Portland pours on the Chuck
Charles Shaw wine, known fondly to buyers as 'Two Buck Chuck,' is flying out of stores
It's the cat-that-got-the-cream smile that gives them away: Portlanders streaming out of Trader Joe's with clanking brown bags, or pushing carts piled high with wine cases, heading to their SUVs.
The craze for the $2.99 California wine called Charles Shaw could be the biggest thing since pet rocks, Jane Fonda tapes and Amazon stock. Folks in the know love to call it Two Buck Chuck. This nickname for the four varietals Ñ cabernet, merlot, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, which sell for just $2 a bottle in California Ñ was coined by a Trader Joe's employee in an Internet chat room in December.
Six months ago, few people had heard of Charles Shaw wine. But by the end of the year, around 2 million cases of Two Buck Chuck had shipped, according to wine industry analyst Jon Fredrikson, publisher of The Gomberg, Fredrikson Report. That puts it among the top 40 brands in the country.
'It's drinkable,' Holly Hill says as she and her husband, T.R., exit Trader Joe's on Northwest Glisan Street.
'It's a good second bottle,' T.R. says.
Holly grins. 'It's cheaper than pop; you can't really go wrong.'
The couple couldn't be more Northwest. She works for DuPont, marketing high-tech 'active wear' fabrics to Nike and Adidas. He's an architect who designs hotels. The Hills, who live in the Tower Hill neighborhood of Gresham, are not the sort of people who normally would be seen hovering over the bargain bins in the wine aisle, but they are typical of converts to the cult of Charles Shaw.
They first tried the wine while helping a friend move into an apartment near the Northwest Glisan Street Trader Joe's. The friend opened a bottle as she raved about the $3 deal. The Hills liked it. The couple immediately bought a case of the cabernet sauvignon before heading home. Now, just three days later, they're back to pick up two cases of the merlot.
'It's not the best wine in the world,' T.R. says. 'It's the sort of thing you drink while painting the living room.'
It's a sentiment shared by many. Outside the same store recently, local writer Donald Olson was loading two cases into the trunk of his partner's Acura. He needed something to warm up the crowd at the Alysia Duckler Gallery for a benefit reading of his new play, 'Oregon Ghosts.' Usually, he says, such an event would require wine in the $8- to $10-a-bottle range.
'I'm no connoisseur, but it seemed to go down rather well,' he reported back later. 'Nobody spit it out in my face, put it that way.'
Mitch Swanson, the Glisan Street Trader Joe's store 'captain,' estimates he sells about 100 cases a week. The wine moves so fast it's piled up in the front window.
'I don't like to put stuff in the window, but I have nowhere else to put it,' he says. At least this way customers don't have to heft the goods. They just tell the cashier, and a clerk carries the cases out to the car.
Another shopper, graphic designer Nichole Klaes, toting a bottle of the cabernet, says the organizers of an Ainsworth Elementary School fund-raising auction considered serving Charles Shaw. In the end they decided it might not be the thing to put people in the mood.
'It's not my favorite wine,' Klaes says. 'I don't know about a good second bottle. I'd say it's a good third bottle.'
Trying to explain why the product defies economics, she adds, 'I heard someone died and left a huge cellar.'
To spit or not to spit
'Somebody must be losing money if they're selling this at $3 a bottle,' says Brian Martin, co-owner of the wine bar Vigne in the Pearl District.
'The bottle, the cork, the foil, the labor É You can maybe do it in Europe where wine has been made for centuries, but not in the U.S., where you have to pay for the brand new winery and the vineyards you just planted.'
Martin says he's never tasted Charles Shaw wine, and he's proud that he's never poured a California wine by the glass at Vigne.
'At $2.99, I'd be looking for something that doesn't make me want to spit it out.'
Although he thinks such cheap wine could be bad for his business, he concedes: 'I can't blame whoever's doing this. At the end of the day, cash is better than inventory.'
Urban legends have sprung up to fill the information vacuum. One claims that (insert your favorite airline) dumped its entire stock of Charles Shaw on the market when a corkscrew ban was implemented on all U.S. flights after Sept. 11, 2001.
