Charles Shaw Winery is the Everyman of the wine universe, that ordinary individual whom the public roots for in the face of extraordinary circumstances. History was made this year on July 12, when the 2005 Charles Shaw Chardonnay was named "Best California Chardonnay" at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.
In the words of chief judge G.M. Pucilowski, "Since we judge all wines totally by variety without different brackets for price, this ... achievement by the Bronco winemakers is astounding."
Nothing short of astounding to those of us who have sampled this wine and those of us who are not terribly big fans of the Bronco Winery, the makers of Charles Shaw. It's not because Bronco owns vineyard land in the steamy, bulk-wine area called Central Valley (even more than Gallo). No, it's because owner Fred Franzia has been involved in two high-profile lawsuits over the last 15 years that should make any wine consumer cringe. In 1993, Bronco was convicted of misrepresenting Central Valley grapes as premium cabernet and zinfandel. More recently, Franzia was promoting numerous brands (Napa Cellars the most prominent among them) that misled consumers into thinking that these wines contained Napa fruit. Again, Bronco lost another high-visibility, low-scruple brand of lawsuit. These practices tarnished the Bronco image and resonated poorly with people who love good, honest wine.
On the other hand, Bronco has caused a positive sensation with a wine called Charles Shaw. Those old enough remember that Charles Shaw was an industrious California winery owner who, plagued by personal issues, sold his vineyard holdings to Charles Krug Winery and his brand name to Bronco in 1991. Bronco brought his name back to life in 2002, producing generic wines with a recognizable name gracing the label. The low-priced Charles Shaw line became an exclusive product of the Trader Joe's stores on the West Coast, and the pricing was a lure to budget-conscious consumers. "Two Buck Chuck," as it's known, was born, and Bronco succeeded in a way that could hardly have been imagined. The public was thirsting for everyday wines, just like the ones they had drunk out of carafes when they visited Europe. "Wine is cheaper than Coca-Cola!" travelers told their incredulous friends. And it was. But where was America's equivalent? Even if not cheaper than Coke in the United States, Two Buck Chuck was still the cheapest thing going in a 750-milliliter bottle. (Another brainstorm of Bronco was to never sell Two Buck Chuck in jug bottles, allowing the public to retain the mystique of a fancy wine in a fancy bottle.)
Bronco constantly reinforces its inventory with grapes grown throughout California. The grape gluts of recent years, combined with tons of grapes that do not meet the standards of their home wineries, leave tons of juice out there for the highest bidder. Oftentimes, Bronco is the one that will take it all, not trying to cherry pick what's available. People turn to Bronco for quick help, and these relatively premium grapes enhance Bronco's quality, even if only in a totally haphazard way. You never know quite what you'll get in a Charles Shaw bottling. A bottle of Two Buck Chuck is a crapshoot, but it may contain some gems.
Word has already spread that the wines Bronco submitted for the State Fair competition were not the everyday wine found in Trader Joe's stores across the nation. I tend to come down on the side of Fred Franzia and believe these were undoctored, genuine Charles Shaw bottlings. But my curiosity got the best of me. So, I decided to buy two bottles of the wine that in North Carolina actually sells for $2.99, and blind taste it in two flights of 10 chardonnays each. (I found the same vintage, 2005, as those that had recently done so well.) How would it do for me surrounded by a wide selection of other California bottlings, all in varied price ranges? Also, how would it do twice against similar but completely different competitors? The wines were poured for me blindly and I had no glimpse of the bottles until both flights were over. This allowed me to not know how Charles Shaw had fared or tasted in the first go 'round. I had no way to try and identify its characteristics in the second flight.
One hardship I realized only after I began was the "finders keepers" syndrome—a quest to try and figure out which was the $3 wine. The judges at the California State Fair had no such baggage. I tried to be totally objective, but that "this tastes like a manipulated, try to please everybody style of wine" was always lurking in the back of my head. I simply persevered.
I never saw any of the judges' comments on the Charles Shaw California victory. This, I think, might have been very interesting information for consumers. As for myself, it left me with a clean slate. I hadn't tasted this wine for three years and so, I think, my opinions were without tribulation.
