What's out: Expensive wine. What's in: Two-buck Chuck.

A few years ago, before Trader Joe's had opened a store in my city, I was assigned a story about the Two Buck Chuck phenomenon by a national shopping magazine. Not knowing it from Welch's, I toured its bottling facility near Vallejo, California, and was blown away by the fact it tasted just fine. Sure, I'd had pricey bottles of wine that had more nuance, but I've also had pricey bottles that were no better than this stuff.

Two Buck Chuck, I quickly learned, is a very cheap bottled wine that costs under $5, sometimes as little as $2 (depending on your state), that's sold only by the Trader Joe's group of grocery stores. I had expected it to be the kind of swill that you could run a car on. When I was growing up, cheap wine was bad wine. It gave you a headache or came out of a box. But Two Buck Chuck, which was labeled as Charles Shaw and given its nickname because of its insanely low price, was actually quite good. As the oenophiles might say, it was quite drinkable, particularly for an average guy like me. Who needs to pay $30 for a bottle of wine that will be empty before dinner's done? What was going on here?

A lot, as it turned out. Wine-making is a viticultural art form, to be sure, but it's also a business, and each year, countless vineyards around Northern California harvest more grapes than they use. The reason may be as simple as the fact that their barrels are too small to hold the yield, or it may be because the farmers want to earn cash by selling some of their crop.

Two Buck Chuck is made by taking those grapes, putting them together under the guidance of a vintner who tries to hit the same flavor profile season after season, and selling the result for cheap. At the time of my article, in a single day Bronco could press 6,000 tons of grapes and was putting out 1,440,000 bottles. In California, the resulting product, which often sold out as soon as the trucks delivered it, was originally $1.99, hence the nickname.


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