Tag Archives: Two-buck Chuck

The Five Day, $3 Wine Challenge

$3 wineThe Wine Curmudgeon talks a good game when it comes to cheap wine, but does he follow through? This question, always important, is even more critical with the upcoming publication of The Cheap Wine Book (just a couple of weeks away). Hypocrisy has no place in what I ?m trying to do.

Hence The Five Days of $3 Wine Challenge, which starts tonight and runs through this week. Each night, I ?ll drink a $3 wine with dinner and attempt to answer the question: Can a wine drinker live on really cheap wine? Are the claims made by producers like Fred Franzia and the various anti-critics true, that most of us can ?t tell the difference and that it doesn ?t matter if we can?

No one supports cheap wine more than I do. But being cheap isn ?t enough ? quality matters, and my experience over the past decade of drinking very cheap wine is that the quality of these wines is often lacking. So we ?ll put that to the test this week with these five wines, all chardonnays and all purchased in Dallas:

? Two-buck Chuck ($2.99), the Trader Joe ?s private label that was the first and remains the most famous of the very cheap wines. It ?s a California wine from the 2012 vintage.

? Three Wishes ($2.99), the Whole Foods private label. It carries an American appellation, which means it ?s non-vintage and at least three-quarters of the grapes used to make it were grown in the U.S.

? Winking Owl ($2.89) from Aldi but that may be available elsewhere. Also American and non-vintage.

? Cul-de-Sac ($2.96), a private label for Central Market, the high-end chain owned by Texas ? H-E-B, one of the largest privately held companies in the country. Also American and non-vintage.

? Oak Leaf ($2.97), the Walmart private label. Also American and non-vintage.

Why chardonnay? To give the wines the benefit of the doubt, since chardonnay is the easiest cheap wine to make well. And I won ?t pair the wines with anything that would show them up ? no cream sauces or haute French cuisine.

I ?ll post the results of the challenge next Monday, but you can keep up with the day-to-day action by following me on Twitter or checking out the Wine Curmudgeon Facebook page.

Each wine uses the same kind of bottle ? light and without a punt (the hollow in the bottle ?s bottom). And all but the Two-buck Chuck have the same foil and foil design, which isn ?t surprising since each is apparently made by The Wine Group, one of the Big Six and whose brands include Cupcake.

The Two-buck Chuck gold medal fallout

The Two-buck Chuck gold medal falloutTwo-Buck Chuck, the most notorious cheap wine of all, won three gold medals at a California wine competition last week, and the cyber-ether went wild. One member of the Winestream Media tweeted that the result proved that state fair wine competitions were worthless. Another left a comment on a blog, which had defended the medals, taking exception and implying that the competition had been rigged. And then there was this from a winemaker: ?Makes one wonder what the ?experts ? are drinking or smoking. ?

All of which demonstrated the Wine Curmudgeon ?s favorite adage about wine: That people who claim to be experts don ?t have to taste a wine to know that it isn ?t any good. More, after the jump:

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Private label wines, value, and quality

We ?re in the middle of a tremendous price war in Dallas, where retailers are selling some wines more or less at cost. Segura Viudas, one of my favorite cavas, is $6 ? about half of what it cost here a year ago (and about what it costs in Spain).

Yet the retailers don ?t seem especially concerned that they ?re giving away wine. Items like Segura Viudas are loss leaders to get customers into the store; once they ?re in, they can switch them to brands with better margins ? and, increasingly, these brands are private labels. In fact, private and store label wines, which are sold exclusively at one retailer, are perhaps the most important development on the retail side of the business over the past couple of years.

Some retailers, like Trader Joe ?s and Total Wine and More, focus almost exclusively on private label, but national grocery stores and regional chains are doing them as well, tucked onto the shelf next to the Kendall-Jackson, Yellow Tail, and Barefoot.

The question, then, is whether these private labels offer value and quality, or if they ?re just dodges to sell wine that consumers wouldn ?t normally buy. The answer, sadly, after the Wine Curmudgeon ?s recent private label experiment (unscientific, but worthwhile nonetheless) is that more and more, private labels are becoming the latter.

Consumers have long known that private label is not quite as good as the national brand ? the ketchup doesn ?t taste quite like Heinz and the peanut butter doesn ?t taste quite like Skippy. But they buy it anyway, because they ?re willing to trade quality for price, and the store brands are cheaper than the national brands.

In wine, the equation is more complicated. A traditional wine retailer ?s business is based on the premise that better wines are always more expensive, so any foray into private label sticks to that line. Kroger ?s private labels, for example, don ?t try to undercut the national brands, and you can’t even tell which are which on the shelf. However, more retailers are junking that approach in favor of ?this wine is cheaper and just as good ? or even better. ?