Round 1: Worst to best
2004 Falcor, Durell Vineyard, Sonoma $42
Toasty oak dominates a lavish fruit profile. Hot and alcoholic in the mouth. Bitter finish. More reminiscent of Scotch than wine. 78 points
2005 Pietra Santa, Central Coast $15
A bit dishwater-like with oak smothering the fruit. (Dishwater is a characteristic I often find in California chardonnays; an all too common, unpleasant component. Tart on the palate and not very pleasant.) Well made, but has "issues." 82
2005 Charles Shaw, California $2.99
Butterscotch atop appley, ripe fruit. Warm, fuzzy mouth feel followed by brisk aftertaste. Easy to drink with a taste of residual sugar. 84
2005 Guenoc, Lake County $12
Direct ripe fruit followed by light oak and a touch of dishwatery smell. Short flavors—clean but heady. A bit of alcoholic heat in the mouth. 84
2004 Frank Family, Napa Valley $55
Clean bouquet with biscuit yeast and ripe fruit. Nutty with lemony overtones as it airs. Tangy and crisp in the mouth with a slightly raspy finish. Needs food and may improve. 86
2005 MacRostie, Carneros $22
Very crisp, fruit-effusive nose. Nutty background with a candied apple component. Pleasingly clean fruit with vibrant, long finish. 87
2005 Wild Horse, Central Coast $17
On-the-clothesline freshness. Calm and easy bouquet. Even tempered, smooth mouth texture with seriously styled, long smoky finish. 87
2005 Mirassou, Monterey County $11
Lithe, pleasant fruit. Inviting appley-pear suggestions. Attractive, balanced and edgeless. Citrus-like tang yet low acid finish. Tries very hard to please—and does! 87 BEST BUY
2005 Sequoia Grove, Carneros $20
Spanking clean scents with discreet wood backdrop. Outgoing ripeness with well integrated soft impressions. Mouth cleansingly bright and sassy. 89
2004 William Hill Estate, Napa Valley $27
Deep, intense, exciting with dark fruit extract. Thrillingly balanced fruit and oak. Mouth filling, generous and substantial. Sophisticated Burgundian flavors and lip smacking length. 91
Round 2: Worst to best
The 2004 Chateau Souverain was spoiled by cork failure. A pity.
2005 Clos Du Val, Cuvee BCC $22
Straight up lemon grassiness inside an oaky, brackish water bouquet. Harsh flavors that are persistent and unpleasurable. 72
2005 Charles Shaw, California $2.99
Green and underripe. Says practically nothing. Smooth on the palate. Quaffable and a bit sweet. Boring and cloying. 79
2005 Merryvale, Starmont, Napa Valley $20
Apple, toffee and butterscotch balanced in an extroverted style. Unexpectedly rough and puckery mouthfeel. Not terribly pleasant. Disappointing finish. 83
2005 Clos du Bois, North Coast $14
Focused nose of plush fruit but dishwatery oak distracts. Tangy, peppery and alive flavors. Undistinguished yet good. 85
2005 Bonterra, Mendocino $12
Tangerine, rosebud and citrus overtones; mellow creaminess and good oak underpinning. Brisk flavors just beginning to open. Should improve. 87/88 EXCELLENT BUY
2005 Sbragia, Home Ranch, Dry Creek $25
Caramel- and toffee-laden fruit. Penetrating and lavish. Well endowed, lengthy flavors with just enough acidity. Alcoholic heat on the finish. A paean to lush, exotic California styling (15.9 percent alcohol!). 88
2006 Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma $14
Understated apricot and spicy oak backdrop. Effusive core of fruit. Invitingly live, richly textured flavors perfectly balanced. 89 GOOD BUY
2005 Wattle Creek, Mendocino $26
A gush of fresh fruit. Gobs of spiced apple fly out. Warm, embraceable, marshmellowy texture. Clean, steely flavors with soul satisfying finish. Will improve. 89/90
2004 Baileyana, Firepeak Vineyard, Edna Valley $30
Sunny, fresh and fruit forward. Apples galore! Rich flavors, perfect acids and long clean flavor. 91
What I learned
The Charles Shaw bottles were unacceptably inconsistent. One was reasonably enjoyable, the other barely drinkable. I tasted residual sugar in both examples—the only wines in which this was obvious to me. I simply cannot imagine wines like these two scoring well in—let alone winning—any competition.
I have to recommend that consumers find a different inexpensive pour. Cheaper wines come out of the woodwork every day to compete with the Two Buck Chuck phenomenon. These two bottles sat side by side in a huge floor display as I entered Trader Joe's. They were probably from the same case, yet didn't really resemble each other at all. Yes, at $3, this is a national phenomenon. But would you really serve your friends an apple pie knowing in advance that it might very well be lousy?
Trader Joe's (www.traderjoes.com) is open in Cary (1393 Kildaire Farm Road, 465-5984) and a second Triangle store is scheduled to open in Chapel Hill late this fall at Eastgate Shopping Center.
Arturo's column regularly appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Send comments, suggestions, accolades and complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org.