Friday, June 12, 2009

What’s with Two-Buck Chuck?

I shop a lot at Trader Joes, particularly in a recession when I try to maximize my food and wine purchases. Their most famous wine, of course, is Charles Shaw, better known as Two-Buck or Three-Buck Chuck, depending on which state you live in. At less than jug wines prices, they manage to turn out wines that satisfy many wine palates. A 2005 Charles Shaw Chardonnay even won best California Chardonnay at the 2007 California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition. What’s up with that?

Wine Economics 101

Getting a distributor to carry your wines exclusively, means you don’t need an advertizing budget. TJ buys it, and will advertize it to sell it if need be. At the prices the wine is sold, and with wine bargain hunters increasing daily, that probably isn’t necessary.

The raw product of wine making is the grapes. Buying grapes on the market and shopping for bargains, can reduce the costs of making wine. Alternately, if you own vineyards in the Central Valley of California, where acreage costs substantially less, and produce high volume grapes for bulk wine, the advantages of scale take hold.

Bronco Wine Company has some 35,000 acres up and down the Central Valley, adding 640 acres each year for use in about 50 different labels, including Charles Shaw. So now that you have the cheapest grapes, will this make the cheapest wine? If you streamline and automate the winemaking facilities, and maintain a high utilization rate, that is possible.

Wait a minute! Isn’t there an old saying, great wines can only come from great grapes? The corollary would be mediocre grapes make mediocre wine, wouldn’t it? In that case, the cheapest grapes better not be the worst grapes. For that you need someone well qualified to analyze each batch of grapes to insure the quality is reasonable. Then you need a wine maker that can perform magic with less-than-perfect grapes.

Charles Shaw Wines

Charles Shaw moved to Napa in 1974 with the intent to make French-styled Beaujolais, and, according to some accounts, succeeded. However, other varieties gained in popularity, and after his divorce in 1991, he sold the label to Bronco Wine Company. Once Trader Joes began marketing and selling it, the wine took off. Charles Shaw varietals include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Beaujolais, Merlot, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Many contend the “best Chardonnay” award is an aberration, possibly a special reserve crafted for the competition. While it wouldn’t be the first time that has happened it is undeniable that many wine drinkers love their Two-Buck wines and buy them by the caseload. I’d add that it is possibly the best wine value at that price point.

High volume wine provides great savings, but consistency from batch to batch usually suffers when you haven’t hand-picked the grapes, defined a style, and put quality control measurements at every stage of production. Many consumers have commented on the variability of lots of the same vintage at different stores.

I occasionally find a varietal that is drinkable during a vintage year, but most often I call Two-Buck Chuck “One-Note Chuck”, as there is little complexity on the palate or nose to generate interest, for me. The wine demands little and may even be crafted to be easy drinking. I don’t drink it, but I list many wines in that category, and for a lot more money. Besides, it’s not my wine palate you’re trying to please.

Nonetheless, you do get your money’s worth, which can’t be said of many wines. Considering the large base of enthusiasts, they must be doing something right. Charles Shaw wine has motivated many non-wine drinkers to try wine for the first time, and that may be its greatest value in the wine world. Salud!

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