The most obvious example is Trader Joe ?s and Two-buck Chuck, which Two-buck Chuck ?s maker, Fred Franzia, insists is just as good as any bottle of pricey Napa wine. I ?m not quite sure anyone believes him (or that Franzia even believes it himself), but, as a marketing approach, it has been incredibly successful.

Total Wine, with 82 stores in 13 states, has taken this one step further. It identifies its private label wines as such, which almost no one else does, and displays them next to the comparable national brands ? complete with little cards under the wine, or shelf talkers, that say that its private labels are cheaper and better (or as much as it can without running afoul of federal regulations).

Are Total ?s private labels cheaper and better? Or is this just a cynical ploy to prey on consumers who can tell the difference between ketchups but who can ?t tell the difference between wines? I ?ve argued for years that the wine business is not as interested in educating consumers as it is in selling them wine, and it ?s easy to see how this could be part of that. Given how confusing wine is to most of us, our first instinct is to trust whatever the store says. They ?re not going to lie about their product, are they?

One distributor I asked, who doesn ?t have Total in his state, is convinced that the chain is counting on the consumer ?s ignorance. My experience, in the short time Total has been in Dallas, has been much the same. Their private labels are less expensive, but you can also taste the difference ? and not in a good way.

Case in point: Victoire Champagne Brut Prestige ($20, purchased), which the shelf talker claimed was half the price of branded Champagne and just as Champagne-y. I ?ve done this long enough to know that this is all but impossible, but I also pride myself on my open mind. Besides, what if it was just like Champagne at half the price?

The Victoire wasn ?t, and it wasn ?t even as well made as $20 cava or French cremant (or many $10 cavas, for that matter). The Big Guy tasted it with me; he took a couple of sips and asked if I had anything else to drink. The wine had little structure, and tasted more like apple juice mixed with club soda than sparkling wine.

No wonder it ?s easier to buy ketchup. Or that it ?s more popular than wine.

Winebits 217: Organic wine, wine snobs, regional wine

? Crummy organic wine? One reason why organic wine has never taken off, in the way of other organic products, is that the consumer doesn't see a difference in quality. And that, says a top natural-leaning winemaker, is holding back the business. Monty Waldin spoke disparagingly about ?Parker 100-point ? wines, calling them ?not real wines," and admitted that not all organic wines on the market are high quality: ?There ?s a lot of boring, crap, industrialised organic wines on the market, and if the industry ?s going to implode, it ?s because of that. ? The article, in Britain's Drinks Business magazine, doesn't pull any punches — very refreshing in a trade magazine.

? Franzia on wine snobs: Fred Franzia, the man behind Two-buck Chuck, celebrated the brand's 10th anniversary with some of his famous invective: "We have won the battle with snobs and other elites who didn ?t believe we could provide excellent wines at an inexpensive price. This changed the wine culture in the U.S. …" The interview, on the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat's website, also notes Franzia's claim that Two-buck Chuck increased the size of the U.S. wine market by five percent. That may or may not be true, but it's certainly a Franzia-like statement. That would mean Two-buck Chuck added $1.5 billion to the $30 billion U.S. market, which seems like a lot of $2 wine.

? Regional wine and restaurant wine lists: The Springfield, Ill., Journal-Register looks at why regional wines don't do well in restaurants and discovers that consumers — shockingly — have made up their minds before they taste the wines. "We get a bad rap from people who think Illinois only sells sweet wines," says Bradley Beam of the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association. "That may have been true 10 years ago, but the wines of 10 years ago are not the wines made today." This is a well done story, and one that media outlets in other regional states should do more often.

Happy birthday, Two-buck Chuck

Happy birthday, Two-buck ChuckThis year is the 10th anniversary of one of the most important developments in the U.S. wine business, almost as important as Robert Parker and the 100-point scoring system. Two-buck Chuck made its first appearance in a Trader Joe’s store in 2002.

Why important? Because Two-buck Chuck was the first cheap wine sold as something better than cheap wine. Before it, there were two kinds of wine — cheap wine, which tasted crappy, had screwcaps, and was sold in big jugs to people who didn’t know anything about wine; and good wine, which wasn’t cheap, had a fancy label and a cork, and was sold to people who figured good wine couldn’t be cheap.

That all changed with Two-buck Chuck, which got its nickname because it was made by a company called Charles Shaw and it cost $1.99 a bottle. The wines, though annoyingly inconsistent in quality, offered a lot more value than their $2 cost. More importantly, they weren’t flawed or too tannic or unripe; in this, they were more or less the first cheap wines that were professionally made that U.S. consumers could buy.

