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May 25, 2022

The story behind Two Buck Chuck

Wherever it is that urban myths come from, Charles Shaw
– affectionately known as Two Buck Chuck – really inspired some
doozies when Trader Joe’s started selling the wine for $1.99 a
bottle. My pal Timmy told me that when United Airlines declared
bankruptcy, they sold warehouses full of wine to Trader Joe’s to
raise cash.
Wherever it is that urban myths come from, Charles Shaw – affectionately known as Two Buck Chuck – really inspired some doozies when Trader Joe’s started selling the wine for $1.99 a bottle. My pal Timmy told me that when United Airlines declared bankruptcy, they sold warehouses full of wine to Trader Joe’s to raise cash. Because the airline was desperate, TJ’s got it for next to nothing. Another version of this whopper goes like this: a different major airline unloaded the wine because they were no longer allowed to carry corkscrews onboard after 9/11.

I even heard someone say that the guy who owns Trader Joe’s won a massive amount of wine in a poker game.

Ever since Old Two Buck showed up at Trader Joe’s – the only place the wine is available – it has been flying out of the stores like it was made of Flubber. People fill their trunks with cases of it. At $23.88 a case, why not?

So where did this stuff come from? Aliens? Is Elvis making it in his secret hideaway – the one where he jams with all the other rock stars who faked their own deaths?

Ever the curious sort, I set about to find out just who the dickens Charles Shaw is, where he came from, where he went and how his name became synonymous with über-cheap wine. The answer was surprising.

Charles Shaw wines are made by the Bronco Wine Company, based in Ceres, Calif. (the city’s motto: “Always Try Ceres First,” whatever that means) which is on Highway 99 just south of Modesto. By any measure, Bronco is a huge producer. One of California’s largest wine grape growers, the company has more than 30 square miles of vineyards.

In addition to Two Buck, Bronco counts ForestVille, Estrella, Montpellier, Grand Cru, Silver Ridge, Rutherford Vintners, Hacienda, Fox Hollow and Napa Ridge among its brands.

A guy with the soon-to-be-famous name Charles F. Shaw sold his small winery to Bronco in the early 1990. I poked around some of President Bush’s “Internets” and found out that Charles F. Shaw is a Chicago businessman who purchased 50 acres in Napa Valley in the late 1970s. He made Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc until declaring bankruptcy in 1992. Bronco then bought the brand name because that is what they do: buy assets, vineyards and brand names from underperforming and failed wineries.

Bronco evidently kept the Charles Shaw label in their secret stash of brand names until dusting it off for use on the ultra-low tier wine they decided to start producing a few years ago. This wine is a result of the simple fact that there are just too many wine grapes being produced in California for the present market. During the heady 1990s, growers increased their acreage at a phenomenal rate, only to see the demand level out and in some cases, decrease.

Bronco buys grapes as cut-rate prices, mass-produces the wine, Trader Joe’s markets it (and has enjoyed a mountain of free publicity in the bargain) and consumers get a great deal. Everybody is happy. In fact, a friend of mine used to work as a manager at Trader Joe’s in Pacific Grove. She told me that the retailer’s margin of profit is greater on Charles Shaw than any other wine in the store. So you know Joe is happy.

Interestingly, an Oct. 5 story in the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Press reported that Mr. Shaw has floated a proposal to purchase acreage near the Lake Michigan resort town of South Haven to grow premium wine grapes and start a winery. Since he sold his name, I wonder what he will call it? Twenty-buck Chuck? Not-That-Charles-Shaw?

I’m not going to make any judgments on the quality of Charles Shaw wine – we don’t do that sort of thing here at Wine Chat. I’ll leave the tasting notes and snippy comments to others. I will say that all of the Charles Shaw wines I’ve tasted have been drinkable, especially a Gamay Beaujolais they released a year or so ago.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter where Two Buck comes from. It’s a cheap way to enjoy wine with a meal, and that can be good for the industry if it gets people who wouldn’t normally drink wine to try it. Perhaps folks will try Charles Shaw, become emboldened to taste some higher-quality products, and a new wine consumer will be born.

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