What's out: Expensive wine. What's in: Two-buck Chuck.
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.
Trader Joe's is famously reclusive when it comes to courting the press. It makes Apple Computer look like Paris Hilton. So its success has been mostly a word-of-mouth thing. But fortunately, Two Buck Chuck is actually blended and bottled by an outside source, the Bronco Wine Company, which brandishes its status as a outsider to the self-important wine industry and has loudly proclaimed the many blind taste tests it was won against much more expensive stuff. Just as the American wine biz as a whole was vindicated by winning blind tastes tests in France in the '70s (the victory was the subject of the recent movie Bottle Shock), so has Two-Buck Chuck been set apart in blind taste tests (one conducted by ABC News, another by Wines & Vines) from the headache-inducing swill put out by Gallo and company when we were kids.
Now my city has a Trader Joe's, and its Two Buck Chuck has been re-labeled as Trader Joe's. It also costs $4 here, so the nickname doesn't make much sense anymore. It's more like Four Buck Joe's now, but that slug doesn't come with the same ironic taunt of nausea that its old, rebellious name had. That's okay, because the wild success of the wine has opened the door for a raft of affordable table wines, and these days, Two Buck Chuck, like Jell-o and Scotch tape, has become a name that stands for a whole category of products.
Even if you don't have a Trader Joe's in your city, you still have the equivalent of Two Buck Chuck. Although it may cost a dollar or two more, you can always find a label that suit your palate, if only you're willing to try it. It might have the name of Oak Creek, Pacific Peak, or Crane Lake, but these days, the cheap stuff is usually perfectly acceptable for a drink after work or over dinner.
A premium wine can be a thing of wonder, but so is a premium beer, and while millions of Americans are satisfied with a cold Budweiser with their dinner or over the football game, we don't seem to relax as much when it comes to our wine. And you know what? For something to drink over a Wednesday night dinner, or on the couch in front of the TV, almost all of these blends are more than adequate.
Much of the American wine industry operates, in my opinion, in shameless imitation of Europe, and that includes a perpetuation of snob appeal that has maligned wine as a luxury product and led to industry overpricing. But the longer we have solid, drinkable wines like Two Buck Chuck on hand, the more that will change. Boutique winemakers may cringe, but the little quaff that could is bringing more wine lovers into the fold.
Comparing Two Buck Chuck with a $30 bottle, there aren't many people who can tell $28 worth of a difference. Especially after the third glass.