Terroirism Strikes California

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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?

NEXT: How Can I Blog at a Time Like This?

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  1. "Terroirism?" Really?

    ...

    CAVANAUGH'S FRENCH!

  2. "...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."

    Of course. They'd been drinking for hours!

  3. I've generally found Chilean white wines to be a little too spicy. Australian ones, on the other hand, have usually been good. Haven't tried Two-Buck Chuck yet.

  4. Chuck sux.

    There are indeed wines worth more than ten bucks, and the Ogier C?te-R?tie sitting in front of me at the moment is one of them.

    "Emperor of Wine" is a very funny book, sometimes on purpose.

  5. Apparently, "Comments" doesn't like my French orthography. Please imagine "o" with a circumflex where the gibberish is.

  6. Charles Shaw is dregs. Virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the "vin de table" American jug wine. Mmmm...Mountain Burgundy...

    Two Buck Chuck is more of a cultural phenomenon than any sort of revolution in cheap wine.

    Anyway, calling a wine "Napa Ridge", when the grapes come from Central Coast, is pretty much a clear-cut case of consumer fraud in my book. While the wine industry may impose some crazy standards, like which varietals are allowed in certain appelations, the rule that says "you have to be truthful on your label" seems to be one of the most legitimate ones...especially considering the fact that nothing, outside of whether it's red or white, is apparent from the outside the bottle.

    And anyone who says "there's not a wine anywhere worth more than $10 a bottle" is a goddamned fool in my book...either that, or he has severely impaired olfactory & taste senses. I've had wines that were so amazing, I'd have paid hundreds for them, even if they were only $30. Drink a bottle of $75 1990 Nikolaihof Vinothek, then repeat that statement.

  7. Evan,

    You're correct. I've had many wines worth well over $10. Not so many that I'd pay hundreds, though!

  8. Wellfellow:

    Me either (most of the time, I'd rather get five great $20 wines than one excellent $100 bottle), but when you do, you remember it. Wine's funny like that. I've had $15 wines that I would have paid $100 for, and $100 bottles that I wouldn't pay $15 for.

  9. The whole Pacific Rim produces good wines. California, Oregon, Austrialia, New Zealand, Washington...it makes me wonder why there aren't any Japanese wines out there.

    I want to know what the Wine Commonsewer thinks about Two Buck Chuck.

  10. Trader Joe's is awesome. I can't remember the last time I paid more than $8 for a bottle of wine, except for some gift or special occasion. When I want really good wine, there are a few $20 or $30 bottles I like. But I never buy anything between $10 and $20 anymore. There are too many perfectly decent $6 wines to spend $15 on something that's probably not any better.

  11. "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"

    This was already commented on...but regardless, I'd bet a blind taste test would reveal that Mad Dog 20-20 is prefered by many over the finest Savignon Blanc after a great number of adult beverages consumed. After all, it'll fuck you up faster.

    As to Oregon's tougher labeling restrictions, people in Oregon are really into "local food" and connecting food with place. People buy food here principally based on location - Oregon County beef, Herminston watermelons, Walls Walla Sweet onions, etc... The wine labeling requiring authenitc place names is a natural extention of this food snobbery.

    As an aside, thanks to Oregon's higher-than-California liquor taxes, TJ's sells "Three-Buck Chuck" here. I'd imagine the new wine would be "Five Fifty Fred."

  12. It's really a shame that Trader Joe's is taking advantage of people's love of money by selling wine so cheap.

    I'm a big supporter of the free market. But part of the free market is competition. And selling a bottle of wine at $2 fosters monopoly since it's so much less than other wines.

    I know we're seeing a lot of looting and violence right now. But in my book, Charles Shaw is the scum of the Earth and would be lucky to die a quick death.

  13. I'm a big supporter of the free market. But part of the free market is competition. And selling a bottle of wine at $2 fosters monopoly since it's so much less than other wines

    Um, not really. Vis a vis Evan Williams above, there are people out there who will neither buy nor drink a $2 bottle of wine under any circumstances. I'd venture to guess that would include about 99% of self-styled oenophiles. Wine is, for a great many of its drinkers, a luxury product: Demand varies directly with price.

  14. As an Oregon resident, I make a hobby of trying to find a cheap bottle of local Pinot Noir that is drinkable. In that specific segment it is virtually impossible to find anything good (translates as "I'd want to drink it") for less than $10. $15 is probably more like the threshold. I think market prices indicate that there is some signficant snob appeal to Oregon Pinot Noirs. It can't all be explained by costs of production, I don't think.

