Everyone likes a good bargain. Everyone has a go-to wine. A bottle that consistently delivers each and every day at a reasonable price is a big deal for the budget savvy. Naturally, we follow the path of least resistance, which promises zero stress and all pleasure. The concept of cheap yet enjoyable table wine is nothing new. However finding one that doesn’t give you a raging headache or loaded with additives is a whole new ball game.
In Italy, France, and Spain, it is easy to come by an exceptional €3 bottle. Yet in the United States, it’s near impossible. There are many factors that lead to this on both macro and micro-economic levels. EU countries have far more expansive wine growing regions. These countries each generally double our production and therefore corporate investment and government support is larger in scale. Simultaneously, the United States is drinking these countries under the table leading to a greater demand for export wine. There are also many grower cooperatives that share resources to produce wine at lower costs. Wine is also being shipped in bulk, think one giant bag of wine inside shipping containers, and bottled domestically contributing to even lower prices for foreign wine. EU wineries also sell direct to restaurants, cafes, and the general public. All these factors help reduce the bottle cost for local consumption and also shows up on our shores to sell to you at $5-$10, because the middle-men need their cut too.
In 2002, America unearthed its French bistro equivalent. The Bronco Wine Company (the 4th largest US wine producer) bought the dwindling label of Charles F. Shaw while resuming cultivation on the largest vineyard acreage in the United States. Along with the ever soaring glut of California juice and exclusive distribution to a grocery chain, Charles Shaw completely changed the winescape, “extreme bargain” wine for the masses.
In a 2009 New Yorker article, Fred Franzia (co-founder/wine royalty) was very candid on how they go about business at Bronco. Like the capitalist shark that he is, he waits until wineries have no other choice but to sell him their bulk wine at a $1 a gallon. The wine is then blended into whatever Bronco is producing and doctored up with sacks of chemical wine product to create a semblance of cohesion. There is a long list of fake powders one could add to wine. From color, tannin, and oak flavor to copious amounts of sugar and acid. This is all done without the requirement of ingredient labeling because the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) does not have our interest in mind. There is a certain and real dark side of the wine force. To add injury to insult, in 1993, Bronco Wine Co. was federally indicted for misrepresenting cheap grapes as premium Zinfandel and Cabernet grapes, and fined $2.5 million. However, when you make half a billion a year in sales, that’s peanuts.
The infamous Two Buck Chuck available at Trader Joe’s is now $3-4 but that’s still an outstanding price considering our choices. Ask any New York sommelier or wine buyer if they would sell or drink it and you’ll get the same reaction, “[heck] no.” On the palate, this wine isn’t winning any bronze medals but with such an attractive price, the populace seem not to notice. Americans in general are drinking more wine but we are far behind the rest of the world when it comes to discerning good and bad table wine. In a society raised on high fructose corn syrup and the ultra-processed, it’s plain to see how this plunk is acceptable.
At a recent dinner party, the hostess tested my wine chops by presenting me with a glass of red and asked if I could guess its origins. My first reaction was a cheap Chilean Cabernet, but I didn’t trust the glint in her eye. “Is this Two Buck Dump?” I replied. Stunned and sufficiently entertained, she revealed the bottle to be Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon. I immediately drained my glass into a Solo cup and poured some goodness from Sicily. Point of advice, stop by Sea Grape and spend a couple more bucks on our everyday value wines made with a bit more integrity. After all, we do drink to health.