There's no stopping Two-Buck Chuck

A $2 wine tastes OK and sells fabulously, thanks to the Web and a grape glut

December 07, 2003|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun National Staff

NAPA, Calif. -- So quickly do the wine bottles clatter down the assembly line -- barely stopping for each to receive a 750-milliliter-squirt of cabernet sauvignon, cork stopper, foil seal and front and back label -- that it is surprising to see the vintage expressed as "2001" rather than "November" or "11:30 a.m."

"Theoretically, this could be put out on the floor of Trader Joe's in Napa today, and someone could have it for dinner tonight," said Harvey Posert, spokesman for Charles Shaw wines, as bottle after bottle rolled off the assembly line and headed toward trucks waiting at the loading dock.

Here in the heart of the valley that produces America's most prestigious and expensive wines, a place that cultivates the tradition and mystique of its craft as carefully as its grapes, the hottest-selling wine is one defined by mass rather than class.

"Two-Buck Chuck," as it's known for its $1.99 price tag, is selling nearly as fast as Charles Shaw can bottle it -- the company recently sold its 100-millionth bottle after just two years on the market, making it the fastest-growing label ever in the American wine industry. Sold exclusively through Trader Joe's gourmet stores, the wine has drawn immense buzz among consumers who cart it out by the caseload, even here in Napa, home to boutique wineries and renowned labels such as Mondavi and Niebaum-Coppola.

"The bottom line is, everybody would like to think they go home and drink a $25 bottle of wine with dinner every night," said Pat Andress, manager of the Trader Joe's in Napa, which opened two months ago. "The truth is, the Monday-Thursday wine-drinking business is the $2 bottle of wine.

"It's a great value. Is it a bottle of Chateau Lafitte? No," said Andress, referring to the famous French red. "It's a wine that, when you go home, you aren't afraid to open a bottle of it."

Two-Buck Chuck is actually Three- and Three-plus Buck Chuck in the 11 other states in which it is sold because of additional transportation costs and taxes involved in crossing state lines. And while there are several Trader Joe's outlets in Maryland, because of state liquor laws they do not sell wine, so the closest Chuck is the $3.29 bottle sold in Virginia. (But note that Maryland bans bringing home more than one quart of liquor purchased out of state at any one time, and no more than two quarts in a single month.)

The Two-Buck Chuck story is one of the most remarkable retail sagas of recent years, one that combines business savvy with sheer luck, a bit of intrigue with old-fashioned, if Internet-aided, word-of-mouth.

Charles Shaw is one of about 30 labels owned by Fred Franzia and his Bronco Wine Co., powerhouses in the industry because of holdings at almost every level of business -- from growing grapes to making wine to distributing it wholesale. Franzia, who rarely speaks to the media, took advantage of a glut in California grapes -- the wine boom of past years led to overplanting, and prices for the fruit dropped in both the 2001 and 2002 harvests -- to market a super low-cost wine under the label of Charles Shaw.

Trader Joe's, whose stock in trade is gourmet goods at reasonable prices, proved to be the perfect match for a new rock-bottom-priced wine. The store already carried other budget lines made by Franzia and his Bronco Wine Co., and the retailer became the new Charles Shaw exclusive seller. A Trader Joe's employee happened to mention in an Internet chat room that he and his colleagues called the fast-moving wine Two-Buck Chuck among themselves, and the nickname soon took hold.

Hitting the market in February 2002, Two-Buck Chuck actually benefited from the economic woes of the time. The downturn left many consumers anxious about spending, so a $2 bottle presented a reasonable risk: You might hit upon a decent quaff, but if not, you still had a Two-Buck Chuck anecdote to tell.

There has always been cheap wine, of course, from the vin ordinaire sold in Parisian neighborhood joints to the jug and boxed wines that have fueled many an American backyard barbecue. What sets Two-Buck Chuck apart is that, to some palates, it's quite acceptable -- neither great nor appalling, particularly considering the price. Unlike other cheap American wines, it's generally drier rather than sweet, and comes in proper packaging: corked and in the same kind of 750-milliliter bottle that "good" wine comes in, as opposed to a screw-cap bottle, bargain jug or box.

Plus, Chuck allows its drinkers to thumb their noses at the wine poseurs, always under suspicion of having no greater palates but simply fatter wallets.

"It's a classic case of reverse snobbery," said Al Spoler, co-host of the wine show Cellar Notes, on the Baltimore NPR affiliate, WYPR. "In some respects, it's the fulfillment of the vision of wine as just an ordinary part of life."

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