Cheap wine: $4 and under
Joshua M. Bernstein

In recent years, the legend of Trader Joe's wine has spread, myth-like, from West Coast to East.

Two dollars. For wine! my Seattle friends breathlessly informed me. It's called Charles ShawTwo-Buck Chuck.

What about the hangover? I'd ask.

The usualtwo Tylenol, and a glass of water.

Sweet inebriation! Was this boast too good to be true? On April 10, the answer was revealed at Trader Joe's long-awaitedand line-freeUnion Square wine outpost. On opening day I cruised the bright, spacious aisles, savoring pastel murals of wine drinkers quipping, Our wine is rich, but you don't have to be. In short order, my cart bulged with a dozen selections, none more than $4. My gluttony was joined by a man wearing a crisp suit, who stacked his cart with five cases of Two-Buck Chuck (NYC price: three dollars).

I guess you're going to keep us in business, a grinning employee joked.

Others were hardly impressed. Two primly dressed old women examined a bottle of Charles Shaw chardonnay. When I was growing up, wine was $.15 a bottle, one said, disdainfully staring at the $2.99 price tag. It was $.50 for a special occasion.

I had zero complaints; my twelve-wine total was $43.23. It set the stage for the ensuing evening's bad idea: The Trader's Joe's Cheap-Wine Bacchanal. I invited a dozen friendsone per bottleand instructed them to bring food fit for low-rent wine. Namely, tuna celery boats, Peeps, spray cheese, gritty crackers and pigs in the blanket. They arrived at cocktail o'clock, and we set to an unscientific, hardly comprehensive tasting.

Our sampling started with Charles Shaw. The chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot (all $2.99) were liberally poured and drunk with great, teeth-staining expectation.

Look out, Napa, there's a new varietal in town, one panelist said, sipping the cabernet. It was eminently drinkable, which is perhaps the finest compliment: It won't make you gag.

Excellent legs, with hints of pear and apricot make this wine a well-rounded must, was another panelist's take on the chardonnay.

Merlot, on the other hand, received little love. Poop! went the chorus. Moving on, we uncorked Il Valore's Primitivo ($3.99), an Italian Zinfandel. The consensus? Sucks. Sucks bad. Like it was fermented with dirt.

The Chilean Collection merlot and merlot carmenere (both $3.99) received equally pitiful marks. I feel like I'm drinking a dusty spider web, said one panelist, who gagged after a taste.

We had high hopes for the Argentinean La Boca malbec ($3.99)its bottle was colorful. But the judgment was dirty, dirty, with spiciness like the cheap red pepper at a pizza place.

It was horrible but hardly as evil as the Bull's Blood, aka Hungary's Egri Bikaver ($3.99). Dark red, with a peppery, wet-skunk finish, the Bull's Blood smells like the crabapple tree in grandma's backyard, one panelist offered. Others were less charitable. Real bull's blood is probably nicer. This is like bull's blood boiled with piss and vinegar.

I was worried. Where were the fine cheap wines for which Trader Joe's was so well-known? They would arrive in the French Market cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc (both $3.99).

This is OKjust OK, one drinker said, shrugging his shoulders as he sipped the cabernet. After the recent comments, this seemed like gold-star approval.

The sauvignon is juicy, like a well-hung Turk, said a female panelist, who recently bedded a well-hung Turk.

All right. Now we were getting somewhere: drunk. By now we'd polished off ten bottles. Our teeth were as purple as Barney. But we were on a mission. After several squirts of spray cheese, we entered the homestretch.

The evening's surprise was Portugal's sparkling-white Espiral ($3.99). I was uncertain if bubbles would be a big hit, but one sip of the soft, subtle effervescence was enough to convert a soda- and carbonation-hating panelist. For the first time, I love sparklings, he said, draining his silver cup. May I have another?

Of course he could. Others were too busy arguing about the evening's last offering: Purple Moon merlot ($3.99).

It's like being smothered with velvetin a bad way.

It reminds me of walking past those guys selling really pungent street incense.

My mom would think this was the best wine on the bottom shelf!

That it was. The Purple Moon was fruity and rich, complex in only the way a four-dollar wine can be complex, which is, to say, it wasn't.

Trader Joe's Wine Store

138 E. 14th St. (betw. Irving Pl. & 3rd Ave.)