It’s called “Two-buck Chuck” and it sells like crazy at Trader Joe’s. The name comes from the price ($1.99… though today it retails for a hefty $2.99 a bottle) and the winemaker’s name (Charles Shaw… who actually doesn’t make the wine).
Here in California you can’t miss the stuff – boxes of it typically dominate the (decent) wine section at any given TJs location. Though it’s available in several varietals, Chardonnay is the one that’s generated the most buzz. You wouldn’t expect Miles from Sideways to find it even remotely “quaff-able” and yet it has garnered some praise in some parts of the wine world, and won a few wine competitions, even when matched up against pricier, more esteemed wines from Napa and Sonoma.
There’s no shortage of Two-buck Chuck bashing. Some of it, I suspect, comes from pretentious, maybe even envious, posturing. How dare an entrepreneur buy up Central coast vineyards, and mass produce cheap wine in a ridiculously bold attempt to take on the establishment?! It could be that success breeds contempt, or it could be there’s some truth in there. Who knows, the reality is probably not quite as dramatic as some would have us believe.
Fred Franzia, the man behind the bulk wine, is a polarizing figure. Google his name and no shortage of perspectives emerge.
But, I’m actually not here to either support or debunk the man, his wine, or his businesses.
What gets my goat is something called…
It, in a word, stinks.
For a primer, watch John Oliver’s hilarious and informative take-down on the nefarious practice:
Basically, native ads are regular news articles and editorials that are, in reality, thinly-veiled advertisements. Companies pay publishers–The New York Times, The Atlantic, TIME–to place these pieces. Readers typically can’t tell they’re ads because they’re disguised as just another editorial, just another news report. A small tagline at the top designates the article, for example, as a “sponsored post.” The practice is concerning, though somewhat tragically not surprising given the moshpit of viral content the Internet has bestowed upon us. Typically there is a firewall between the business side of journalism and (oh, say) the fact-finding, objective side. Never the twain shall meet. Well, that is until the Internet crushed the traditional print ad business, and then destroyed the concept of paying for anything. Native ads are just one more, desperate, attempt by reeling publishers to monetize disrupted business models.
What, Charlie Brown, does this all have to do with Trader Joe’s and Two-buck Chuck? I’m getting there, but first…
The latest slam against Fred Franzia comes from an “article” in The Huffington Post. It’s only 5 paragraphs long, and clearly the author is not a fan, not in the least:
“…to make $2 wine one must compromise all sense of integrity and quality, own tens of thousands of acres of vineyards in the worst possible wine region possible where land is incredibly cheap and yields are exceptionally high, use machines to execute every part of a homogenized system that substitutes manipulation for hand crafted quality, and own every step of the winemaking process including bottling, packaging and distribution, all while giving the finger to the entire wine industry and plowing down anyone who gets in your way.”
There are no sources mentioned when the author describes the rather wicked sounding harvesting process used to make Trader Joe’s wine. Tractors with “huge claws” grab grapes! Rodents, birds and insects are inadvertently mixed together with the grapes! Animal blood into wine!
While we’d likely not confuse a Charles Shaw Cabernet with one from Etude anytime soon, the guy who wrote the HuffPo piece seems to have quite the flare for the dramatic. Here I was thinking red wine was red largely because of the grape skin. Ha, silly me. It’s because of the animal blood. Of course.
After re-reading the article I discovered something that I missed the first time.
“So That’s Why Trader Joe’s Wine Is So Cheap!” (published August 4, 2014 on huffingtonpost.com) is a native ad – the article is not an article.
Look closely at the top of the web page and you’ll see a small ad inviting us to become fans of Quora (so we can user generate profits free for the company).
The article in question is, in fact, a comment (“answer”) left on Quora–get this–three years ago.
However it came about, Quora ultimately paid Huffington Post money to run that article. An “article” which turns out to be merely an apparently off-the-cuff comment written in response to a question (“How is Trader Joe’s wine so cheap?“) some random wine buyer (with 12 years fine dining experience).
The whole thing reeks on so many levels:
1. It’s a native ad which, as John Oliver points out ever so eloquently in the video above, is a dubious and unfortunate practice. Or more practically it’s “repurposed bovine waste.”
