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Chucking the Two-buck Chuck

Posted: Monday, 11 August 2014 11:06

Blog: Chucking the Two-buck Chuck

Aug 11: Charles Shaw Wine commonly known as Two Buck Chuck because of their price tag in the stores owned by the Distributor -Trader Joe’s and even won a Gold Medal at a California State Wine Competition once, is under the lens not only for the low quality but health issues reportedly due to mechanical harvesting and no sorting, thus bringing out the issue of cheap imported wines in India and potential challenges for the FSSAI to spot wines that might be harmful for health.

In a scathing attack, the US Food Safety Blog labels Fred Franzia, the proprietor of Bronco Wines which owns the ubiquitous US brand  “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.” Two Buck Chuck used to be sold for $1.99 a bottle till 2013 when it was increased to $2.99-still qualifying for the label price.

Reasons for the angst are obvious. The hygiene and grape quality is the most suspect.‘...(The grapes) aren’t hand-picked…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 their huge receptacles. And they not only grab ripe grapes, but unripe and downright rotten ones as well and throw 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,’ says the article.

That would make mechanical harvesting used by several high volume or bulk wine producers, especially in the New World wineries and the big co-operatives in the Old World, suspect. The Blog does clarify that everything received in the tractors is dumped into the crushers without any sorting. ‘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!’ it says.

The Blog also mentions the other factors making the quality low- ‘the vineyards 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. (Fred Franzia)…planted those vineyards in such a way as the rows run north-south, giving the vines maximum sun exposure. He made the rows as long as he possibly could and minimizing the number of turns his tractors would need to make.’

The third factor might not apply to hygiene but the yields and grape quality that makes the wine available at such low prices. ’He started by buying the then failing Charles Shaw label years ago along with massive amounts of bulk wine in the '90s 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,’ it adds. Estimates place Bronco Wines holding as high as 40,000 acres, over 6 times that of entire India.

The article also hints at manipulations without which the wine might be undrinkable. “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.”

One of the 4 Things Not to Buy at Trader Joes

The Blog does reek of a personal attack or animosity which we are neither able to know or comment on; you might form your own opinion. But in another article, CBS News underlines cheap prices, friendly staff and carefully curated shelves that make you feel you are in a food boutique when you visit Trader Joe's where every item is handpicked by the buyers who travel the globe in search for well-priced, often organic products. However, it lists four items to cross off your Trader Joe’s shopping list- Two buck Chuck is one of them.

Though some people seem perfectly content with these bargain wines, most wine lovers would rather drink beer. Keith Wallace, executive director of The Wine School of Philadelphia, puts it bluntly: “A lot of people are saying that this stuff is as good as anything else. It’s not. It’s just crap.” Michael Steinberger, wine columnist for Slate, managed to dub the varieties of Two Buck Chunk “plonk,” “swill,” and “undrinkable” in a single column. What its drinkers may not know, says Wallace, is that there is no actual Charles Shaw winery and that the Two Buck Chuck production process more closely resembles that of soda than wine. “This wine is made in a factory, with a lot of synthetic and concentrated products, like grape musk, added to manipulate the flavors from bad grapes,” he says. ‘Yes, it is $2 a bottle, but you get what you pay for,’ is his conclusive advice.

Meanwhile, a Blog posted by the Huffington Post and referred to in some of the articles has been removed with the Editor’s Note ‘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.’

Gold for the Two Buck Chuck  

Curiously, in the summer of 2007 the wine had won a Gold Medal at a California State Wine Competition. As reported then in delWine ‘A few months ago, the two-buck-chuck won a Gold medal at a California state wine competition. Many eye-brows were raised but as Robert Joseph- Chairman of the then held Indian Wine Challenge told me when I met him in Germany for judging at the MundusVini Competition, ' If judges from a region feel that way for a particular wine, why not? It indicates their decision based on their preferences.'

When I raised the point with Michael Schaeffer, a fellow judge, friend and a US wine educator, his reaction was different. 'How do we know what samples were submitted for the competition? Maybe they submitted samples which were different than their normal production!'

Chuck and FSAAI

Since Charles Shaw (Two Buck Chuck) wines are not available in India and I have not seen their manufacturing facilities, I won’t want to comment on the article or its contents but a few other websites also sing the same song. But it is for the wine drinkers to think about this example when they drink very low-priced budget wines due to heavy taxes in India. It also raises another interesting question. The food and safety organization in the US  (like FSSAI in India) ought to have a role to play in ensuring that millions of Americans are not subjected to unhealthy products as claimed in the advisories in these reports. I seek objective and dispassionate comments from our American consumers and producers to help the new breed of foreign wine-on-a-budget drinkers in India.

This also brings to the fore the role of FSSAI which has been assigned the basic role of ensuring health safety in the food and wine and spirits etc. we import under an Act. It is in the middle of a current impasse over the requirements of label display, contents and the language as mandated in the Act and the listing of ingredients (which producer would list objectionable materials if any are used clandestinely?) used in the product and thus is perceived as more of a bureaucratic impediment by the hapless food and wine importers. For a perspective read an article in Progressive Grocer India

It would be worth their while- and consumers like us, if FSSAI could take an objective approach and quietly import a few bottles of the different variants of Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s directly at its expense and make their test findings public. It will help restore the faith of the consumers and importers and will also be welcome by the Indian producers who take pride in quality but feel threatened by cheap imports.

Meanwhile, I leave our readers the ‘wine for thought’. Would you look at your budget and drink Charles Shaw wines-or chuck the Two Buck Chuck!

Subhash Arora

For an earlier related article published by us in 2007-08, please visit Two Buck Chuck Chugging along fine

Tags: Fred Franzia, Two Buck Chuck, Bronco Wines


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