The End of Two Buck Chuck?

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two buck chuck display

photo: Wikimedia Commons

We were at the Seattle airport a few years ago, my wife and I, checking in our baggage at the counter. We had some work to do in Chelan and were on our way back to Denver. As we made our way to the airport, we stopped at a Trader Joe’s to buy a case of their Charles Shaw Merlot. Everyone knows it as Two Buck Chuck because Trader Joe’s sold it for $1.99 a bottle for years in California (where they don’t tax wine). Because we didn’t have any Trader Joe’s stores in Colorado until earlier this year, it was a standard item on our shopping list whenever we visited another state. It was such a regular purchase when either of us traveled, we went so far as to buy one of those hard-sided file boxes with wheels and pull-out handle so it trundled behind you just like your carry-on luggage. A case of wine fits snugly, so it doesn’t move around as you haul it, and the hard sides protected the glass from breaking when it flies in the belly of the plane.

We expected the check-in to be routine, as it had been many times before. Not this time, though. Our attendant turned out to be an extreme rules person. She demanded to know what was inside the box. Wine, we told her. Brusque turned to hostile: Nope, she informed us firmly, the airline cannot accept a case of wine as checked baggage. We were speechless, because you never expect something to be denied when it’s been done routinely tens of times by tens of colleagues around the country. Never a question, never a word, just “Thank you for flying with us.” But not this time. No, Siree.

My wife’s recovery was quicker. My mouth still opened and closed soundlessly, like a fish on dry ground, when she pointed out, very politely, that we’ve done this many times before, with this exact file case and this exact airline. She might as well have addressed an iceberg. Mouth corners down, lips pressed firmly together, the ground attendant let my wife finish, but was neither impressed nor swayed. Clearly, those other employees did not attend her permissible baggage classes. All my wife got was a quick, firm, shake of the head. “Anything else to check in?”

After a few desperate seconds, my wife, said, more to herself than to the attendant, “Oh no! We’re from Colorado, and there are no Trader Joe’s there. This was our only chance to get in some TJ shopping.”

The iceberg melted faster than you could say “Chuck.” You’ve never seen a change so swift, or so complete. “You have no Trader Joe’s?” Mortification and horror dripped from every syllable. “Well, that’s just terrible! Here, Honey, let me help you get that checked in.” And we were on our way.

Which other wine elicits such a strong emotional response (even from the Gestapo)? That’s not the only emotional response Two Buck Chuck provokes. Shoppers on a budget just love the stuff and can’t get enough — which other label has sold 800 million bottles in the past 12 years? That’s almost $2 billion — through a single retailer, one without total national coverage. If that’s not “loves the stuff, ” what is?

Another strong emotional response is derision and scorn, with perhaps not a little hate thrown in. Wine makers in the famed Napa region of California despise Charles Shaw’s maker and pass up no opportunity to say so. Who would like someone who drops the average price for your product, in a recession, when everyone is hurting?

Who is this Charles Shaw fellow, anyway? (He is none other, of course, than probably the most famous incognito man in the country.) Actually, it’s a tale of two people. In 1974, Charles F. Shaw and his wife Lucy bought 70 acres in the heart of the Napa Valley with her inheritance and started a winery. This was before buying wine farms in Napa Valley became the thing to do for the idle rich. Unfortunately,  the winery didn’t do well financially, and neither did the marriage. In 1991, the couple divorced and Lucy kept the winery. Charles left town and started a vineyard in Michigan. The winery bearing his name went bankrupt soon after he left, at which point the “other” Charles Shaw appeared.

Only his name wasn’t Charles Shaw. It is Fred Franzia, head of Bronco Wine Company, based near Salinas, in California’s Central Valley. Mr. Franzia bought the Charles Shaw label and sat on it for almost a decade.

The recession following the dot-com bust provided the perfect opportunity for Mr. Franzia. Don’t believe the many urban legends surrounding the absurdly low price. No, Mr. Franzia did not have a divorce and a need to devalue the winery, and no, airlines were not forced to dump wine on the market. Bronco Wine simply bought up large quantities of good quality wine in the recession, bottled it with the new label, and offered it to Trader Joe’s for a low enough price to enable the retailer to sell it for $1.99 a bottle in 2002.

The timing was perfect, and the quality was surprising. In 2004 and 2005, Charles Shaw wines won several prizes. The wine flew off the shelves — so much so that Trader Joe’s simply stacked the cases on the floor and cut a few open for a display. If you can get an entire case for the price of a bottle of medium-quality wine, why not buy the whole case?

Good things never last, do they? In 2013, Trader Joe’s announced what everyone had been waiting for for many years: the price of Two Buck Chuck was raised by fifty cents a bottle. How would the market react? Outside of California, the price had always been $3 a bottle or more, because of taxes and transportation.

From all accounts, the price hike of 25 percent, on a brand so famous the news made “Time” magazine and most of the major TV networks, hardly registered. Isn’t that amazing?

Okay, so what’s the moral or point of this post? A few:

1. The good things in life aren’t always the most expensive. Nobody would confuse Charles Shaw wine with those labels which win gold medals year after year … but those labels don’t generate billions of dollars from rabidly loyal fans, either. Remember this the next time you go shopping for … just about anything. Learn to identify quality — and a good bargain — when you see one!

2. There is life after failure. Charles Shaw, the one with the real name, no doubt faced some bitter feelings of disappointment when his winery and marriage failed. But he’s remarried and is making another go of it. And running another winery, specializing in riesling.

Oh, one more: If you wait long enough, you, too, will eventually have a Trader Joe’s near you. Then perhaps you won’t rankle overworked airline employees trying to make a buck or two. 🙂

2 Responses to “The End of Two Buck Chuck?”

  1. Anonymous

    ha, I loved the turn around with the gate agent once she heard the horror of not having a TJ’s!

    Not a wine drinker myself, but have several friends who love Two Buck Chuck 🙂

  2. Anonymous

    Great post! My wife and I are the same. There’s something about a good bargain that you just can’t walk away from, you know? I think it’s also hilarious how the flight attendant took a 180 when she heard there were no Trader Joe’s in your area. 🙂

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