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.

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You Can Now Order—and Donate—Girl Scout Cookies Online

It's OK if you decide to ignore the recommended serving size on a box of these beauties.
It's OK if you decide to ignore the recommended serving size on a box of these beauties.
Girl Scouts

Girl Scouts may have temporarily suspended both cookie booths and door-to-door sales to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be deprived of your annual supply of everyone’s favorite boxed baked goods. Instead, you can now order Thin Mints, Tagalongs, and all the other classic cookies online—or donate them to local charities.

When you enter your ZIP code on the “Girl Scouts Cookie Care” page, it’ll take you to a digital order form for the nearest Girl Scouts organization in your area. Then, simply choose your cookies—which cost $5 or $6 per box—and check out with your payment and shipping information. There’s a minimum of four boxes for each order, and shipping fees vary based on quantity.

Below the list of cookies is a “Donate Cookies” option, which doesn’t count toward your own order total and doesn’t cost any extra to ship. You get to choose how many boxes to donate, but the Girl Scouts decide which kinds of cookies to send and where exactly to send them (the charity, organization, or group of people benefiting from your donation is listed on the order form). There’s a pretty wide range of recipients, and some are specific to healthcare workers—especially in regions with particularly large coronavirus outbreaks. The Girl Scouts of Greater New York, for example, are sending donations to NYC Health + Hospitals, while the Girl Scouts of Western Washington have simply listed “COVID-19 Responders” as their recipients.

Taking their cookie business online isn’t the only way the Girl Scouts are adapting to the ‘stay home’ mandates happening across the country. They’ve also launched “Girl Scouts at Home,” a digital platform filled with self-guided activities so Girl Scouts can continue to learn skills and earn badges without venturing farther than their own backyard. Resources are categorized by grade level and include everything from mastering the basics of coding to building a life vest for a Corgi (though the video instructions for that haven’t been posted yet).

“For 108 years, Girl Scouts has been there in times of crisis and turmoil,” Girl Scouts of the USA CEO Sylvia Acevedo said in a press release. “And today we are stepping forward with new initiatives to help girls, their families, and consumers connect, explore, find comfort, and take action.”

You can order cookies here, and explore “Girl Scouts at Home” here.

Can't Find Yeast? Grow Your Own at Home With a Sourdough Starter

Dutodom, iStock via Getty Images
Dutodom, iStock via Getty Images

Baking bread can relieve stress and it requires long stretches of time at home that many of us now have. But shoppers have been panic-buying some surprising items since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to pantry staples like rice and beans, yeast packets are suddenly hard to find in grocery stores. If you got the idea to make homemade bread at the same time as everyone on your Instagram feed, don't let the yeast shortage stop you. As long as you have flour, water, and time, you can grow your own yeast at home.

While many bread recipes call for either instant yeast or dry active yeast, sourdough bread can be made with ingredients you hopefully already have on hand. The key to sourdough's unique, tangy taste lies in its "wild" yeast. Yeast is a single-celled type of fungus that's abundant in nature—it's so abundant, it's floating around your home right now.

To cultivate wild yeast, you need to make a sourdough starter. This can be done by combining one cup of flour (like whole grain, all-purpose, or a mixture of the two) with a half cup of cool water in a bowl made of nonreactive material (such as glass, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic). Cover it with plastic wrap or a clean towel and let it sit in a fairly warm place (70°F to 75°F) for 24 hours.

Your starter must be fed with one cup of flour and a half cup of water every day for five days before it can be used in baking. Sourdough starter is a living thing, so you should notice is start to bubble and grow in size over time (it also makes a great low-maintenance pet if you're looking for company in quarantine). On the fifth day, you can use your starter to make dough for sourdough bread. Here's a recipe from King Arthur Flour that only calls for starter, flour, salt, and water.

If you just want to get the urge to bake out of your system, you can toss your starter once you're done with it. If you plan on making sourdough again, you can use the same starter indefinitely. Starters have been known to live in people's kitchens for decades. But to avoid using up all your flour, you can store yours in the fridge after the first five days and reduce feedings to once a week.

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