From the truly sublime to the totally ridiculous
September 18, 2007
Last week in this column I tried to justify the cost of a $450 bottle of 2005 Harlan Estate, a wine so sublime that children have actually been named after it. My arguments were based on the care and cost that goes into making the wines, coupled with the demand and investment potential for them.This week we go to the other end of the spectrum and examine the justification for the purchase and consumption of wines marketed under the Charles Shaw label, better known as “Two Buck Chuck.”For those not familiar with the phenomenon, Bronco Wine is a company run by Fred Franzia, a distant relative of the Gallo wine family, based in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Sensing opportunity around the turn of this century to cash in on the glut of wine grapes being grown in the area, Bronco purchased tons of grapes at rock bottom prices. Earlier, according to published news reports, he had bought, in a sale precipitated by a nasty divorce, the rights to the name Charles Shaw from an established winery in the Napa Valley for around $18,000.Combining the two, Bronco made a deal to produce a mass-market brand under the Charles Shaw name and sell it exclusively at the cult supermarket, Trader Joe’s. The rest is marketing history. Dubbed “Two-Buck Chuck” by the wine media in California, where it debuted at a $1.99 a bottle, the price sent a message, and the concept of a bottled wine that bucked the established “high priced” wines resonated with consumers.The brand has gone on to become a smash, and Bronco Wine, which has more than 30 labels, has become the fourth largest wine producer in America with sales topping $200 million annually. Today, in addition to a chardonnay, Bronco makes and markets, under the Shaw label, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio, with other varietals in the works.But is the “Two Buck Chuck” any good? Yes, according to judges at this year’s California State Fair, who gave the 2005 Charles Shaw California Chardonnay a double-gold and 98 points in naming it the best value wine in the competition. And there are those, not just in California but nationally, who swear by it and even pay the higher prices that Trader Joe’s charges in states as far away as Michigan and Massachusetts where, due to wine regulations and shipping, it takes nearly four bucks to get a bottle of the “Chuck.”So, can I justify the purchase?In anything, value lies in the eye of he beholder. For some, the opportunity to lay down eight quarters and walk away with a wine that has a cork is a good thing. But Bronco Wine in general and Charles Shaw in particular have demonstrated complete disdain for the art and passion that goes into making wine. Their concept has little to do with producing a quality product, rather it is all about “making it up on volume.” A recent Business 2.0 article on Fred Franzia quotes him as saying, “Terroir don’t mean s–t,” and “We can grow grapes on asphalt.” Maybe he can. I just don’t want to drink them. In addition, Franzia and Bronco have a checkered past, with convictions for misrepresenting their products. They also have been long embroiled in legal wrangling with Napa Valley vintners about their use of the Napa name on bottles that have nary a trace of Napa grapes.I have said before that the purchase of a wine is one fraught with emotion. The quest by wealthy collectors and connoisseurs to spend $450 for the Harlan Estate is often an ego-laden one. Conversely, my feeling is that if I can find both better value and quality for just a few dollars more than the Charles Shaw wines cost, I would be willing to spend that premium to avoid doing business with a company who demeans the industry in pursuit of profits.That’s not to say that there are not good wines well worth the price that sell for a little bit of money. The $10 price point is about where wines with distinction and character begin to show. But even at $6 and $7, it is possible to find wines that have been made with care. Look for wines from South Africa, New Zealand and Chile, New World wine-making regions that have evolved greatly over the last five to 10 years. Drinking cheap can be a good thing. But paying $2 for a bottle of Chuck makes less sense to me than buying a bottle of Harlan Estate for $450.But that’s just me.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.