Grapes of the Glut

In the beginning, there was Two Buck Chuck.

Fred Franzia, a nephew of Ernest Gallo and the owner of the Bronco Wine Company, came out with the first “extreme value” wine in 2002. Franzia had purchased the Charles Shaw label in 1990; as the new millennium dawned, he decided to take advantage of the California grape glut and put out a wine that would sell for $1.99. Available exclusively at Trader Joe’s, the wine—nicknamed Two Buck Chuck—became the most sensational story in the industry.

Many consumers were initially skeptical about a wine that cheap, and rumors circulated about how Franzia was able to do it. The reality was that grapes were literally rotting on the vines nine years ago, and were frequently offered free of charge to anyone who wanted to show up and pick them. Bronco was already the fourth largest wine company in the nation, controlling over 35,000 acres of vineyards as well as mammoth production facilities. Franzia may not have made a fortune with each bottle, but he made a fortune just the same. Two Buck Chuck wasn’t great wine, to be sure, but it was drinkable and didn’t break the bank.

Several years ago, he introduced a Chardonnay and Shiraz from South Eastern Australia called Down Under, designed to take advantage of the Australian grape glut and sell at roughly half the price of the popular Yellow Tail. It hit the market with a $2.99 price tag, and was immediately nicknamed (you guessed it) Three Dollah Koala.

These are once again tough times in California, as many wineries are selling off grapes in an effort to survive. One of the results has been a proliferation of private labels. The 7-11 chain has gotten into the act with Yosemite Road, which sells for $4-5 depending on what part of the country you’re in. The product line includes Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (I tried the Chardonnay, and it was dreadful). Whole Foods is now selling the Three Wishes line, available in the same grape varieties, for $3; their motto is “chuck the Chuck.” It’s certainly better than drinking Thunderbird or MD 20/20 at the same price. However, as the economy improves and the demand for premium wine grapes picks up, it will once again be hard to maintain any level of quality for less than $10.




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