It's a cold, misty night. The moon casts a pale glow over the land. You're feeling introspective, wistful…and very thirsty. The wine glass beckons. This is the hour that calls for the juice of the vine. You take up your corkscrew and reach for a vintage that's laden with secrets: a shadowy bottle of Charles Shaw. Wait a minute. Charles Shaw? The two-dollar tipple? This is no wine for a mysterious night of wonder…is it? Whether you realize it or not, this Trader Joe's staple has more intrigue-per-ounce than it may seem. Perhaps you've heard some of the tales. You might even think you know the truth…but it's no simple story. JUST WHO IS THIS MR. SHAW? Charles Shaw started his vineyard in picturesque Napa, back before it became the gilded wine mecca it is today. He was enamored with a grape he'd found in France called Gamay, so he set about making a quality quaff from this Parisian beauty. Unfortunately, it didn't catch on in the U.S., and by the end of the 1980s, the business was in massive debt. The final blow came at a dark time, when Shaw and his wife divorced. In the midst of the fallout, the winery filed for bankruptcy, and it seemed the Shaw name was doomed to fall by the wayside. Shaw left California to pursue other endeavors, heading off to the chilly Midwest without a clue of what would come next for his once-fledgling wine label. SHAW: FROM THE ASHES It was during the bankruptcy proceedings that another character entered the picture: Fred Franzia, owner of Bronco wines. He purchased the Charles Shaw name, but didn't actually do anything with it. For years, he just kept it in his pocket. What was his plan? A few years later there was a massive wine surplus, and Franzia saw an opportunity. He bought up the stock, resurrected the Shaw brand, and partnered with Trader Joe's. The low-cost wine quickly flew off the shelves, and since then it's caused a lot of controversy—and fueled a lot of recession-era parties. Shaw never aimed to create a bargain wine, but now the bottle that bears his name sells for only a few dollars. How can it be so incredibly cheap? A number of theories have been tossed around. THE DIVORCE THEORY One initial theory was that it all had to do with the divorce. Some said it was simply a way to liquidate assets in the face of bankruptcy. Others said that Charles, in his rage over the division of properties, sought to devalue the wine and the vineyard by dumping everything at a rock-bottom price. In the end, however, we've learned that neither of these explanations hold water (or wine). By the time this bargain bottle hit the TJ floor, Mr. Shaw wasn't even involved anymore. THE AIRPLANE THEORY After 9/11, new security measures mandated that corkscrews were no longer allowed on commercial flights. Rumors popped up that because of this, airlines had offloaded huge stocks of wine at cut-rate prices—and Trader Joe's nabbed it, turning it around for a quick profit. However, almost 15 years later, TJ's is still hocking this bargain wine, and by now we know it's not just some limited overstock—it's in steady production. THE CLAW THEORY So how does the wine continue to sell for so little? In a discussion on Quora (which has since been removed), some bold claims were made. Specifically, a user stated that the winery used large, mechanized claws to harvest its grapes. In the process, not only were bad grapes thrown into the mix, but also a smattering of unfortunate insects, rodents and birds. This particular theory didn't get too much attention—that is, until The Huffington Post picked it up and published it. They've since taken down the article, when it came to light that it just isn't true, or at least isn't supported. THE NUTS + BOLTS THEORY Franzia owns massive tracts of land on which he grows an equally massive supply of grapes. The thing is, unlike the original Charles Shaw winery, the land isn't actually in Napa. While Charles Shaw wine is still bottled in Napa, the grapes are now grown in the San Joaquin Valley. The young wine is supposedly piped into tankers and trucked up north, with some of the fermentation happening on the road during the journey. There are no barrels involved, so wood chips are soaked in the wine instead to give it flavor. Once the juice reaches the behemoth bottling facility in Napa, the innumerable gallons of vino are sealed up on an assembly line Henry Ford would have admired. Franzia uses thinner, lighter bottles, and the boxes have even been converted to plain brown to knock a few more cents off the bottom line. THE MYTH LIVES ON In the end, however, we may never know the complete story. What we do know is that Charles Shaw wine continues to roll into Trader Joe's by the truckload. We know it remains a bargain. We know there are those who swear by it—and those who swear at it. Still, it drops into our shopping carts as if from a friendly wine cloud in the sky, asking so little in return. It's our benevolent wine friend for the ages, who just wants us to save our money and have another glass. Right? But maybe not. From far beyond the hills, somewhere behind the Napa County Airport, Mr. Franzia pumps out fleets of cheap wine, while Charles Shaw himself is long gone. He sees no profits from this colossal franchise, nor has any control. Is Charles Shaw's wine any good? It's a divisive question. Perhaps the only way to know for sure is to travel back to 1980, when you could still pour one of Charles' original bottles of Gamay, and ask him what he has planned for next year.
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