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Kris via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Kris via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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.

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Job Alert: The UK Needs a Chicken Nugget Taste-Tester

Do you like highly-processed chicken molded into mushy, breaded bites? Are you willing to relocate to England? Can your palate distinguish a savory nugget from a mediocre one? Your dream job awaits, AJC.com reports.

British retail chain B&M recently posted a job listing calling for a "chicken nugget connoisseur" to help the company get feedback on their new line of frozen food products. The chosen applicant—or applicants—will get a monthly voucher worth £25 ($34) to spend on frozen goods. Job duties consist of eating nuggets and other items and then providing B&M feedback.

The post describes the position as "temporary," so it's unlikely there's opportunity for advancement. If you care to apply, B&M will accept a paragraph describing yourself and why you’d be good for the job—though if you actually have a CV full of previous nugget-related positions, we're confident they'd love to see it.

[h/t AJC.com]

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Animals
Switzerland Just Made It Illegal to Boil Live Lobsters
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No, lobsters don’t scream when you toss them into a pot of boiling water, but as far as the Swiss government is concerned, they can still feel pain. The path most lobsters take to the dinner plate is supposedly so inhumane that Switzerland has banned boiling lobsters alive unless they are stunned first, The Guardian reports.

The new law is based on assertions from animal rights advocates and some scientists that crustaceans like lobsters have complex nervous systems, making death by boiling incredibly painful. If chefs want to include lobster on their menus, they’re now required to knock them out before preparing them. Acceptable stunning methods under Swiss law include electric shock and the “mechanical destruction” of the lobster’s brain (i.e. stabbing it in the head).

The government has also outlawed the transportation of live lobsters on ice or in icy water. The animals should instead be kept in containers that are as close to their natural environment as possible until they’re ready for the pot.

Proponents of animal rights are happy with the decision, but others, including some scientists, are skeptical. The data still isn’t clear as to whether or not lobsters feel pain, at least in the way people think of it. Bob Bayer, head of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, told Mental Floss in 2014 that lobsters “sense their environment, but don’t have the intellectual hardware to process pain.”

If you live in a place where boiling lobsters is legal, but still have ethical concerns over eating them, try tossing your lobster in the freezer before giving it a hot water bath. Chilling it puts it to sleep and is less messy than butchering it while it’s still alive.

[h/t The Guardian]

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