    On the topic of no bottle of wine being worth more than $10, we're free marketeers, here, right? What makes a bottle worth more than $10? Wine isn't nearly as fungible as, say, gasoline, but it still makes sense to say, if you can't get an equivalent or better bottle for less than $10, then the bottle under consideration is worth more than $10. Alternatively, if you're willing to pay more than $10, it's worth more than $10. By either of those definitions, there are lots of bottles worth more than $10. I've paid >$50 for a bottle at a restaurant, and thought it was a wonderful thing to experience.

    Just had a bottle of 2002 (2003? does it really matter?) Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon from Trader Joe's, priced at $4/bottle. It was probably the best taste/dollar value I've ever had. Hope they have a case still there when I go back!

  15. I've enjoyed some 2 buck chuck. The faux shiraz is pretty good with pizza or spaghetti.
    For $2 a very good table wine.
    Recently had some nice $6 wine from Costco

  16. Tim-

    Was it by chance Gato Negro? That is the ultimate gyptastic Chilean wine. I once got a magnum at Grocery Outlet for $3. If not, I highly recommend it for a cheap "oh, I see you brought wine" moment at your next dinner party.

  17. I'm bitter. CT law prevents our Trader Joe's from selling wine.

    I did just get a magnum of Barefoot cabernet for 10, and it's pretty good.

  18. Costco doesn't have the most interesting selection for sub-$10 wine (I usually turn to otherwise-pricey Whole Foods in that segment), but in the $15 and-up range, Costco has some real finds. In the sub-$5 range, Chileans are the way to go, although I've had some truly great Chileans which were much, much, more expensive.

  19. I've generally found Chilean white wines to be a little too spicy. Australian ones, on the other hand, have usually been good.

    WINE IS RED!

  20. It's Spenser with an "S". Like the poet.

    Also, it's 3 Buck Chuck in my neck of the woods. Still a damned fine value.

  21. Just the kind of gastronomical critique that I'd expect from a Brit...

    Seriously, I don't mind the red stuff with Mexican or Indian food, but I have to go with white when something Italian is on the menu. And thanks to my vegetarianism and my limited cooking skills, that's why I most often end up having.

  22. I want to know what the Wine Commonsewer thinks about Two Buck Chuck

    Joe, you flatter this old man. : =)

    I've had both the merlot and the cab and I can honestly say that Two Buck Chuck is, well, just okay. I think it's drinkable, it's better than box wine, and it's far better than at least half of the wines in the $5.00-$12.00 range.

    For me, the one thing that works for Two Buck Chuck is that it avoids that sickly sweet back taste that gets passed off as cherries in many, many inexpensive cabernets. Bleahhh. Can't do that, I'll pour it out.

    BTW, I think it's Three Buck Chuck in many states.

    And, I still haven't tried the Columbia Crest Merlot you suggested yet. I don't get out much and I don't often see it. Sometimes I see the CC cab or chard. I used to drink CC frequently back in the old days. As I recall the merlot was always better than the cab. Was that a specific year you suggested (2000 if I recall)?

  23. Tim, you know I was about to go out and put in a new sprinkler line (now that it's cooled off) but I got really interested in this post of yours so, I'm getting a glass of wine instead.

    Great Job. Enjoyed the heck out of it.

  24. TJs used to carry the (almost undrinkable) Egri Bikav?r for $2.99 ---

    That said, TJs does have some surprisingly tasty cheapo wines.

  25. Eric II, of course you know that if wine had a choice, all wine would be red. : =)

    TWC creed is:

    Lips that touch white wine shall never touch mine. Which, is a big relief to all my friends, gay and straight, and most of the women I've ever known.

    Meantime, here is something fun, yummy, and productive you can do with white wine, even if you're a vegetarian. And it's easy.

  26. Eric II, you know Chilean reds tend to be a little spicey as well. I never knew that was true of Chilean whites as well (cuz I never drink 'em) I wonder what it is in the terroir that brings that out. Evan Williams probably knows...maybe we should ask him.

    The other thing I've noticed about Chilean reds, besides the value, is that sometimes they bring on an allergic reaction, not the evil stuff that people incorrectly blame on sulfites, just sneezing, coughing, and runny nose etc. the next morning. It's like, drink a few glasses and instant cold.

    That may be unique to my physique (rhymes, dude).

    Now it's too dark to work on the sprinkler line so I guess I'll have some more wine.

  27. Tim, I've had Virginia wine and, er, I can say that you're right, it isn't the first place I think of when I think of wine.

    And that Jefferson cabernet is really, really awful, which is oh so sad because he is our patron saint and he so loved good red wine.

