Terroirism Strikes California


SF Weekly gives a fascinating profile of Fred Franzia, the in-Napa-but-not-of-it vintner behind $1.99 Charles Shaw wines—the famous "Two-Buck Chuck" that has become a Trader Joe's mainstay since its introduction in 2002. In addition to selling wines to any slob in a "Who Farted?" t-shirt, Franzia antagonizes Napa vintners by marketing wines made from Central Valley grapes under his Napa Ridge and Napa Creek labels—prompting the vintners trade group to push through a state law prohibiting him from using Napa labels on wines that are not made with Napa grapes. (The case is mixed up in the courts, with Franzia losing most of the appeals.) Now he's pulling another spectacular move, putting out a merlot and a chardonnay under the Napa Creek label that are said to be made from real Napa grapes and marketing it at Trader Joe's for just $3.99. The new vintage's instant nickname: Four-Buck Fred.

There are some lacunae in the article. Reading it, you might think Two-Buck Chuck was the first decent wine (i.e., sold in a bottle with a cork) ever retailed for $1.99. In fact, Trader Joe's has been selling two- and three-dollar wines for at least the ten years I've been living in the Golden State. The difference is that these tend to come from Chile, Australia, Hungary, and other exotic locales. It's true buying Charles Shaw gives you the chance to show your California patriotism, but since it's made from humble Central Valley grapes, it's not like there's some incredible cachet to it. And in blind (or at least, dumb) taste tests, the Chilean labels tend to come out ahead. A while back I brought a bottle of some Chilean twofer to a party, after having removed the price sticker (I do have some standards!), and my fellow revelers all seemed to agree that it was clearly much better stuff than the Two-Buck Chuck they'd been drinking earlier in the evening. In my mind Charles Shaw was just another option among the many two-dollar wines TJ's offers, but clearly it has grabbed a lot of mindshare as the two-dollar wine. (In fact, I'm suspicious that this new $3.99 deal might be designed to regularize the notion that this is the new baseline price for gyppo wines, allowing Trader Joe's to ratchet up the price for all its two-dollar specials; and if they try and pull that, it's Hello, Bargain Bank for me!)

Also, while Franzia comes across as a mainly sympathetic figure, there's one curiously unexplored question about his new wines. Franzia has a felony fraud conviction for an episode where he tried to sell a batch of $100-a-ton crushed grapes as $1,200-a-ton zinfandels. The selling point of Four-Buck Fred is that it's made from Napa grapes, and while there's no evidence that that's not the case, nobody in the article asks the obvious question of whether he might be up to his old tricks.

Still the whole article is worth reading, featuring the inevitable dysfunctional-wine-family history (thanks to some stupid uncles, Franzia doesn't control his own family's label, and "Franzia" is a notorious box wine), and a meetup with the real, nonplussed Charles Shaw (a Chicago software developer whose vaguely WASPy name gives Two-Buck Chuck its certain I-don't-know-what). And any guy who says "there's not a wine anywhere worth more than $10 a bottle" is aces in my book.

Kerry Howley guzzled down the anti-globalist grapumentary Mondovino in March.

Four-Buck Fred makes its debut

…to mixed reviews.

California Supreme Court rejects another appeal by Fred Franzia's Bronco Wine Co.

No offense to the Beaver State, but why does Oregon, whose wines have limited snob appeal, have tougher labeling regulations than California?

And how did the author of the Spenser novels become the world's foremost wine expert?