There is no pretense here; this Cabernet is not trying to be anything that it’s not, and we liked it for that.

On the nose, the faint aroma gives no hint that is a wine that costs less than $3. As far as taste, most of the testers agreed, finding it tart and a bit acidic with mild tannins. Set your expectations low, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this one.

While it’s not exceptional, for the price it’s a heck of a value! We think it would benefit from a decanter or being left open for a bit before serving to allow the less desirable notes to air out.


2. Rex Goliath Pinot Noir

Scored 3.71 out of 5 Points

Price per bottle: $5.97

Very drinkable and better with each sip, this Pinot Noir lived up to the Rex Goliath hype! You could serve this to company without embarrassment.

Light berry flavors and some dryness make this a well-balanced wine that is easy to sip. As expected at this price point, the somewhat unpleasant aftertaste reminds you how much the wine costs. Still, we think this wine could get away with charging twice as much.


1. Lucky Duck Malbec – Winner!

Scored 4.57 out of 5 Points

Price per bottle: $3.97

The only Malbec we tasted was the biggest surprise for the panel as well as the overwhelming favorite. Another Walmart house brand, Lucky Duck was created as an “introductory wine” for beginning wine drinkers. Knowing this, we were all slightly ashamed we chose this as the winner. Once we got over the embarrassment, we finished the bottle.

So why did we love this Walmart brand so much? It’s certainly light for a Malbec, but has a silky finish and plum notes. Most of the panel agreed they would brave Walmart to buy this wine in the future.


Now what?

So you are probably thinking, okay, what if I can’t find that brand, or what if I don’t like Malbec, Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignons?  Don’t sweat it! The main take-away we feel this experiment brought to light is that you can’t judge a drinkable wine by its price tag! We’ve illustrated this in the chart below:

wine-chartThat just goes to show you really can’t judge a good wine by its label!  One assumption you can take away from our, ahem,“research” is that if its a brand name and has a low price, its probably not that great, and if it is a bargain brand and they have it by the gallon, it probably is not that great either! When comparing tastes vs. budget, modest brands, modest prices, and modest servings seemed to bring the better wine to the table.
So, what wonderful wine bargains have you found? 
  • http://www.reddit.com/r/Frugal/comments/yl7oe/frugal_wine_drinking/
  • http://www.masslive.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2012/11/wine_on_the_cheap_real_cheap.html
  • http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2012/05/best-white-wine-from-barefoot-cheap-wine-review-pinot-grigio-sauvignon-blanc.html
  • http://www.wine-tribune.com/blog/?p=582


5 thoughts on “We Conducted a Frugalista Wine Tasting: Is Cheap Wine All Really That Bad?

  1. I think this is a great idea however it would make more sense to list a ‘per liter’ price for easier comparison. Not that I’m stuck on ‘liters’. You could do a ‘per dixie cup’ cost, but liter is the measurement on the bottle (by law?). Also, it is important perhaps to note that, by your test, reds make a better choice at the bottom end than whites.

  2. Good read. I will say that two buck chuck is a gamble. Sometimes it’s amazing other times its nasty grape juice. They buy in mass quantities of leftover wines. I like the gamble

  3. I’ve been drinking Lucky Duck Malbec for a few years now. I started in Costa Rica and it wasn’t long before it showed up stateside and began to climb in price. Then I found it in Walmart. Bad news . . . Walmart in Central Fla is dropping this wine. Maybe it will show up elsewhere.

  4. I really like the Yellow Tail Big Bold Red for an all around dry red blend. I am not sure what is all in it but this is a good cheap wine. Also, for price per liter, the Black Box wine is good. It is box wine that doesn’t taste like cleaning chemicals. I tend to like dry reds so that is what i pick. All can be found at the most glamorous of wine stores…. Wal-Mart.

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