Maverick vintner Franzia's low-cost wines knock starch out of wine establishment

  • ** ADVANCE FOR TUESDAY MAY 29 ** Fred Franzia holds a bottle of Charles Shaw chardonnay wine off the bottling line at the Bronco Wine Company facility in Napa, Calif., Tuesday, April 17, 2007. An astounding 55,000 cases a day are coming out of this Napa Valley bottling plant, more than some upscale wineries make in a year. And it's owned not by some blue-blooded purveyor of high-end reds but by Fred Franzia, famous for Two Buck Chuck and the ten bucks taboo, as in: No wine is worth more than $10. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

NAPA -- Round and round they go, hundreds of bottles of Two Buck Chuck rattling and clinking their way toward a big machine that deftly fills, corks and seals each one in a rhythmic dance of metal and glass.

It's been five years since the first of these amazingly cheap chardonnays and cut-price cabernets started rolling off the line, released by maverick vintner Fred Franzia under the formal label of Charles Shaw wines.

Three hundred million bottles later, Two Buck Chuck is still selling, and Franzia is still preaching his message of wine for the masses.

"We're not out to gouge people," says Franzia. "What I would like to see is every consumer be able to afford to have wine on the table every day and not feel insecure about it."

Last year, Two Buck Chuck -- available only in the Trader Joe's grocery chain and priced at $1.99 in California, hence its nickname -- accounted for at least 8 percent of California wine sold in-state, said Jon Fredrikson, who tracks wine shipments through his Woodland-based company, Fredrikson, Gomberg & Associates.

National market share figures are not available.

The result -- along with the cute "critter" labels and more user-friendly packaging like boxes and screw caps -- has helped knock a little of the starch out of the industry, said the wine industry consultant.

"I think it shook up the business in several ways, but certainly it created this interest among consumers to seek out wine values," said Fredrikson. "It certainly plants a seed in everyone's mind about what you get for the money."

Michael Mondavi, founder of Folio Fine Wine Partners, a Napa Valley-based importer and producer of high-end wines, takes the wine-glass-half-full approach to the Franzia effect.

"I think Two Buck Chuck has helped to make people aware that wine is not just for special occasions," says Mondavi, son of California wine country pioneer Robert Mondavi and a longtime friend of Franzia's. "I also believe that the vast majority of the people who originally start buying Two Buck Chuck within a period of a year trade up to better wines and enjoy better wines on a more regular basis."

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