THE BLENDING MAN KNOWS!
I have been buying wine and food from Trader Joe’s for over 40 years. Joe Coulombe founded Trader Joe’s in 1958. The first store was in South Pasadena and was called Pronto Market. The larger Trader Joe’s stores followed in 1967. Back in those olden days, I knew Joe and many of the staff. The goal was always to have really good quality food and beverages at affordable prices. And when it came to wine, back then it included Classified Growth Bordeaux (including First Growths), Burgundies (including DRC), and a wide range of other wines including great values sold under the Trader Joe’s label at prices as low as $0.99 per bottle! Many wines (including wines that were being considered for private label) were tasted by a panel of employees and a few outsiders. From time to time I would sit in on these tastings and the selection process was rigorous and driven by quality and value. Joe was personally involved in all aspects of the business including buying and tasting wine and traveling to France looking for deals. Joe sold the business in 1979 to the late Theo Albrecht who was one of the founders of the German supermarket chain Aldi. Expansion had slowed in the years before the sale, but since then Trader Joe’s has expanded rapidly and now has over 350 stores in 28 states. Today you don’t see the high end wines at Trader Joe’s, but you do find a lot of value priced wines. The most famous, of course, is the ubiquitous Two Buck Chuck.
So I know Trader Joe’s and I know Two Buck Chuck. But, do you know Two Buck Chuck? If not, please allow me to make the introduction. The history of Two Buck Chuck is fairly new. It dates back ten years when the Trader Joe’s chain began to sell an inexpensive wine for under $2. The wine was vintage dated Cabernet Sauvignon with a Charles Shaw label. Charles Shaw was the name of a Napa Valley winery that existed in the 1970s and 1980s and had an established reputation for making nice fruity wines. It went out of business and Fred Franzia and his Bronco Wine Company purchased the name in 1990. I remember reading a story about Fred Franzia in the Wall Street Journal years ago talking about how frugal he was and how he only bought assets when they were being sold at distress prices. Over the years he became a buyer of last resort to banks and other lenders who needed to sell foreclosed vineyards and winery assets. Bronco Wine Company accumulated vast vineyard holdings and winery facilities of all types.
When Two Buck Chuck was launched, Bronco Wine Company owned a bottling plant in Napa and had production facilities and extensive vineyard holdings all over the state which are said to now total something like 40,000 acres. Bronco was able to use the facility in Napa to bottle the wine from grapes grown all over the state. Also, they can buy wine already made. Early on, I would hear people talking about the $2 “Napa” Cabernet Sauvignon from Trader Joe’s. And, even today some people talk about the Two-Buck Chuck “Napa” Cabernet they buy at Trader Joe’s. Of course, it is not Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The label says “California” which is where the grapes come from. And the wine might be made anywhere in the state and then perhaps bottled in Napa. But, that’s as close as it gets to Napa. But, no matter, consumers were enamored with the soft, light wine and especially the $1.99 price. Two-Buck Chuck was a new category of wine and sales took off like a rocket! With very low operational costs and no advertising budget, I remember reading somewhere an estimate of a profit to Bronco Wine Company of $0.50 cents for each bottle sold. Not bad! In fact, if this estimate is true, I would suspect that the total profits from this venture to date are the envy of almost any one in the wine business at any level.
Today, just what is Two-Buck Chuck? Well, there are now 7 different varietal wines sold under the label. In California it still sells for $1.99 and hence the name Two-Buck Chuck. In the other states where it is sold the price can range from $2.99 to $3.39. At last count Trader Joe’s has sold something like 50 million cases of the stuff in 10 years. And, as far as I know, the sales are still roaring along.
So with that bit of history, how is the wine you might ask? Well, it just so happens that I was curious enough to recently buy a bottle of each of the 7 varietals as part of my Blending Game series (to read recent articles: 1. click here 2. click here 3. click here.)
The cost of the 7 bottles was around $14. With such a modest amount of money invested, my thesis was that I could use the wines to blend together and make something better than the individual wines. After all, that is part of what the Blending Game is all about – take a wine that is not so good and blend it with something else in the same general price category and make it better. So my thought was that some of the wines would be better than others and the blending game would make the deal worthwhile. Here’s how the Blending Game played out. First the tasting notes on the 7 different Two-Buck Chucks.
The Two-Buck Chuck Line-Up
2011 Charles Shaw Pinot Grigio California.
Pale yellow color. Faint perfume. Light and crisp with a faint bitterness on the finish.
2010 Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc California.
Pale yellow color. Grassy perfume with a faint skunkiness. Tart, grassy, and crisp.
2010 Charles Shaw Chardonnay California.
Pale yellow color. Faint perfume. Light and crisp with a very faint floral citrus nuance.
2009 Charles Shaw White Zinfandel California.
Pale pink color. Faint orange hue. Subtle perfume. Faintly earthy. Light, supple, and a bit flat with some fruit and sweetness.
