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Charles Shaw – What The Chuck?

April 21, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks No Comments

If there ever was a film made about Fred Franzia’s life, and I hope there is, Brian Cox would my choice to play the role of the foul mouthed, stout figured king of the bargain grape.

Fred is the nephew of California wine legend Ernest Gallo. It is his Family’s name “Franzia” that dominates boxed wines across the Country. In addition, he is also the man behind another name: Charles Shaw, AKA Two-Buck Chuck.

Fred Franzia is CEO of Bronco Wine Company, who has caused a huge stir in the wine community over the past several decades. There have been lawsuits stemming from accusations of fraudulent labeling practices, to labor complaints resulting from the tragic death of a young female farm worker who was employed by Bronco Wines. Yet, it is neither of these affairs that have earned Bronco Wines the most attention. Make a $1.99 wine and other vintners may chuckle and dismiss you as fiscally negligent. Make a $1.99 wine and sell it by the millions of cases exclusively at Trader Joes, and everyone will take notice. So it is, that a massive empire was forged, two dollars at a time.

Yet, for the popularity that surrounds the Charles Shaw brand, few know the story behind it. Who was Charles Shaw? Who is Fred Franzia and why are his wines so damn cheap?

The story of Franzia started at the end of the 19th Century when his grandfather began wine production in the San Joaquin Valley in 1893. Fred grew up in the middle of California wine history. His uncles, Ernest and Julio Gallo, were among the first pioneers in California wine. As if this fact alone was not enough to establish his deep ties in the wine industry, Fred was a childhood friend of Robert Mondavi’s son Michael, attending the same college. The Franzia’s and the Mondavi’s even owned a business venture together for a time, Montpellier Investment Partnership LP. To say he grew up in the midst of the California wine revolution is an understatement.

Fred started Bronco Wine Company after his father sold the family business along with the rights to the family name, to Coca-Cola in 1973. Today, Bronco Wines owns dozens of wine labels, including Charles Shaw, which before they acquired it, was a premium wine brand. Bronco is one of the largest wine producers in the country.

Fred is a larger than life figure by all accounts. It was an article I read a few years ago by Kermit Pattison, called “The Scourge of Napa Valley,” that first triggered my interest in the man. I, like many others, began my wine exploration with Charles Shaw, Yellow Tail, and anything else cheap and in a brightly colored bottle. Although my palate has moved away from most of these wines, I cannot deny that they’re part of my personal wine history. I imagine Fred takes great delight in the fact that in hundreds of thousands of households across the country, it is his wine sitting on the dinner table, and not a $30 Napa Cab.

However, when even most bargain based wines are priced in the $7-10 range, it is appropriate to ask “what am I getting for my $2? Is it equal to wines priced in the $10, $20, or even $30 range?” There is not a yes or no answer here. If you are comparing “The Chuck” to other bulk brands, I believe there can be equality amongst them. Let me explain why…

Take the 75% rule. If a wine is not at least 75% Cabernet for instance, it cannot say Cabernet on the bottle. If the grapes are not at least 75% sourced from Napa Valley, it cannot say Napa Valley on the bottle (Bronco Wines got sued for this). If it is not sourced with at least 75% of it’s grapes from one vineyard, it cannot be labeled as vineyard specific. So, when you are buying a bottle that says 2007 Cabernet, from simply “California”, you can assume at least three things. One, the bottle contains at least 75% Cabernet grapes, two, that it does not have more than 75% of any particular growing region and is probably sourced from many different locations, and three, that the wine was grown in the 2007 vintage.

Many of the brands you can find in bulk at grocery stores are produced this way, sourcing grapes from many locations or at best, many locations in a general region (like the Central Coast). The reason for this is simple math. It is very hard to grow enough grapes in one area to fill the millions of cases that bulk producers supply to a thirsty market. Therefore, there is a need to source grapes from where they are available…as cheap as

When Charles Shaw is stacked against these kinds of wines, I say fair game! They are made in more or less a similar fashion and are of comparable quality, possibly even better quality depending on who you are comparing Charles Shaw with. Millions of repeat customers have found Two-Buck Chuck to be equally as good if not better than bottles three and four times as much.

However, I would argue that the (two) buck stops there. Let’s compare the Charles Shaw California Cabernet to a wine in the $15-20 range. We will call our wine A Long Pour Cabernet (yeah! I like that), 2007 Starlet Drive Vineyard, Depression Canyon. Now, do our two wines compare equally? No, they do not. We don’t know exactly where the Charles Shaw grapes are sourced from, other than California. According to Bronco Wines, the amount of fruit that goes into their wine that is estate grown and the amount that is sourced from other locations vary from year to year. Bronco also owns vineyards all over California, which are said to equal three-quarters the size of all the vineyards in Napa Valley. With my fictional wine, we know at least four things. One, it is a minimum 75% Cabernet, two, it is a minimum 75% estate grown at the Starlet Drive vineyard, three, that it is a representation of the Deprssion Canyon AVA, and four, it is the product of the 2007 vintage. My wine therefore has terrior grown into it (assuming I didn’t screw that up with high amounts of new oak and 15% alcohol, which I didn’t, because I like finesse!).

