Fred Franzia, the man best known for creating ?Two Buck Chuck,? threw down the gauntlet this spring. In a published report, he said:
?We challenge any Napa Valley winery to a blind wine tasting with consumers and we?ll win more than a majority of the time.?
His caveat: no sommeliers, no wine critics. The wineries may not have taken up the challenge but we did, and this will pique your interest: Franzia both won and lost.
We pulled together a group of consumers for a blind tasting of cabernet sauvignon at the Cellars of Sonoma in Santa Rosa?s Railroad Square. The bagged bottles in our lineup included Franzia?s wines and top Napa Bottlings from Caymus, Ramey and Buehler, and the results of the tasting were telling.
Franzia?s $13 Napa Creek, 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon tied for first place, standing up to wines that are roughly five to 10 times its price. But Franzia?s Charles Shaw, best known as ?Two Buck Chuck,? came in last. What does Franzia think of his win/lose standing?
?Fifty/fifty,? he joked. ?I?ll take it every day.?
Regarding Napa Creek?s high marks, Franzia said, ?What makes me happy is that Napa Creek runs with the big dogs ? Caymus, Ramey and Buehler.? As for Charles Shaw coming in last, Franzia said, ?It did well enough in the competition. It?s like driving a Porsche or driving a ?52 Chevy. It?s not comparable.?
We set up a control group of professional tasters to rate the wines and get their feedback. Interestingly, Napa Creek even fared well with that group of more experienced palates, placing third behind Caymus and Ramey.
One of the panelists, Stefan Solytiask, wine educator at Healdsburg?s Rodney Strong Vineyards, deduced that Napa Creek showed well for two reasons: 1) 85 percent of the fruit is from Napa Valley and 2) 2007 was a great vintage for cabernet, as well as pinot noir and zinfandel. Solytiask?s broader point?
Franzia?s claim that his wines can stand up to the best of Napa most of the time in a consumer tasting is questionable. Yes, in this tasting one of Franzia?s wines did stand up to pricier Napa cabs, but to do it he relied on Napa grapes. Most of Franzia?s wines are produced from Central Valley grapes.
Were the consumer panelists surprised that the Napa Creek tied for first place? Not really. As panelist Nicole Myers, 28, of Santa Rosa, an earth science professor at Sonoma State University, put it, ?The wine was incredibly smooth to drink, a little sweet but I prefer sweet to dry.
You can taste the layers rather than it hitting you full in the face and not knowing what hit you.?
However, what did surprise the panel was the poor showing of Charles Shaw or ?Two Buck Chuck.?
Martha O?Hayer, 51, of Petaluma, a realtor with Frank Howard Allen, said, ?If I was at a party and someone gave me this wine, I?d just go get a beer.?
Myers said she was surprised because she drinks ?Two Buck Chuck? quite often. ?I?m a teacher and I can?t really afford more than that, but I didn?t like it today.?
O?Hayer summed up most of the judges? sentiments. ?You just can?t expect consistency out of ?Two Buck Chuck.?