Why are Trader Joe's wines so cheap?" Today I want to explore why people care.
The most famous Trader Joe's wine is Charles Shaw, once known as Two Buck Chuck, but now $2.49 in most stores. Throughout my wine-writing career, I have been asked about Charles Shaw far more than any other wine. Screaming Eagle is a distant second. I have done stories about Barefoot and Yellow Tail, but I never get asked about them.
The most popular question is, "What do you think of Charles Shaw?" People ask this for a lot of reasons, including validation of their purchase decision. Some ask because they want to expose me as a wine snob.
People ask other questions about Charles Shaw too, like, "Is it consistent?" (answer: There's a lot of variation because they do several batches of each variety per year). Some ask which varietal I would drink if I had to pick one. (In tastings, I've had the best luck with the Shiraz.)
Many ask the question I answered yesterday, "Why is it so cheap?" This question is at the heart of the romantic mystery of Charles Shaw wines. Not only that, this question about Charles Shaw wines is central to wine appreciation for all of us.
When Two Buck Chuck first appeared in Trader Joe's, there was a popular myth that Charles Shaw lost a nasty divorce, and wanted to sell off his assets as cheaply as possible out of spite. (The truth about the name is that Charles Shaw went bankrupt trying to make Beaujolais-type wines in California and Bronco Wine Co. president Fred Franzia bought the brand name at auction.)
Even among savvy wine industry people, nobody believed Bronco Wine Co. was just making wine as cheaply and efficiently as possible. 30-year industry veterans would tell me, "He's buying bulk wine from wineries that are overextended. It's not sustainable." But they were wrong. Every facet of Charles Shaw is as cheap as possible: the bottle, the label, the ink, you name it. They farm some of their own grapes for high volume, and contract others. Bronco sells the wine to only one store, so it doesn't need a marketing and sales staff for it. And Bronco is privately held, so Franzia doesn't have to reach profit ratio targets. He's happy to sell millions of cases for a very small profit on each one.
Nobody, even industry folks, likes that answer. It's the truth and I've given it dozens of times, and nobody likes to hear it. That's why Huffington Post embarrassed itself recently: the truth wasn't as interesting as libelous hyperbole. And the truth wasn't romantic.
At $2.50 for 750 ml, Charles Shaw wine is not that cheap. As I pointed out yesterday, you can pay about $1.50 per 750 ml of wine if you buy it in a 5-liter box.
What makes Charles Shaw such a romantic mystery is that a bottle of wine can be that cheap. That's a big distinction, something Franzia understands.
There's nothing romantic about a box of wine. It might be an efficient way to buy wine, especially if you regularly buy a case of something to have as a house wine. Box wines can be very good. (That story -- "Box wines can be very good!" -- perpetually catches the interest of newspaper food editors.) But romantic comedies never show a couple having a candlelight dinner with a box of wine.
The fascination people have with Charles Shaw is all about the romance of a bottle of wine. They don't want to be told that wine is an agricultural product like cheese or muffins, and that it can be made cheaply or expensively. A bottle of wine is special for people in a way that cheese and muffins are not. They don't want to be disabused. It's like saying there's no such thing as love at first sight.
I mentioned above that a lot of people ask about Screaming Eagle. The two questions are, "What does it taste like?" (Answer: Dark cherry) and "Is it worth the money?" The second question comes from the same impulse as the Charles Shaw question, even if most people want the answer to be "No." The real answer is, "People buy it because it's expensive. It doesn't matter what it tastes like. It's worth it if you want to show somebody that you have a $2000 bottle of wine." But that's unsatisfying. People don't want either Screaming Eagle or Charles Shaw to be a commodity. Because that means that wine itself is a commodity.
The disdain that some wine lovers -- especially those with a dangerous midrange level of knowledge -- have for Charles Shaw comes from the same impulse. "You can't lump that crap in with the lovingly made products I drink!" Translated: I don't drink a commodity. I drink a magical elixir harvested by elves in moonlight! It's not enough that my wine is better; I want it to be fundamentally different.
Maybe Charles Shaw Shiraz and Guigal La Landonne Côte-Rôtie are fundamentally different products and maybe they aren't; it's an unwinnable argument that boils down to definitions. Many wine lovers will heatedly pursue that argument. People aren't this passionate about muffins, or pie. Have you ever heard anybody rant about supermarket brand apple pie? It's industrially made, the filling is gooey. I won't eat it; I'm a pie snob. But nobody asks, how is supermarket pie so cheap? We don't ask, is that $15 pie by Christine's Upper Crust worth the extra money? (Answer: Yes.)
Whether we drink Charles Shaw, Screaming Eagle or a wine from the coldest Syrah vineyard in the world, we want it to be more than an agricultural product; more than a muffin. We want a romantic mystery. This is the source of Charles Shaw's greatness and popularity. You can get drunk cheaper. You can even get wine cheaper. But it's hard to get romantic mystery any cheaper than $2.50. That really is good value.