How can you have a Two Buck Chuck?

How can you have a Two Buck Chuck?

It’s a common question in the Zin Valle Vineyards tasting room — how is it that one wine can cost just $10 while other wines cost $200 or more? What are the things that make one wine so much more expensive than another — after all, they’re both just wine, right?

Well, the short answer is that several variables go into each and every bottle of wine — even if they come from the same winery. There’s the weather: Was this year warmer or colder? Was one part of the vineyard a different average temperature than another part? How much rainfall fell last year? Was that total consistent across the entire vineyard? How high was the humidity? What was the weather like when you harvested the grapes? What time of the year did you harvest?

Those are just the questions involving weather — not to mention growing styles, the soil and how selective you are with the grapes you kept during harvest, just to mention a few other factors that could impact price. Obviously, the pedigree and rarity of a wine greatly impacts its price as well. There are a lot of very expensive wines on the market, and most are in great demand, both in the US and globally. But

In comes Trader Joe’s with their famous Charles Shaw wines — better known as “Two Buck Chuck.” The now-famous wine is exclusively available at Trader Joe’s and debuted at the low, low price of $2. Talk about a deal for something that typically sells for at least five times more! Many thought this was a marketing fad that would not sustain itself.

A 2002 article in Shanken News Daily, a wine and spirits news outlet, reported 5 million cases sold that initial year, and it has remained popular ever since, even though Trader Joe’s raised the price in most of its locations to $2.50 in 2011. Soon perhaps to be “Three Buck Chuck”!

So how does Charles Shaw produce such an inexpensive wine? Well, the company’s modus operandi is to look for savings everywhere and then pass it on to the consumer. According to a San Francisco Public Radio report, the company uses lighter bottles, which saves on both materials and distribution costs, since it takes fewer trucks to transport the wine. But the real cost savings in Two Buck Chuck comes from the grapes themselves.

Charles Shaw wine is produced by the Bronco Wine Company at a winery in Ceres, Calif. While some of it is produced in giant vats in the Napa Valley, Bronco is mostly focuses on growing grapes wherever they can do it less expensively — really anywhere but the famous Napa Valley. The end result is a lot of grapes produced at a price lower than the competition. However, it is generally recognized to be at a lower average quality as well.

Whatever comes out of a batch, whether it’s from the Napa Valley or from one of the company’s cheaper pieces of land, is sold as it comes out under the same branding and vintage. One batch could be a lot different from another, so when you buy a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, you could be getting just about anything, but odds are, you’ll get some average wine.

Like anything, however, when you have a high variance and a high volume, you can end up with some outliers. In this case, some not being worth the $2.50, but some others being truly decent wines.

It’s likely one of these great bottles that was submitted to the International Eastern Wine Competition in 2002, when Two Buck Chuck came away with a double gold medal.

Because of this variance in the product, there’s a trick dedicated Two Buck Chuckers have taken to. Go to a Trader Joe’s, buy a bottle and taste it before driving off (observing open container laws in your area, of course). If the bottle is good, go back in and buy the rest of the case for about $30! If it’s bad well, you only spend a few dollars and there’s always next month’s delivery!

Each year, Wine Business Monthly publishes its annual list of the largest wine producers in the U.S. by U.S. case sales. In 2003, Bronco Wine Company was fifth on the list. Today, they have moved up to fourth with annual case sales of over 20 million.


Vic Poulos, owner Zin Valle Vineyards.

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