Originally, this $2 sensation was sold exclusively by Trader Joe’s Food Chain. It is estimated that Trader Joe’s alone has sold 50 million cases — 600 million bottles — of Charles Shaw wines in the past decade.
“Two Buck Chuck” is owned by Bronco Wine Company, the fourth largest wine company in America. Headquartered in Ceres, Calif., Bronco produces some 60 different labels from its 40,000 acres of vineyard land. It is said that Bronco’s vineyard rows are so long that a tractor can drive three miles before having to make a turn.
Bronco sells some 20 million cases of wine yearly from all of its brands, including Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw, Crane Lake, Forest Glen, Rutherford Vintners, Fox Hollow, Robert Hall, Napa Creek and a host of other less familiar national and international labels.
In addition to huge vineyard holdings, Bronco also owns bottle and cork facilities, further reducing its cost of production.
Bronco is owned by the Franzia family and is privately held. Its financial information is closely guarded. Outsiders speculate that Bronco makes $2 to $5 profit per case on Charles Shaw. That would mean that, in the past decade, the company has made profits of at least $100 million from “Two Buck Chuck.”
The Franzia family has been in the wine business for more than a hundred years. CEO Fred Franzia is the nephew of the late Earnest Gallo, but the Franzia family is not generally revered like other California wine pioneering families.
Fred has been embroiled in controversy stemming from an earlier propensity to label varietal wines incorrectly.
By law, a varietally labeled wine must contain 75 percent of the varietal indicated. In the mid 1990s, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms brought charges against Franzia for mislabeling. Franzia pled guilty, and was fined $2.5 million and barred from doing business in the wine industry for five years.
Franzia returned from his suspension only to face a challenge from the Napa Valley Vintners Association, which was lobbying California lawmakers to prohibit vintners from using “Napa” on their labels if the wine contained no juice from Napa.
For years, Franzia had bought up labels from defunct wine companies all over the California winegrowing area. There really was a Charles Shaw, but his winery went out of business in 1991.
Franzia had built a huge bottling plant on the outskirts of Napa, and for years brought in lesser grapes from poorer growing areas and plastered the words “bottled in Napa” on his wines.
The Napa Valley Vintners Association prevailed in their litigation, and Franzia had to cease taking liberties with labels.
With that litigation behind him, Franzia launched the Shaw label.
Many California vintners were outraged when Franzia launched his $2 wine. These vintners had worked hard to promote wines commanding much higher prices. They felt “Two Buck Chuck” was just a way for Franzia the thumb his nose at them.
Now, 10 years later, “Two Buck Chuck” still ranks among America’s top-selling wines.
I recently revisited current vintages of four Shaw wines with a tasting panel in a blind tasting. We tasted sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot and cabernet alongside pricier versions — replicating a tasting held 10 years ago. Remarkably, last week’s results were similar to those from a decade ago.
The “Chuck” sauvignon blanc was preferred to its pricier counterpart by most tasters — but not yours truly. “Chuck” had a more typical herbaceous, grassy, boxwood nose. The pricey sauvignon blanc had a floral nose and more defined flavors.
In the chardonnay category, “Chuck” tied with the pricier chardonnay. Again, I liked the pricier one, because I thought its flavors better defined.
In the tasting 10 years ago, the merlot and cabernet could not hold up to pricier competitors, and this was the case last week. Both the “Chuck” cab and merlot were too sweet and diluted.
So, gentle readers, when contemplating “Chuck” wines, stick with the whites, but spend a bit more for the reds.