Two-Buck Chuck: Wine of the People or Cultural Wedge?

Mention Two-Buck Chuck, the nickname for the famously cheap Charles Shaw wines made by Bronco Wine Company, and you are likely to get two completely different reactions from wine drinkers.

On the one side are people who see it as a bottle for those who want to enjoy wine without spending a lot of money. On the other are people who see it as a cheap wine whose producer used it to make a cynical case that those aspiring to better (and more expensive) wines constituted a snobbish elite.

The producer, Fred Franzia, the head of Bronco, died on Sept. 13 at 79, having sold more than a billion bottles of Charles Shaw, the company said. Mr. Franzia’s death is an opportunity to consider the meaning of Two-Buck Chuck and what its production and popularity might say about American wine culture.

First, I will say that I was not a fan of the wine or the man. My predecessor as New York Times wine columnist, Frank J. Prial, was kinder when he wrote about Two-Buck Chuck in 2003: “Nondescript would not be too harsh a characterization. Nothing wrong with that: Wine is supposed to accompany food and Charles Shaw will do that quite adequately.”

I remember the wine as uninteresting, but I last drank it more than a decade ago. I wanted to try it again, but the line of Charles Shaw wines, which includes numerous variations beyond the original red blend, is sold only at Trader Joe’s. The sole Trader Joe’s wine shop in New York shut down last month, so I was out of luck.

Still, the relative quality of the wine was beside the point. The price was the attraction: $2 (or a few dollars more outside of California).

Compromises must be made to sell a wine for just a few dollars. Almost all of them work against high-quality wine.

Like many producers of popular, inexpensive wines, Bronco was always vague about where Charles Shaw came from. Most likely it was a combination of wine sold on the bulk market, because it was either surplus or not considered up to snuff, supplemented by wine made from Bronco’s vineyards — it owns more than 40,000 acres in California, mostly in the Central Valley, a hot, fertile expanse that is a source of grapes for many inexpensive wines.

Bronco now has a line of more expensive Shaw wines made, Bronco says, from organically grown grapes. That’s not Two-Buck Chuck.

How were the grapes farmed, and who provided the labor? What steps were taken at the winemaking facility to ensure some semblance of consistency, since the sources of the wine changed year to year? We can only guess.

It may not occur to many wine drinkers to ask these questions. But they do matter, especially if you are concerned about farming methods and conditions for agricultural workers. And they matter to people who care about where a wine comes from and whether it expresses the distinctive character of a place.

To be clear, Charles Shaw is not the only wine that raises these questions. A lot of wines, inexpensive and not, are made without regard for the environment and workers. As with fast fashion, the pleasure in the product and the price can obscure serious issues in the manufacturing.

Most people don’t really care about how wine is made or where it comes from. They just want an inexpensive drink that gives them a buzz and tastes good or, at least, doesn’t offend. A smaller group of wine lovers spend a considerable amount of time, energy and money on wine because they find it delicious, as well as rewarding intellectually and aesthetically.

A lot of people would never pay more than a modest price for a wine, regardless of how it’s made. But I do take issue with cynical companies that peddle false messages to consumers to hype their products.

Two-Buck Chuck did not damage American wine culture. But Mr. Franzia relentlessly told American wine drinkers that no wine could possibly be worth more than $10. “Elites,” he argued, were trying to brainwash people with all their talk about terroir and nuances.

“You tell me why someone’s bottle is worth $80 and mine’s worth $2,” he said in a 2009 profile in The New Yorker. “Do you get 40 times the pleasure from it?”

His message not only promoted his own company’s products, it also destroyed the notion that any wine could be better.

People who are passionate about wine knew better, but for others it confirmed a suspicion that wine was all a bunch of foolishness. And for people who might have been curious about wine, it raised doubts.

Many in the wine industry rationalize industrial, inexpensive wines as starter bottles. Novices begin with these wines, the thinking goes, and then make better choices once they get accustomed to wine. Mr. Franzia blew up that argument as well. If all wine was the same, why would anybody move up?

I have never accepted the positioning of bad wines as starter bottles. Sure, some wine drinkers don’t want to spend a lot of money. But for $8 to $10, wine lovers have much better options. And then spending $15 to $20 is like going from drab grays to a world of beautiful hues.

Mr. Franzia, who was born and reared in the Central Valley, reserved particular vitriol for Napa Valley, which he regarded as the headquarters of wealthy, self-important wine elites.

“Take that and shove it, Napa,” he said in 2009 after passing the 400-million-bottle mark in sales of Charles Shaw.

His role model, he told The New Yorker, was his uncle, Ernest Gallo of E. & J. Gallo Winery, the biggest wine producer in the United States, whom he compared with leading figures in Napa Valley like Robert Mondavi.(Bronco is seventh-biggest, according to Wine Business Monthly.)

Mr. Gallo “never wanted to forget he was poor. Bob Mondavi’s objective was to forget he was poor. That’s the essence of the San Joaquin Valley versus the Napa Valley right there,” Mr. Franzia told the New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear. “We are who we are. They want to pretend they’re royalty.”

For his part, Mr. Franzia spent years in court in an effort to put Napa Valley on the label of certain Bronco wines, even though the grapes and the wines were from other parts of California. He ultimately lost.

One might accept Mr. Franzia as a jovial huckster, promoting a message so obviously exaggerated that nobody would take him seriously. But many people believed him.

Mr. Franzia was not the first person in the United States to argue that expensive wines are no better than cheap ones and to gleefully dismiss a long history of appreciation and understanding of these wines. Wine has long been singled out as a con game intended to separate fools from their money.

Mr. Franzia liked to say that Two-Buck Chuck was the People’s Wine, but in his hand it was a crowbar, used to divide wine drinkers.

It’s of course not all Mr. Franzia’s fault that wine has been associated with snobbery. The wine industry itself is much to blame with its history of pretentiousness, and its absurd rituals and vocabulary that convey the message that one must be a connoisseur before one can enjoy wine.

If all Mr. Franzia did was belie that association, I would have no quarrel with him. Instead, he did his best to corroborate it.

Follow New York Times Cooking on InstagramFacebookYouTube, TikTok and PinterestGet regular updates from New York Times Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.

Back to top button