“It’s very popular — one of the varietals is nearly sold out already.” That was my friend Kelly’s response to a question about a new wine at her Trader Joe’s store: Shaw Organic. It is the latest wine from the people who brought you Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) and I think it might say something about where the wine market could be going in the U.S.
Two Billion Buck Chuck
I wrote about the “miracle of Two Buck Chuck” in my 2011 book Wine Wars. The miracle, I said, wasn’t that the Bronco Wine Co. could make a wine that Trader Joe’s could sell for just $1.99 (the price has gone up over the years, but it is still inexpensive). Making value wine is all about controlling cost and there are many ways of doing that. In Europe some hypermarkets have sold what I call One Buck Chuck: one liter for one Euro in a tetrapack container. That’s about a dollar per 750 ml bottle equivalent.
No, there’s no miracle in making a wine to sell for two bucks. The miracle is getting people to buy it because they tend to confuse price with quality and are suspicious that anything that costs so little could be any good.
I gave credit to Bronco for making clean, consistent, drinkable wines and Trader Joe’s for backing the wines with their reputation for quality and value. The miracle continues — Fred Franzia announced in 2016 that Bronco/Trader Joe’s had reached the one billion bottle milestone, which provoked Paul Franson to christen Franzia “two billion buck Chuck” for the massive total expenditure on this modest wine.
Organic Wine vs “Made with Organic Grapes”
Shaw Organic is an extension of the Charles Shaw / Two Buck Chuck line that is noteworthy in several respects. First, there is the organic element. Bronco is very careful not to call this an organic wine, noting correctly that it is wine “made with organic grapes.”
What’s the difference? To be certified an organic wine by the USDA it must use only organic grapes and be produced with no added sulfites in a certified facility. Wine that is “made with organic grapes” is allowed up to use 100 ppm of added sulfites, which is how Shaw Organic is made. Most but not all conventional wines have less than 100 ppm of added sulfites, according to my quick wine wine literature review.
The Shaw Organic wines we saw were priced at $3.99 per bottle for Rosé, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Grigio. How is it possible to make a sell a wine made with organic grapes at such a low price? Well, as with Two Buck Chuck, economies of scale are part of the answer. In this case, the story starts in the vineyards.
You may know that Bronco is America’s largest vineyard owner, with about 40,000 acres of grape vines. You may not know that Bronco is also the largest grower of organic wine grapes in the United States. According to a 2016 article by Deborah Parker Wong (pdf) Bronco has converted more than 5000 acres of vines to certified organic status — enough to produce 400,000 cases of wine. That’s roughly a third of all the organic wine grapes produced in the U.S.
Unscrew the Cork?
Alternative packaging is a hot trend in wine markets these days and Shaw Organic features the latest twist from Amorim Cork: a twist-cork closure called Helix that allows consumers to have the cork stoppers that research shows they often associate with wine quality along with the convenience that comes with a screw cap.
The Helix cork closure is a special cork and bottle combination. You grab the cork, which looks a bit like a fat sparkling wine cork, and twist it out to open. Reverse to re-close the bottle. Helix has been around for a couple of years, but not everyone has seen it yet. The Shaw Organic wines we saw had informative tags on the bottle necks to explain the how cork system works.
Amorim and Bronco worked closely on this project so I asked Antonio Amorim to comment on the partnership. “Shaw Organic features an innovative packaging that seamlessly matches the unique sustainability of cork with easy-to-open, consumer-driven convenience,” he said. “All this is now available enhancing the premium aspects of an organic wine ”
Sue and I have been on a Rosè wine binge recently, so we bought a bottle of the Shaw Organic Rosè to try at home. We were surprised at the quality, especially given the $3.99 price tag. The Shaw Organic Rosè was subtle but refreshing and opened up a bit with time. It’s quite dry, which I didn’t expect. I’d be pleased to have it in my glass at a party or reception or just sitting on the patio any time.
Do You Believe in Miracles?
So will I be writing about the Miracle of Shaw Organic in my next book? Well … maybe. But if it does perform a miracle, it will be a different one from Two Buck Chuck. TBC democratized wine — the low price and consistent quality gave millions of consumers the confidence to try wine. Many of them stuck with TBC, but others moved up the wine wall to more expensive products.
Can Shaw Organics do the same thing for consumers who are interested in organic products? Maybe. It will certainly draw consumer attention to the organic category for wine. The conventional wisdom is that there are so few mass market wines with “organic” anywhere on the label because producers fear that buyers will be turned off by the designation. (It’s a complicated problem — I wrote about the “Organic Wine Paradox” here.)
Bronco and Trader Joe’s are bold to push the concept to the fore. Maybe they will give other producers confidence to “go organic” and it would be great if they could expand the overall market for these wines the way that Two Buck Chuck did for wine generally.
Ok – but with most inexpensive wines the “quality” has as much to do with food science as it does with enology. Are you saying that these miracle wines have zero additives ( other than sulphites)? I’m sure you researched it before writing.
The rose is undrinkable, Mike — badly sweet, bitter, and thin. It’s even worse than most of the Two-buck Chuck, which is saying something. I don’t argue with your premise; what interests me is whether it will be successful despite the wretched quality.
Thanks for your comment, Jeff. The wine we tried was completely different from what you describe and it was purchased at retail, not a sample. We’ll circle back to Trader Joe’s and buy another bottle to see if there is any difference from our first experience.
I bought that wine, Mike. Trader Joe’s does not send samples, and certainly not to me. Not surprised about the variation — see that all the time in Trader Joe’s wines.
I wasn’t accusing you of not buying the wine. I just wanted to say that I bought mine at retail because people are sometimes suspicious that special sample bottles are not representative of the general product. I agree about lot variation issues.
Great story Mike -so interesting. I read recently that the American market is demanding 8% organic wine while only 2% of the American vineyards are organic.
Thanks for the link to my prior story on Fred. What ever happened to Rare Earth?
Not sure about Rare Earth. Your 2016 story was great reporting!