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

Kris via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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.

There's an Easier Way to Use a Cheese Grater

iStock.com/brazzo
iStock.com/brazzo

Most kitchen gadgets don't come with manuals, but maybe they should. Time and time again, humans have demonstrated a knack for taking something simple—say, a can opener—and finding a way to use it in the most difficult and least-efficient way possible. (Hint: The rotating handle should be placed on top of the can, not off to the side.)

Well, the internet has once again stepped in to save us from ourselves. There's apparently an easier way to use a standard four-sided cheese grater (a.k.a. a box grater), according to a short video that was originally uploaded to Instagram by Menu World. Instead of holding it vertically in one hand, you lay it down horizontally on a table or counter and start grating your cheese from side to side instead of up and down. This prevents the grater from moving around while you hold it, and it's a little easier on your arms. (In a similar vein, you can also apply a coat of cooking spray to the outside of the grater to make it less of an upper body workout, and this is especially recommended if you're grating sticky cheese.)

The cheese grater hack has been going viral on social media, so don't feel bad if you never thought of doing it this way—lots of other people haven't, either.

This method is also helpful because the cheese collects inside the grater, providing a handy visual guide for figuring out how much cheese to shred. When it's grated directly into a large bowl with other ingredients, it can be a little harder to judge.

Here's one final tip for your next cheese-infused dinner: Try using an old toothbrush to clean out all of the grater's little holes. It will save you some time (and perhaps prevent minor grater-related injuries). For more tips like these, Mental Floss has a couple of guides for awesome cleaning hacks.

Want to Save the Environment? Eat Less Meat

iStock.com/ac_bnphotos
iStock.com/ac_bnphotos

It may be time to order a veggie burger instead of a rack of ribs. For years, climate scientists have suggested eating less meat to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, but the researchers behind a new study say dietary changes are essential to prevent global catastrophe.

The study—published in the journal Nature—is the most comprehensive analysis of how the global food system affects the environment, The Guardian reports. In addition to greenhouse gases being released by livestock, deforestation and water shortages are a couple of other ways that current food production methods hurt the planet. Researchers say there is no easy fix to slow climate change, but reducing our intake of meat is one way that everyone can help out.

“There is no magic bullet,” Marco Springmann, who led the study, tells The Guardian. “But dietary and technological change [on farms] are the two essential things, and hopefully they can be complemented by reduction in food loss and waste."

That doesn’t mean you have to become a vegetarian or vegan, though. Researchers recommend a “flexitarian” diet, which involves occasionally eating meat. For this to make a positive impact, the average global citizen would have to eat 90 percent less pork, 75 percent less beef, and half the number of eggs they normally consume. If you simply can't give up steak, the Climate, Land, Ambition & Rights Alliance (CLARA) recommends consuming just two 5-ounce servings of meat per week. Researchers in the Nature study say beans, nuts, and seeds are all recommended sources of protein.

By their estimates, a global shift towards a flexitarian diet would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 56 percent, and would reduce other environmental impacts by 6 to 22 percent. They say the global food system emitted around 5.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide in greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, in addition to using vast amounts of cropland, fresh water, and fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus (which pollute waterways as agricultural runoff).

“If socioeconomic changes towards Western consumption patterns continue, the environmental pressures of the food system are likely to intensify, and humanity might soon approach the planetary boundaries for global freshwater use, change in land use, and ocean acidification,” researchers write in their paper. In other words, the current food system might not be able to sustain the projected population of 10 billion people in 2060.

The study follows the recent release of a UN report in which scientists warned that we have only 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Failing to do so would result in more extreme weather events, including drought, floods, and severe heat. If you're looking for other ways to reduce your carbon footprint, try flying less, biking more, and turning down your thermostat. Every bit helps.

[h/t The Guardian]

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