Fred Franzia, the man best known for creating “Two Buck Chuck,” threw down the gauntlet this spring. He said: “We challenge any Napa Valley winery to a blind wine tasting with consumers and we’ll win more than a majority of the time.” His caveat: no sommeliers, no wine critics.
The wineries may not have taken up the challenge but we did, and this will pique your interest: Franzia won and lost.
We pulled together a group of consumers for a blind tasting of cabernet sauvignon at the Cellars of Sonoma in Santa Rosa‘s Railroad Square. The bagged bottles in our line-up included Franzia’s wines and top Napa bottlings from Caymus, Ramey and Buehler, and the results of the tasting were telling.
Franzia’s $13 Napa Creek, 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon tied for first place, standing up to wines that are roughly five to 10 times its price. But Franzia’s Charles Shaw, best known as “Two Buck Chuck,” came in last.
What does Franzia think of his win/lose standing? “Fifty/fifty,” he joked. “I’ll take it every day.” Regarding Napa Creek’s high marks, Franzia said “What makes me happy is that Napa Creek runs with the big dogs – Caymus, Ramey and Buehler.” As for Charles Shaw coming in last place, Franzia said “It did well enough in the competition. It’s like driving a Porsche or driving a ’52 Chevy. It’s not comparable.”
We set up a control group of professional tasters to rate the wines and to offer additional insights. Interestingly Napa Creek even fared well with that group, placing third behind Caymus and Ramey.
One of the panelists, Stefan Solytiask, wine educator of Healdsburg’s Rodney Strong Vineyards, deduced that Napa Creek showed well for two reasons: 1) 85 percent of the fruit is from Napa Valley and 2) 2007 was a great vintage for cabernet, as well as pinot noir and zinfandel.
Solytiask’s broader point? Franzia’s claim that his wines can stand up to the best of Napa most of the time in a consumer tasting is questionable. Yes, in this tasting one of Franzia’s wines did stand up to pricier Napa cabs, but to do it he relied on Napa grapes. Most of Franzia’s wines are produced from Central Valley grapes.
Were the consumer panelists surprised that the Napa Creek tied for first place? Not really. After all it was the top pick of three judges. As panelist Nicole Myers put it, “The wine was incredibly smooth to drink, a little sweet but I prefer sweet to dry. You can taste the layers rather than it hitting you full in the face and not knowing what hit you.”
However, what did surprise the panel was the poor showing of Charles Shaw or “Two Buck Chuck.”
Martha O’Hayer said “If I was at a party and someone gave me this wine, I’d just go get a beer,” she said with a laugh. Myers agreed, explaining she was surprised because she drinks “Two Buck Chuck” quite a bit. “I’m a teacher and I can’t really afford more than that, but I didn’t like it today. O’Hayer summed up most of the judges’ sentiments. “You just can’t expect consistency out of ‘Two Buck Chuck’.”
Responding to this charge, Franzia said “It’s not the wine, it’s the wine drinkers who are inconsistent. They drink different wines every night and then come back to Charles Shaw and it tastes different to them.”
On the topic of budget wines Franzia was unwavering, reiterating his charge that all wine should be priced $10 or under. “There’s no reason for a higher-priced wine unless someone has a big ego or has a large debt to pay off.” (Reminded the suggested retail price of his Napa Creek is $13, Franzia argued that it’s typically sold at $8 to $10.)
The panel deliberated over Franzia’s statement that all wine should have a $10 limit. True or False?
Susan Diez said “At this point in my life I agree with him (Fanzia). Wine is plentiful. I will try his wine and if it doesn’t stand up, I won’t drink it.” But, she added, there are plenty of options with great deals in Argentina, Chile, Australia, etc.
O’Hayer was a bit conflicted on the $10 question. On one hand she said hot house tomatoes shouldn’t be priced the same as heirloom tomatoes because they’re not as good. On the other hand she said the predicament is a lot like real estate. O’Hayer said you may list your house at $600,000, but if you get an offer for $485,000, you might take it. “That may happen to $30 wine,” she said. “The market place may be driven to $10 wine a bottle, so he may be right.”
The judges on the professional panel, however, strongly disagree with Franzia’s argument that all wines should be $10 and under. Ben Pearson, wine buyer for Santa Rosa’s Bottle Barn, said: “To say all wine should be under $10 relegates wine to simply another beverage and I think most of us think of wine as special and memorable … to say nothing should be better than a quaff to choke down dinner is a pretty sad statement.”
Ziggy Eschliman, the Wine Gal on KRSH and KNOB, agreed. “The fact of the matter is that when you’re using great oak it costs more so a handcrafted wine costs more, end of story. And you’re always going to have a consumer that wants a handcrafted wine.”
That said, the professional judges were unanimous on this point: in today’s economic downturn, consumers are hungry for values. Pearson, who has been working in the wine industry for three decades, said: “The consumer tasting is timely. There’s more emphasis on inexpensive wine now than anytime in my career.”
Here’s a detailed look at the consumer tasting results and the panelists:
1st Napa Creek, 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $13, 3.6
2nd Caymus Vineyards, 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $70, 3.6
3rd Ramey, 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $51, 3.6
4th Buehler Vineyards, 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, $28, 3.6
5th Forestville, 2006 California Cabernet Sauvignon, $6, 3
6th Charles Shaw, 2006 California Cabernet Sauvignon, $2, 1.8
The everyday wine consumers include: Michele Lott, 55, of Santa Rosa, a graphic designer and illustrator; Nichole Myers, 28, of Santa Rosa, a professor of Earth Science at Sonoma State; Scott Green, 35, of Santa Rosa, a pest control technician; Martha O’Hayer, 51, of Petaluma, a realtor with Frank Howard Allen Realtors; and Susan Diez, 55, of Santa Rosa, a housewife.
Here’s a detailed look at the scores of the professional panel and the judges:
1st Caymus Vineyards, 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $70, 3.7;
2nd Ramey, 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $51, 3.3
3rd Napa Creek, 2007 Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, $13, 3.2
4th Buehler Vineyards, 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, $28, 2.7
5th Forestville, 2006 California Cabernet Sauvignon, $6, 2.5
6th Charles Shaw, 2006 California Cabernet Sauvignon, $2, 1.7
The professional panel: Ziggy Eschliman, the Wine Gal on KRSH, KNOB; Ben Pearson, wine buyer of Santa Rosa’s Bottle Barn; and Stefan Soltysiak, director of education of Healdsburg’s Rodney Strong Vineyards.
Wine blogger Peg Melnik can be reached at 707-521-5310 or firstname.lastname@example.org.