ABC's 20/20 ran a story last night on the "Charles Shaw" wines, increasingly well known as "Two-Buck Chuck." You can read the online version of the report here with a parallel story on a comparative tasting of two of the Shaw wines against higher-priced brands here; prior Foolishness on the subject is available here and also here.
Random comments on this story:
♣ The lawsuit by various Napa Valley vintners against mega-winegrower Fred Franzia (maker of the Shaw wines and many others) contending that the reference to "Napa" on the Shaw label is deceptive, strikes me as a non-starter. The front label of all the Shaw wines states truthfully that the origin of the grapes is "California," meaning that those grapes could have come from most anywhere within the state. (Some large but unspecified portion of the Shaw wine grapes comes from Franzia's own vineyard holdings in the Central Valley; the remainder comes from excess grapes or excess unfinished wine produced throughout California and purchased by Franzia on the open market, and includes grapes/juice from perfectly reputable regions such as the Central Coast and possibly even Sonoma or Napa Valley.) The only reference to "Napa" is on the back label, which indicates that the wine was "cellared and bottled" in the city of Napa, California. This, as the ABC story acknowledges, is absolutely true: Franzia owns a large facility in the city of Napa -- which is at the far south end of the Napa Valley in a location that is not particularly good for, and has never really been associated with, growing or making interesting wine -- where the Shaw wines receive their final processing and where they are bottled. The rules govering wine labeling are nicely summarized here, from whence we learn:
The name and address of the bottler must appear on the label of all American wines, immediately preceded by the words "bottled by."
If the bottler also made at least 75% of the wine by fermenting the must and clarifying the resulting wine, the terms "produced and bottled by" may be used.
"Made and bottled by" may be used either if the named winery fermented and clarified a minimum of 10% of the wine, if the named winery changed the class of the wine (see #2) by adding alcohol, brandy, or carbonation, or if the named winery produced sparkling wine by secondary fermentation.
"Cellared," "Vinted," or "Prepared" means the named winery subjected the wine to cellar treatment, that are specified in the regulations, such as clarification or barrel aging, at that location. "Blended and bottled by" means that the named winery mixed the wine with other wine of the same class and type at that location. [Emphasis added.]
The only "deception" at work lies in the coincidence between the long-established name of the city of Napa, and the name of the hifalutin Napa Valley wine growing region to its north. Perhaps the city can be persuaded to change its name, so that the Shaw labels won't be allowed to use the Magic Word "Napa"?
♣ It would be nice to be told more about the standards that the ten tasters were instructed to apply in ABC's blind tasting of Shaw vs. other wines. A wine can be judged "good" or "better than another" in any number of ways, ranging from the highly technical (is the color, aroma, etc., "correct" for the type of wine?) to the purely subjective ("Which would I most enjoy quaffing on the veranda, or with a nice Stilton?"). And why does ABC's scale go up to "6" when tasting Merlot, but only to "3" when tasting Chardonnay? (Or were the Chardonnays really that bad?)
♣ The most interesting aspect of the charts ABC has put up is not so much that the Shaw wine did well compared to wines costing $50 as it is that consistent winner in both tastings was Gallo. The Gallo winery has come a long way from its Thunderbird/Night Train.Hearty Burgundy origins, and is now the largest owner of vineyard acreage in Sonoma County. Judging from the labels ABC showed on the broadcast (and from the reported price), ABC was tasting relatively low-end Gallo -- the "Twin Valleys" label -- which probably still had a decent percentage of Sonoma County fruit in it. The rise of Gallo to serious respectability is one of the more heartening stories in California wine over the past decade or two.
♣ This seems as good an opportunity as any to take several Napa Valley vintners of good reputation to task for affixing their own names and reputations to secondary labels drawn entirely from cheap Central Valley sources. Robert Mondavi is justly credited with pioneering the renaissance in California winemaking through the late 1960s and into the 1980s, but he should be ashamed over the frequently dreadful plonk that he foists on the world under the "Woodbridge" label. The "Sutter Home" bottling that ABC tasted is a similar situation: an entirely reputable winery that deserves much of the credit for bringing the Zinfandel grape into its own, Sutter Home can be tagged for multiple sins: it is the inventor of the dreaded "White Zinfandel" in all its insipidity and, as have many other Napa Valley wineries, it has expanded its market share by attaching its name to large quantities of mass-produced and uninteresting wines. Hang your heads, gentlemen, and get back to what you do well.
♣ Finally, here is a link to Trader Joe's own write-up on the Charles Shaw phenomenon, which gives a pretty good explanation of how that price is kept so low:
Trader Joe's has a great relationship with our wine supplier [Franzia]. Great meaning that we buy as direct as we can. We've cut out as many middlemen as is legally possible. The supplier buys in huge volume (huge being an understatement at best), is one of the biggest vineyard owners in the world, has the capability to bottle large quantities and can deliver the wine very efficiently for us. So we're able to pass along a great deal to our customers.
Trader Joe's has always had an eye for bargains in the wine trade: possibly not the best wine you ever tasted, but generally very good for its price point. Not perhaps the most exalted of niches, but a darned useful one for wine consumers.