Another says that the original vintner Charles Shaw had to sell the wine under cost to reduce his assets in a nasty divorce. The real Mr. Shaw is divorced, but that has nothing to do with the price of wine. He started his winery in 1974 to make Beaujolais, but it failed to sell.
He sold the name Charles Shaw in 1991 and moved to Chicago, where the 59-year-old now works as a manager at a software firm.
Bronco Wine Co., a mass-market wine producer, snapped up the name in 1991 but only pulled it out of the great intellectual property cellar in February 2002. (Among Bronco's 40 labels are old favorites Hacienda, a box wine; Forest Glen; and Napa Ridge.)
The wine is cheap because of the current worldwide wine glut. In the 1980s and 1990s, countries such as the United States, Australia and Argentina went crazy for winemaking, with wine makers planting vines and building factories. Ultimately they overestimated the demand for wine. Demand dropped even further as the number of people eating in restaurants dropped after Sept 11.
The bottle certainly looks classy, and it has the magic word 'Napa' on the smaller label on the back, because Bronco won a legal fight to use the word.
But Two Buck Chuck does not necessarily spring from the Teletubbian hills of the Napa region. Most of the grapes are grown on huge farms and turned into bulk wine in California's Central Valley, in areas such as San Joaquin County, Sacramento, Lodi and Mendocino, says Bronco spokesman Harvey Posert. As the label says, it is only 'bottled and cellared' in Napa.
Fine Napa grapes usually sell for $2,000 a ton. Central Valley grapes usually go for $200 a ton, but by last summer that price plunged to $60. Bulk wine that usually costs winemakers $6 a gallon now costs $1 a gallon.
Fred Franzia, the owner of Bronco, gambled once by dumping his surplus on the market, twice by buying up the grapes of failing farms. In Chuck's case, the bulk wine is shipped by container truck up Interstate 5 and California Highway 99 to the Bronco plant in Napa, where it is blended and bottled. Then it's trucked out to its exclusive retail stores, Trader Joe's, across the nation.
Like a hot Christmas toy, this exclusivity further propels sales, because people think the wine is scarce and hurry to buy more. Posert predicts the wine will be around at this price until at least the end of 2004.
Talk keeps 'em buying
Perhaps Charles Shaw hits a taste bud that links right to the current zeitgeist (a desire for high-quality products at reasonable prices), or perhaps it's just a cheap way to get bombed before the bombing starts. The fact that opinion is so divided on whether it's any good keeps people talking about it.
'I don't care for Charles Shaw; it's the industrial approach to winemaking,' says Jonathan Soll, recently found at the bar of Oregon Wines on Broadway savoring an $8 glass of Jimmy Brooks 2000 pinot noir. He tried Charles Shaw out of curiosity after hearing of its popularity.
'I think the residual sugars (in Charles Shaw) are there to make up for the lack of complexity in the fruits,' he says.
'You might as well be drinking cough syrup,' translates Kate Bolling, one of the two sisters who own the store. Bolling has yet to try Charles Shaw.
'There's nothing offensive about it,' Soll qualifies. 'But if you care about wine, you can't say this is any good.'
Wine lovers generally talk in detail about chemistry, but Charles Shaw is a rare wine that has crossed over into pop culture.
The Hills gave a bottle to a DuPont chemist friend to take home to Greensboro, N.C.
Michael Hunt reported back: 'We tasted (the 2001 cabernet) in my wine-tasting class tonight, and everyone really liked it, including the teacher, syndicated wine columnist Don Lahey. He said that it was 'pretty good' and that it reminded him of one he used to make when he was actually making wines. It was also more in the French tradition in that it was not as smooth since it had not been aged in an oak barrel.'
For T.R. Hill, it's all about being social.
'Since (the first night) we have spread the legendary Chuck to about 34 people in conversation as well as sharing the wine,' he recently wrote in an e-mail. 'Who knows how many others we will infect with the Chuck?'