I just cracked open a bottle from my case of Charles Shaw 03 Merlot and am here to tell you that it's *ready*, baby!
The wine is mild, with a nice fruit. There's a hint of green to it, which I don't like, but it's very drinkable. If you put away a case of this cheap stuff back then, now's the time to break it out -- and I'm guessing from how it's tasting now that it won't last much longer.
Background: Like many of you, I've tipped a few glasses of the notorious $2 Buck Chuck (it's even made it into Wikipedia), a line of wines that sell at the Trader Joe's grocery chain for $1.99 the bottle -- and at $24 the case (12 bottles) that's one tempting opportunity.
The brand became famous (and even infamous, as this entry in Snopes.com's Urban Legends page testifies) for its initial run of cheap but very tasty Chardonnays. They quickly followed with Cabs and Merlots, same price. They weren't bad -- certainly they didn't taste like wines retailing for under two dollars. They tasted like $10 wines, or $20 wines, or even $30 wines, depending on which case you bought in which month.
Which, it turns out, was the trick. The source of this cheap wine was leftovers from growers and vintners and winemakers who were stuck with excess supply back in the 2002 period. Rather than dump it, they sold it to this firm for literally pennies on the dollar.
So the basic wine/grapes/juice was decent stuff -- rumor had it that some of it was very decent indeed -- supposedly some juice that had been going into $30 bottles was fire-saled off to this company.
At $2 a bottle retail, they couldn't have been paying much for the wine, that's for sure. It's hard to sell empty bottles at that price and make a profit.
So a visit to Trader Joe's could turn up a darn good bottle of wine for a ridiculous price. Problem is, there hasn't been much consistency from batch to batch, because the company was picking up its wine from whereever it could get it. The source varied from month to month -- or from one week's shipment to Trader Joe's to the next week's shipment. That's why the Charles Shaw bottles are always so vague about the wine: "California Merlot" isn't very specific; it could be Napa one week, Sonoma another, Lodi the following week.
That's not a bad thing -- the wines might be decent in each case -- but it has made it hard to get a case of what you especially like. You buy a bottle, a few weeks later you open and taste it -- bingo! it's great! You rush back to Trader Joe's to buy a case for $24, you open the next bottle and -- it's not as tasty as you expected. Different juice, that's why.
So the Trader Joe Shuffle ensues: Buy a test bottle one day, drink it *that same night!*, and if you like it, go back to Trader Joe's the next morning -- EARLY! -- and buy the case -- while it's still the same wine! and before the next shipment arrives!
The case of Charles Shaw 03 Merlot I bought a couple of years ago turned out to be a bit on the harsh side, so I left it under the house for a while. Last year I tried a bottle and it was still too tangy to suit me. But a couple of evenings ago I opened another bottle -- and Lo! it had mellowed!
This is a reasonably mouth-filling wine with nice fruit, easy to drink with a meal or just while watching TV. So if you got a case of this particular item Back When, or know somebody who did -- OPEN IT NOW!