    Disclaimer: It's been a long time since TWC tasted Virgina wines. They may have improved.

  28. TWC, we've tasted a Petite Verdot and a Cab Franc from White Hall in Virginia. Quite good stuff, opened as a joke, but the joke was on us. The winemaker is an old buddy of mine from my Santa Barbara days.

    I don't know that I'd ever had a varietal PV before, so it was a doubly interesting experience.

  29. TWC, white wine can also be used to get out red wine stains. I can't drink red -- too clumsy. Hence the above knowledge.

  30. Poco, I can't drink red wine either. Same reason.

    Sy, surprising and interesting.

  31. The appellation of wine is a big rort !.
    Sure the French have specific regions but the rest use Napa grapes with Central valley grapes all the time. Who is checking that the last truckload of grapes came from where ever.
    The is nothing wrong with having a brand Napa Ridge , as long as they dont say , GROWN in Napa valley.
    This whole wine snobbery thing is ridiculous, most wine science can juggle the taste and flavours just like Heinz do with their tomato sauce - made with central valley tomatoes.

    My best wine brand of all time !
    Brother Dominic , a ""dry white beverage"" since it wasnt , well actually, wine

  32. And anyone who says "there's not a wine anywhere worth more than $10 a bottle" is a goddamned fool in my book...either that, or he has severely impaired olfactory & taste senses

    It isn't a matter of the $50 wine being better than the $10 wine. It's a matter of it not being five times as good as the wine that costs 1/5th as much. Most people don't place a high value on marginal increases in taste-related pleasure.

    Of course, maybe to you the $50 stuff really is five times as good. Me, I can taste the difference, I just don't think that difference is worth forty bucks.

  33. Joe,

    The whole Pacific Rim produces good wines. California, Oregon, Austrialia, New Zealand, Washington...it makes me wonder why there aren't any Japanese wines out there.

    There are many popular varieties of Japanese wine available in the land of "Two-Buck Chuck" (jeez, I feel so uninformed) but all the ones I know of are made with rice and have 'funny' labels. Great with fish and fowl but I'd hesitate to serve it with anything else.

    I wonder when will some Chinese upstart selling a decent table wine for $1.29?

  34. If you're really interested in wine you should try making your own some time. Grapes are a bitch as far as home winemaking goes but I've made drinkable stuff out of everything from persimmons to crabapples. It's interesting to taste the wine over time as it ages -- the stuff taste like something motor oil when you bottle it, but give it a few months & it turns into something sweet and tasty (usually). Also, if you avoid using sulfites, you don't get the kind of hangovers you can get from commercial wine & beer.

  35. I wonder when will some Chinese upstart selling a decent table wine for $1.29?

    Within the next two or three years. At Vinitech Bordeaux (a trade show for winery supplies) last year, the viticulture hall was filled with Chinese attendees. And in about 8 weeks, I'll be getting on a plane to Shanghai for Vinitech China.

  36. The problem with really fine expensive wine, which often DOES taste much better than it's cheap bretheren is this: after you enjoy the liquid velvet, IT'S GONE.

    The other problem is that one often doesn't know (Parker and Wine Spectator notwithstanding).

    If you could be sure the $50.00 wine was going to be smashing......But often as not it isn't any better, or even as good as, a $15.00 bottle of wine. Therein lies the rub, or the crap shoot as it were. That's when a guy like Evan comes in handy (if only he was a hot chick in wheel chair with bad brakes and lived on a hill I'd marry him and inherit the store) who can point you to new and interesting wines at decent prices.

  37. TWC,

    It was the 2001 Columbia Crest merlot. Every year, that's a good wine, but the 2001 really stood out.

    But I feel bad, I've hyped it so much. It's not a world shaking experience, it's not Opus 1, it's just a really yummy wine for the money.

  38. And what the hell's wrong with a spicy wine, anyway?

  39. I can suggest, for you other heathens out there who drink white, Columbia Winery's Cellar Master's Reisling from southern Washington. 2002 was my favorite year, but I'm not much of a wine guy.

    As for drinkable Oregon Pinos, I seem to recall that Argyle and Erath (formerly Knudsen Erath) made a pretty decent one, but I've no idea the price point.

  40. Worth reading the whole article just for the part about the missile fuel tanks!

  41. Joe, yes, CC merlot is always pretty good. It used to be my house wine for every day drinking but the supply dried up and got more expensive.

    Been a long time since I sampled any Opus 1. Good stuff.

  42. I had a single glass once at a tasting party. I had never realized before what good wine could be like, and it's the reason I'm a wino today.

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