Happy birthday, Two-buck Chuck
This year is the 10th anniversary of one of the most important developments in the U.S. wine business, almost as important as Robert Parker and the 100-point scoring system. Two-buck Chuck made its first appearance in a Trader Joe’s store in 2002.
Why important? Because Two-buck Chuck was the first cheap wine sold as something better than cheap wine. Before it, there were two kinds of wine — cheap wine, which tasted crappy, had screwcaps, and was sold in big jugs to people who didn’t know anything about wine; and good wine, which wasn’t cheap, had a fancy label and a cork, and was sold to people who figured good wine couldn’t be cheap.
That all changed with Two-buck Chuck, which got its nickname because it was made by a company called Charles Shaw and it cost $1.99 a bottle. The wines, though annoyingly inconsistent in quality, offered a lot more value than their $2 cost. More importantly, they weren’t flawed or too tannic or unripe; in this, they were more or less the first cheap wines that were professionally made that U.S. consumers could buy.
And, as George Taber has pointed out in “A Toast to Bargain Wines,” the world has not been the same since.
Before Two-buck Chuck, cheap wine options were limited. I started drinking wine regularly in the 1980s with something called Avia, which cost $7 for three bottles and tasted like it was made in the former Yugoslavia by the state-owned wine company. Which it was; call it Communist plonk designed to keep the masses tipsy. Drinking better wine, but still affordable, meant buying something like Barton & Guestier. It was French, $6 or $7 a bottle, and not as offensive as the Avia. It wasn’t especially well made, either, but what did I know?
So it’s not surprising that Two-buck Chuck, which is owned by the Bronco Wine Co. and controlled by the infamous Fred Franzia, has had such an impact. Trader Joe’s has sold more than 50 million cases in the last decade, which would probably make Charles Shaw one of the 30 biggest producers in the country if it was an actual producer. More importantly, it has spawned dozens of imitators across the country, including E&J Gallo’s Barefoot, and similar private labels from national retailers like Aldi, 7-Eleven, and Whole Foods.
Equally as important, as the Wine Market Council recently discovered, consumers “are largely content with the lower-priced wines they switched to during the recession” — and many of those lower-priced wines were made possible by the success of Two-buck Chuck.
Intriguingly, the label’s success may hamper its future. One reason why Two-buck Chuck is stil $1.99 in California (shipping costs raise the price to as much as $3.50 in other parts of the country) is that Bronco controls more than 40,000 acres of vineyards, as well as the wine’s production, like a massive bottling plant near the Napa airport.
The always savvy Paul Franson wonders: Will the end of the California grape glut, which has raised bulk grape prices, give Bronco the chance sell its grapes to others for more than it would make by using it to produce Two-buck Chuck? Will this mean less Two-buck Chuck in stores? And will this mean the beginning of the end of the brand?