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Kris via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Why is Trader Joe's Wine Cheaper Than Bottled Water?

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Kris via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

More than one secret lurks in the aisles of Trader Joe’s, the trendy, organic-loving grocery franchise that was spawned from a chain of convenience stores in the 1950s. Shoppers have tried to guess whether their store brand mac and cheese is actually made by a major food label going incognito. (Verdict: No one’s really sure, but the mac does taste a lot like Annie’s.) Managers are called “captains” instead of managers because founder Joe Coulombe really liked the oceanic motif.

But the biggest mystery of Trader Joe’s may be in their liquor section, where their store-endorsed line of Charles Shaw wine sells for as little as $1.99 a bottle in some markets.

How can wine cost as much or less than an equal quantity of bottled water? More than just getting slightly tipsy, will you go blind? Will it work in your car’s carburetor?

Mack Male via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

To understand how Charles Shaw sells wine for pocket change, it helps to know who Charles Shaw is—and why he has absolutely nothing to do with this story.

According to Thrillist, Shaw used his wife's money to buy 20 acres of Napa Valley land to start a winery in 1974. Business was brisk, and Shaw knew his high-end wine from grape juice. The Charles Shaw label came to represent quality among wine aficionados, and his business grew to include 115 acres by the late 1980s.

Unfortunately, Shaw’s business acumen was not always as refined as his palate. A mistake in the kind of wax used for his wine barrels—petroleum-based instead of beeswax—tainted a massive supply, and Shaw was forced to discard 1400 barrels of vino and suffer hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses. He also erroneously anticipated a demand for Burgundy-style wines, stocking up just as demand was slowing. Root lice infested his crops, chewing at his grapes. By 1992, Shaw was more or less the Job of the winemaking trade.

With his business bankrupt, Shaw submitted to an auction of the winery’s assets. The trade name was purchased by Fred Fanzia, owner of the Bronco Wine Company. With Shaw off pursuing other opportunities, his name—and his former brand—was left in Fanzia’s hands.

Bronco sells more than 80 different wine labels at varying price points. For Trader Joe’s, Fanzia decided to aim for the kind of traffic-stopping signage that would get people talking. His line of Charles Shaw wines debuted in Trader Joe's stores in 2002 and sold for $1.99 a bottle in many markets, which quickly earned it the nickname “Two Buck Chuck.” Wine connoisseurs debated the practicality of offering quality wine at such a low price; college students filled up grocery carts with them.

Objectively speaking, it’s probably not very good wine. Reviewers have dubbed it “undrinkable” and “sugar water.” But Bronco is able to profit for a number of reasons. For one, many of their vineyards are located in California's San Joaquin Valley, which is comparatively cheaper real estate than the Napa or Sonoma territories. Two, the wine is often fermented with oak chips, a cheaper process than fermenting the wine in barrels. Most importantly, the grapes are machine-harvested, which keeps costs down but might result in a more sugar-laden wine. Bronco also keeps shipping costs low by using lightweight bottles.

Does Shaw, who is currently marketing software for cardiac surgery monitoring, have any issue with his name being associated with econo-booze? Yes, he does. In a 2013 interview with The Weekly Calistogan, he called the Two Buck Chuck label “embarrassing and demeaning.” Trader Joe’s would call it profitable. The store has moved more than 800 million bottles since 2002.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Courtesy New District
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Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
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Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.

PICKLEBACK HISTORY, AS WE KNOW IT

As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.

THE PICKLEBACK'S UNCLEAR ORIGIN

Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.

SO, WHY PICKLES?

Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.

WAYS TO PARTAKE

While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.

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