2010 Charles Shaw Merlot California.
Deep color. Faint perfume. Light, some fruit. Crisp.
2010 Charles Shaw Shiraz California.
Deep color. Faint berry perfume. Light. Some berry fruit and a balanced crispness.
2010 Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon.
Deep color. Subdued perfume. Light, some fruit. Soft tannins.
The Two Buck Chuck Bottom Line: The biggest thing that these wines have going for them is the price. The fact is there is very little that you can buy for $2 per bottle. And, that is manifest in the Two Buck Chuck line up where some wines are better than others. For me the best wines were still very light and lacked flavor and varietal character. But, with the exception of the Sauvignon Blanc and White Zinfandel, they were clean and fresh. And, as I have always said wine is a matter of personal taste. Like What You Drink & Drink What You Like (to read my article click here)!
Well, for me, so much for the Two-Buck Chuck tasting. There was no way to blend any of the Two Buck Chuck wines to be something better. You win some, you lose some. The Blending Man had definitely experienced a dose of vinous Kryptonite! Fortunately, I had also invested in another 3 wines at Trader Joe’s at the same time. My idea here was to use these additional wines as blending wines as necessary with the 7 bottles of Two-Buck Chuck. The cost for those 3 bottles was around $13. So now I am all in for around $27 for 10 bottles of wine. Here are the notes on the other 3 bottles.
2010 Panilonco Chardonnay Viognier Reserve Colchagua Valley, Chile.
Pale yellow color. Subtle perfume. Floral, hint of apple and citrus. Light, fruity, clean and pleasant. Nice crisp finish.
2010 La Ferme Julien Rosé Ventoux Rhone Valley, France.
Light salmon pink color. Lovely floral perfume. Light, fresh and crisp with nice floral tinged fruit and a touch of citrus. Made with Cinsault, Grenache, and Syrah, this is a very nice rosé and a very good value – Recommended. $4.99 Imported by International Wine Imports, American Canyon, CA
La Granja Tempranillo Cariñena
I reviewed the 2009 version of this wine in my Dueling Inexpensive Red Wines Line-Up article (to read that article click here). Here’s what I had to say then: This wine is made from Tempranillo grown in the Cariñena region of Northern Spain. La Granja 360 means the farm 360. The label depicts a flying pig. Who says pigs don’t fly? Well, according to the back label: “The little pig is flying because it experienced a song which the Spanish children sing when somebody has asked for something which is impossible to realize, has a dream, or says something absurd.” Well, I assume that the Spanish children do not drink wine or at least not too much. But why is it that they sing when somebody has asked for something which is impossible to realize, has a dream, or says something absurd? What do these things have in common that prompts the singing? And, given the scope of these events there must be Spanish children singing pretty much 24/7. That being the case, the Spanish skies must be full of flying pigs! Yikes! Look out below!! I wonder if there are any of the black Iberian pigs up there? If so, maybe the price of the great Bellota ham will drop along with the pigs? But, after all this, which I think is all very cute, does anyone care about the wine that’s in the bottle? If so, read on.
2010 La Granja Tempranillo Cariñena.
This 2010 is not up to the level of the 2009 which was a real bargain, but it is still a nice wine. Dark in color. Nice perfume with a touch of earthiness. Rounded, supple, fruity and plummy with a crisp finish. $3.99 Imported by Evaki Inc, San Luis Obispo, CA
So now what to do? All the last 3 wines are better than any of the 7 Two Buck Chuck wines. Interesting because they all have animals on the label. But, for the life of me, I cannot figure out any correlation! However, after eliminating the Two Buck Chuck Sauvignon Blanc and White Zinfandel which I found flawed, I began blending the three “animal” wines to see which of the Two Buck Chucks might be enhanced. For me the Rhone rosé was the best wine of the bunch and the Chardonnay Viognier and the Tempranillo were also pretty good. So by varying the percentages of these wines with different percentages of the 5 remaining Two Buck Chucks, I found that it was possible to make blends that I liked. Here are a few:
The final verdict: The Blending Game saves the day for the Two Buck Chuck. And, in order to get Two Buck Chuck that I liked, I had to kick it up to Three Buck Chuck. Hopefully, one of these days Trader Joe’s will come out with a premium Two Buck Chuck and call it Three Buck Chuck. This could be easily done by blending some inexpensive wines from low cost wine producing areas such as South America and Spain with wines from California. But, until that happens, take bottles and blend them to get something in your glass that you really like. Play the Blending Game! Be sure to serve the blends well chilled and then sit back with a smile on your face knowing that you have made something that YOU like for only a few bucks! And, if it makes you feel better, put the blend into any bottle you choose. It’s like the old saying “Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back!” Bon Dégustacion de Vin de Three Buck Chuck! Viva La Up-Grade!
In Vino Veritas,