And, as George Taber has pointed out in “A Toast to Bargain Wines,” the world has not been the same since.

Before Two-buck Chuck, cheap wine options were limited. I started drinking wine regularly in the 1980s with something called Avia, which cost $7 for three bottles and tasted like it was made in the former Yugoslavia by the state-owned wine company. Which it was; call it Communist plonk designed to keep the masses tipsy. Drinking better wine, but still affordable, meant buying something like Barton & Guestier. It was French, $6 or $7 a bottle, and not as offensive as the Avia. It wasn’t especially well made, either, but what did I know?

So it’s not surprising that Two-buck Chuck, which is owned by the Bronco Wine Co. and controlled by the infamous Fred Franzia, has had such an impact. Trader Joe’s has sold more than 50 million cases in the last decade, which would probably make Charles Shaw one of the 30 biggest producers in the country if it was an actual producer. More importantly, it has spawned dozens of imitators across the country, including E&J Gallo’s Barefoot, and similar private labels from national retailers like Aldi, 7-Eleven, and Whole Foods.

Equally as important, as the Wine Market Council recently discovered, consumers “are largely content with the lower-priced wines they switched to during the recession” — and many of those lower-priced wines were made possible by the success of Two-buck Chuck.

Intriguingly, the label’s success may hamper its future. One reason why Two-buck Chuck is stil $1.99 in California (shipping costs raise the price to as much as $3.50 in other parts of the country) is that Bronco controls more than 40,000 acres of vineyards, as well as the wine’s production, like a massive bottling plant near the Napa airport.

The always savvy Paul Franson wonders: Will the end of the California grape glut, which has raised bulk grape prices, give Bronco the chance sell its grapes to others for more than it would make by using it to produce Two-buck Chuck? Will this mean less Two-buck Chuck in stores? And will this mean the beginning of the end of the brand?

Mini-reviews 28: Two Buck Chuck, White Knight, Pacific Rim, Crios

Reviews of wines that don ?t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month. Again this month, in honor of record-setting temperatures across Dallas, heat wave wines:

? Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($3, purchased): What happens when $3 wine sits in a warehouse too long. Is there so much Two-buck Chuck left that Trader Joe's is still selling the previous vintage? Oily, but not in a good way, without much fruit and a bitter finish.

? White Knight Moscato 2010 ($13, sample): Moscato is supposed to be the next big thing (ignoring for a moment that there isn't enough of it to be the next big thing), mostly because it's sweet and it's not white zinfandel. This one has some orange moscato-like aroma, but other than that, it's just sweet.

? Pacific Rim Sweet Riesling 2010 ($10, sample): A touch of petrol on the nose, and though it's sweet (just 8 1/2 percent alcohol), it has almost enough acid to balance the sweetness. In this, it's sweet enough to appeal to people who want sweet wine, but well-made enough for the rest of us.

? Crios Rose of Malbec 2010 ($12, purchased): Flabby and dull, without much fruit or acid and very disappointing. A rose that I actually didn't want to drink. Crios used to make much better wine.

Wine review: Two-buck Chuck Pinot Grigio 2010

Two-buck Chuck is the nickname for the Charles Shaw wines made by Fred Franzia's Bronco Wine Company and sold only at Trader Joe's, the gourmet grocery with the cult following. They're called Two-buck Chuck because the wines cost $1.99 in Trader Joe's California stores, even though the price varies depending on where in the country the wine is sold.

The Wine Curmudgeon doesn't usually review these wines; there aren't any Trader Joe's in Dallas (though the company is threatening to build in Texas) and the chain is only in 32 states, with single stores in a half dozen or so of those. But when I get to New Mexico, which has Trader Joe's, I always buy wine for reviews. Two-buck Chuck, if not the best cheap wine, is one of the first modern cheap wines, and deserves thoughtful criticism.

I tasted three wines during this visit: The chardonnay, which will show up in a post reviewing $3 wines one of these days; the sauvignon blanc, which was unimpressive, and the pinot grigio ($3, purchased), which was quite impressive. In fact, it was much nicer than I expected it to be from past experiences with Two-buck Chuck, and would merit Hall of Fame consideration if it was more widely available.

The pinot grigio was fresh and clean with what can best be described as a hint of lemon pith fruit — yes, a very sophisticated description for a $3 wine. Other than being a little thin in the front, it was extremely well done. And, though it had some of the turpentine-like aroma common to cheap pinot grigio, it was nowhere near as noticeable as the smell of so many badly made Italian versions. We drank it chilled on a Santa Fe patio in stunningly pleasant summer weather, but this would pair with almost any white wine food. Chill it first, and don't let it sit around the house too long. This is not the kind of wine that will get better with age.