There are other facts that one could learn with a bit of research into the specific vineyard a wine is sourced from. For example, it may use sustainable practices, offer excellent employee benefits, and that it might maintain their staff from year to year indicating the staff enjoys working at that winery. With Charles Shaw, we know none of this. We know it is Cabernet from California from the 2007 vintage.

There are other aspects that clearly separate Two-Buck Chuck from the estate offering I proposed. We know that much of the Charles Shaw wine is sourced from California’s Central Valley. While there are some amazing wines coming from areas like Lodi, as a whole, the San Joaquin is better known for cheap jug wines like Gallo than wines of finesse and character.

By the way, one day I do want to make a wine …I wouldn’t be as arrogant as I would like to be if I didn’t have my own label. It’s going to be called “Screaming Harlan” and it is $750 a bottle. Sign-up now, there is already a four-year wait list.

Does this information make Two-Buck Chuck a bad wine? No it doesn’t. By definition, good wine is whatever you like. In fact, I think Fred Franzia said it very well in an interview with Jerry Hirsch of the Los Angeles Times. “The consumer has to make the trial and error with his own palate and taste buds,” Franzia said after being asked how a consumer might differentiate between a $5, $8, $15 or $50 bottle of wine. “Don’t listen to some wine writer’s rating system that is just numbers. Somebody might rate a wine at 94 points, but you, as a consumer might not like it and then say, ‘If I can’t appreciate what somebody said was a 94, then I am not going to go buy wine.’

There is one way to know if you like a wine he concluded, “you try it, you taste it and, if you like it, buy it. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.”

We shouldn’t let critics dictate our taste. If we happen to like what they like, that’s fine. If we hate what they like, well that’s fine too. As far as the claims though that Charles Shaw wines are just as good as anything out there, well that is just not true.

I drive a Mazda3, it isn’t fancy, but it has some nice features I use regularly. It gets good gas mileage and looks half decent while doing it. I really like my car actually. Because I like it though, is it equal to a 5 Series BMW? No, I assure you of that. Sure, both get you to your destination in basically the same way, but one is going to do it much more comfortably, even safer in many ways. On the flip side, is my Mazda3 equal to a Chevy Aveo? No, I don’t think so either. Each car has its rightful place and its group of followers who can appreciate its character and/or value.

Like cars, all wines are certainly not created equal. Many are far over priced, and appeal to the “it’s better than yours, because it’s more expensive,” baser quality we humans tend to have. I concede that point and deride those who buy into that thinking. On this point, I cheer Mr. Franzia for championing the consumption of wine by the common man and providing a product to appeal to that.

However, many in the $15-$30 range, the wines the bargain brands claim to be equal to, reflect much more than just the quality of their product. They represent a craft, a dedication to the land where the grapes were grown, and the people who grow it. Where pricing is unreasonably low it means there have been sacrifices in the quality one way or another. Even the quality of treatment for the real workers behind wine, the laborers is often reflected in the pricing of the wine. At a certain point, something has got to give when providing super low value products. Too often, it is the workers who pay the price. This was a tragic reality for Bronco Wine with the death of the teenage girl mentioned earlier.

There are always going to be Chevy Aveos of wine, as well as Mazdas, and Mercedes, even some Maseratis. Some, serve a purpose when we are younger (or broke). Others, we might get to test-drive once or twice in our lifetime, but never regularly. Most of us will get to trade up at least once or twice in our lives in respect the vehicles we drive and it is similar with wine. As we learn more and earn a little bigger pay check, we explore some better quality wines, we trade up a bit.

So, if you are happy with your Aveo, that’s great! If you can only afford an Aveo, well that’s fine too. But, if you are tired of roll-up windows and no AC, why not make it a point to test drive something new. You may like what you find…or drink.

For some additional reading on Mr. Franzia I recommend the following, which I used for reference:

Two Buck Chuck Takes a Bite Out of Napa

The Man Behind Napa’s Changing Landscape

The Scourge of Napa Valley

The House of Mondavi

About the photographer who took the shot of Fred Franzia in this article, which is brilliant by the way.

Michael Kelley attended both UCLA and The Art Center and once worked on The Fresh Price of Bellaire show. According to his site “Michael has survived a parachute malfunction, a car crash, a divorce, and a death. He has twin daughters, and when not traveling around the country shooting, is in Los Angeles on the golf course attempting to earn his PGA tour card.’

Michael was incredibly gracious to let me use this beautiful shot. He described Fred Franzia in a way that I thought was fitting and not too surprising…I won’t publish it here. He has worked for Los Angeles Magazine, Getty Images, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Business 2.0, and many others. He is brilliant with a camera.

Michael Kelley Photography

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