Wednesday, January 30, 2013

For Big Game, Table Bordeaux for Charles Shaw

Trying to find Three Buck Chuck? Ask Trader Joe’s for Charles Shaw. Photo from Trader Joe's.


face it: For any house party featuring sporting events, dips, chips, and assorted other foods rule the day. Next comes beer, and bringing up the lonely third place is wine, just barely above sodas.

Break out the vintage Bordeaux while people gawk over the last throw, kick or hit? I think not. What's the point? The point is to watch the game, and not to wax philosophically about the sophisticated bursts of exotic tropical fruits or nightshade-hued tobacco titillating the palate. Who cares? In the middle of a hot contest, food and drink that’s too good is merely a distraction.

Think of game day, and especially the Super Bowl, as having a non-compete clause with food, beer or wine. Sports will win, hands down.

What to do? Save money, protect the fragile wine ego, and go with a completely respectable table wine. Not plonk – never plonk, not even for marinating – but definitely table wine.

Table Wine: A Short History
Yes, ancient Romans drank wine by the shipful. Yes, the French practically drowned themselves in it. Yes, Thomas Jefferson made it his mission to popularize wine in the USA, but for most of history, as in millennia, wine was simply awful.

Why else would ancient Greeks dissolve pine sap in their wine, the precursor to Restina? Do you really think rosin tastes that great? No! Wines were gross, and something close to turpentine made them taste better. Other cultures tried ash, mercury, ground insects – yes, these people were desperate. And while it is true that not all wines were bad, the ones that were stored for ages often boasted a ridiculously high sugar content and needed to be cut with water. That’s what’s meant by all those mixing bowls in Homer’s “Odyssey.”

Only within the last 200 years have winemaking techniques improved en masse, increasing both quality and quantity. Long, long ago in a country far, far away, some may have preferred papa's bathtub brew, but why settle for that when Joe-joe's family farm down the road makes a perfectly drinkable bottle for a scant few coins, without having to turn the feet blue (literally and figuratively) stomping on all those cold grapes?

What grape goes best with game day? An uncomplicated table wine. Photo by Aaron Schwab.

In short, winemaking got outsourced from an in-home experiment to a larger cottage industry. Bit by bit producers began to notice what works and what doesn’t, what makes great grapes and what hinders them, how to store them to reduce oxidation (the death of many a good wine, ancient and modern), and how to market such wines to village stores a few towns over. Producers of good table wines became a local treasure, establishing vineyards and wineries that have begun to stand the test of time.

Still skeptical? Hop a flight to France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, wherever. Go to the neighborhood outdoor café, order some cheese, salad, and a hunk of bread, and ask for the regular house wine. Better still, save yourself a few shekels and poll well-traveled friends to see if they’ve ever had a truly bad table wine experience. Then write me. I’ll eat my hat if the results show a rate greater than 25 percent. I’ll buy one especially for the occasion: small, slight brim, no straw.

In Praise of Table Wines
Sometimes basic table wines are absolutely perfect for the occasion at hand: informal get-togethers, a casual glass of wine for no reason at all, something to have around the house for day-to-day fare, perfect for when the focal point is other than food. Trying to impress the boss? Skip this. Getting together with “the guyz” of either gender? Totally fine. Store this wine? Never! Table wines are meant to be drunk soon and not savored for years to come. Buy a case only if the party will be a big one, else the wine will turn to plonk by the end of the year.

Nachos are a game day favorite that wash down well with table wine. Photo by Shyle Zacharias.

Caveat Emptor
All that being said, avoid running out and buying everything that says “Table Wine” on the label. Some of that stuff really is plonk. To steer clear of the bad wine minefield, let me offer two suggestions:

1. Ask a sales clerk. Almost every wine store carries one or two inexpensive labels that tend to sell well. Simply make sure to ask for a good quality table wine.
2. Go to a Trader Joe’s wine department and find Chuck.

Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw
Sometime in the past few years, a certain wine producer increased its price by 50 percent, despite the fact that the old price comprised part of its nickname: Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck now sells for $3. What happened? Did the Trade Joe’s executives look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth? Yes – and they got away with it, too. No one’s complaining. No harm, no foul, and the wine sells as well as it ever has.

Why would people tolerate such a radical change in price? Because Three Buck Chuck is a perfectly fine table wine: uncomplicated, solid, easy-to-drink, and nothing to task the mind. Of the various Charles Shaw wines at Trader Joe's, try:

In ancient times, the beauty of the mixing bowl cloaked the plonkishness of the wine. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum.

Red wine tinged with sweetness and lots of fruits (jammy, fruit forward)

Cabernet Sauvignon
Red wine a little less sweet (dry) than the Merlot

White wine, nice, light and fruity instead of heavy (no oak)

All go well with chips&dips, and even solo. Visit to find a Trader Joe’s.

Word to the wise:
If beer and wine are on the menu, make sure to have pitchers of water nearby. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, even if they insist on rooting for the wrong team.


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