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Published: Tuesday, 7/1/2003

Two-Buck Chuck shakes up market

There's always been a bargain basement in the wine market, always people in the business ready and willing to bottle, label, and sell plonk (the British word for it), just as long as it meets government standards, not of quality but of origin and content. It won't kill you, but it won't delight you, either.

Price is not by itself a decisive clue to an inexpensive wine, however. In the heyday of the burgeoning California industry, Americans who had never drunk any wine except on New Year's Eve or in toasting a new graduate or newlyweds were introduced to the enjoyment of wine through gallon jugs, usually bearing a generic name.

Some left much to be desired, but much of it - the Gallos and Robert Mondavi leading the way - was sound wine, well worth the price. To this day, on dinner tables across the country, there are jugs or two-liter bottles of, say, Hearty Burgundy.

Deep in the wine marketer's restless brain is a feeling that an altogether unexpected name and/or label, perhaps a little bit vulgar, will sell wine to a new segment of the market, the highly desirable 25 to 40 generation; hence, for example, the Charles Shaw wine nicknamed Two-Buck Chuck, which, by all accounts, has rattled the foundations of the blase California market.

Now, a market research firm, the BRS Group, and Context Marketing, a marketing and public relations company, both in California, have concluded in a substantial report that though the necessity of ridding a winery's storage tanks at any price of inferior wine is painful in the short run, it may augur the ultimate dawning of a great new age, more prosperous for winemakers and for us, the customers, as well.

Their reasoning goes like this. First, most buyers of Super Value Wine (SVW) are mainly drawn from regular purchasers of wines in the $5 to $10 category. What's more, they also continue to buy the more costly wines with which they are familiar.

Second, many customers find the SVWs, into which the low price has drawn them, hardly the best, but not a really bad beverage with food. As long as decent drinking with dinner costs $3 or less over the course of a week, they will continue to buy it.

After all, they point out, European wine customers with a century-long tradition behind them appreciate good to fine wines, but they nonetheless take their own gallon jug or five-gallon carboy to the winery for a supply of vin ordinaire or Tafelwein, a household's everyday dinner wine.

Is there - or will there be - a place for an American table wine? If so, the Two-Buck Chuck phenomenon makes it clear that a condition of the first steps in that direction is the endorsement of an institution or person regarded as trustworthy. After all, the $2 price was an affordable risk, and the reputation of Trader Joe's, the monster California retailer that originally had an exclusive on Two-Buck Chuck, gave it credibility that overcame consumer skepticism that a wine at this price could be drinkable.



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