2. There is no fact checking to substantiate any of the claims about Bronco Wines (the company behind Two-buck Chuck). Could it be true? Sure, I have no idea. But when it comes to burden of proof should HuffPo not treat an article/editorial differently than a random comment?
3. The article is a cut-and-paste hack job. Worse still, it’s copied (verbatim) from a comment made 3 years ago.
And here I was, enjoying my day, thinking the Internet was fair and unbiased.
UPDATE 8.9.2014 – I received an email from the Quora PR team (below). The Huffington Post article “So That’s Why Trader Joe’s Wine Is So Cheap!” has been taken down.
Subject: Clarification from QuoraQuora has a relationship with the Huffington Post in which answers from Quora writers are republished on the Huffington Post. This relationship doesn’t involve anything financial; neither Quora nor the Huffington Post is paid by the other.The Huffington Post has since removed the post from their site in accordance with their blogger terms. Quora has also removed the answer because it was found to be in violation of our terms of service.
This blog post contained un-sourced claims about Two Buck Chuck and its proprietor, Bronco Wines. It has been removed from the site in accordance with our blogger terms.
And for context here’s the original Quora answer (that’s also since been removed) from the thread “How is Trader Joe’s so Cheap?“- the one that was used as an “article” on Huffington Post, apparently without the commenter’s knowledge or consent:
The basic gist of it all is that Two Buck Chuck is owned by Bronco Wines, which is owned by Fred Franzia, a trash-mouthed, unapologetic downright crude and shrewd business man who sees it as his mission to pretty much remove any shred of pretentiousness (and dare I say integrity and quality along with it) from the wine world.
He started by buying the then failing Charles Shaw label years ago along with massive amounts of bulk wine in the 90’s for pennies on the dollar and a staggering 35,000 acres of land in the very cheap San Joaquin Valley which he then planted to vines. That gives his Bronco Wines the prestige of holding the most acreage of vines of any American winery, even surpassing Mondavi and Gallo.
A few things to keep in mind about his vineyards: one is that they are located in what is known as the Central Valley in the California wine world which is notoriously flat and quite hot producing massive yields of overripe grapes. The other thing is that Fred Franzia is no dummy — he planted those vineyards in such a way as the rows run north-south, giving the vines maximum sun exposure and he made the rows as long as he possibly could, minimizing the number of turns his tractors would need to make. And third, these aren’t hand-picked vineyards … they are all machine harvested. And that means these large tractors with huge claws go down the rows of vineyards grabbing the grapes and depositing them in its huge receptacle. And it not only grabs ripe grapes, but unripe and down right rotten ones as well and throws them all together. Add to that leaves, stems and any rodents, birds, or insects that may have made those vines their home — they all get thrown into the bin as well. And guess what? You think there’s going to be any sorting when that truck arrives at the winery (or should I say processing facility)? Nope. Everything, and I do mean everything (including all those unripe grapes, rotten grapes, leaves, stems, birds, rodents, and insects) gets tossed into the crusher and transferred to large tanks to ferment. So think about all the animal blood and parts that may have made their way into your wine next time you crack open that bottle of Two Buck Chuck! Hardly even seems worth the $2 does it?
If you were to taste that wine right after it was made, I guarantee you it would be undrinkable. They will then manipulate the finished wine in whatever way necessary, including adding sugar or unfermented grape juice if needed to make the wine palatable. And then the wine goes into bottling, packaging and shipping facilities, all of which Fred Franzia owns himself. They then get put on trucks (also owned by Fred Franzia) and shipped to Trader Joe’s. The only part of the process Fred doesn’t own is Trader Joe’s itself and I’m sure if he got his way, he’d include that in his empire as well.
So the summary is this — to make $2 wine one must compromise all sense of integrity and quality, own tens of thousands of acres of vineyards in the worst possible wine region possible where land is incredibly cheap and yields are exceptionally high, use machines to execute every part of a homogenized system that substitutes manipulation for hand crafted quality, and own every step of the winemaking process including bottling, packaging and distribution, all while giving the finger to the entire wine industry and plowing down anyone who gets in your way.