Until recently, the question I received most often from readers was "What wine goes best with [name of your dish here]?" Since November or December of last year, however, a new query has achieved prominence: "What do you think about Two Buck Chuck?"
In case you haven't heard, Two Buck Chuck is the moniker for a new line of California wines sold under the Charles Shaw label. The wines in the line include a Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Each is packaged in a reasonably expensive- looking bottle with a real cork (well, a "real" synthetic cork) and a nice foil capsule. The kicker is that the full retail price of Two Buck Chuck is $1.99 a bottle (in some areas readers may find a price of $3.49. According to a spokesman for Trader Joe's, the difference reflects shipping costs and differing state regulations.)
There is no Charles Shaw winery. Two Buck Chuck is bottled by the Bronco Wine Co., which is owned by Franzia, the box-wine juggernaut. It is sold exclusively at Trader Joe's stores. The company is selling so much (an estimated 1 million cases a month) that it can barely keep the wine on the shelf. Actually, "shelf" is the wrong word. I've seen it only on palette-size floor displays that quickly disappear as customers transfer the wine into their shopping carts and then to the back of their Chevy Suburbans.
And how is the wine? Well, it's not what I would call good. On the other hand, it's not terrible. Let's call it a C minus. At two bucks a bottle, a C minus is a pretty reasonable return on investment. The Cabernet is the best of the lot. The finish is brittle, and the nose is from box-wine central, but there's enough red fruit on the mid-palate to make it acceptable, provided it is served with some food to mask its thinness.
At this point, however, I must part company with much of the commentary from the wine trade and the wine press. The general opinion seems to be that Two Buck Chuck is selling well for the simple reason that it is cheap. This is not correct. Nor do I believe that Two Buck Chuck sells well because it is a good wine for the money. It really isn't, because I strongly suspect that it's pretty much the same quality of wine that goes into the four-gallon boxes.
So if it's not the low price and not the quality that accounts for the enthusiastic consumer response to Two Buck Chuck, what does explain it? It is this -- Charles Shaw is a dry wine. "Dry" means little or no discernible sweetness on the finish. To exemplify, Chateau Lafite Rothschild is dry; Le Chambertin is dry; by contrast, the four-liter box of Franzia Cabernet Sauvignon is not dry -- you can taste what is called residual sugar (a noticeable amount of sweetness) on the finish. This sugar is not necessary to the wine in most cases. It is added.
In this sense, Two Buck Chuck is revolutionary. In fact, I predict that the astonishing success of Two Buck Chuck -- an inexpensive wine that is truly dry -- will change the way Americans drink wine. We are perceived as a nation of Coca-Cola drinkers, hooked on sucrose and, with the rare exception of the wine cognoscenti, unable to appreciate a wine for its fruit, unless it is pumped up with sugar. Mediocre though it may be, Two Buck Chuck stands for precisely the opposite proposition.
If I am right, the implications are enormous. It is no wonder that America is not a nation of wine drinkers if what we have been offered in the truly affordable, everyday price range, that of the box/jug wines, is unpalatable. Let me emphasize that $5.99, the so-called everyday price range you see in the ads and in the wine press, though usually dry, is hardly priced for everyday drinking. Most households can't afford anything close -- $6 x 31 days is $186 a month. Heck, that's more than cable TV.
So here is the proposition I would like to put up to Franzia, Almaden Gallo (sold as Livermore Cellars) and all other box and jug wine makers. Give American wine drinkers a fair chance. Take a cue from Two Buck Chuck. When you put those remarkably decent-for-the-price wines into the boxes, keep your hands away from the sugar ladle.