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A Judgement in California

A Judgement in California

by Tim Elliott on July 15, 2007

Much has been written about the recent California State Fair Wine Competition where Franzia’s Charles Shaw Chardonnay was named a double-gold metal winner. How can a wine that sells for $2-4 at Trader Joe’s markets across the U.S. best the top wines from California that often sell for more per bottle than Charles Shaw Chardonnay sells by the case?

Bronco Wines Fred Franzia, maker of Charles Shaw winesThe answer is it is not possible. What I think happened was one of a few things that I haven’t seen anyone write about.

Batch Variation

Charles Shaw is made in industrial quantities from inexpensive grapes grown in California’s Central Valley. They have also been known to buy wine on the bulk market to bolster their blend as the market allows. My guess is the bottles judged at the California State Fair came from a vastly better batch than what I, and other wine podcasters, have tasted.

Palate Fatigue

I’m not sure who the judges were for this event, but I expect they were all well qualified to distinguish thin, flabby wine from truly complex and interesting wine. Given the hundreds of wines sampled at the competition I would expect some palate fatigue might have contributed to this result.

Random Chance

The blind format for tasting is absolutely the best way for wine to be judged as it takes away all the preconceptions one might have for a given wine. But one of the artifacts of this approach is the line-up of wines can affect the tasters perception. So I think the most likely cause for Charles Shaw Chardonnay winning double-gold (the equivalent of a 98 score) is the wines tasted immediately before the Shaw. Since many California Chardonnay falls into the over-oaked, buttery category, a fruit-forward, little to no oak wine might appear “better” due to the contrast in styles.

But I could be wrong here and Shaw Chardonnay could be one of the best values available on the U.S. market today.

The last time I tried this wine I left unimpressed but I will pick up a bottle and put it into a blind tasting along with some of the best that California has to offer. It will be interesting to see if my judgement in Minnesota lines up with a Judgement in California. As with all wine tasting, your mileage may vary.

  • Others have hinted at “Batch variation,” but you’re the first I know to come right out and say it. Wine made at the volume of $2 Chuck is not going to be made with the same grapes in every batch. It’s the most sensible explanation that will please the skeptics.

    Of course, *(&^ happens and it could just be that on that day, in those conditions, with that tasting panel, it really was the wine they judged to be best.

    I personally would like to see the photo with the judges faces when they discovered they awarded best chardonnay to this wine.

    Thanks for the link, and the lucid post.

  • Ward Bell

    Why even speculate? It really doesn’t matter and there is no hard evidence that any of the many theories is right!

    Lots of folks will be drawn to this chardonnay and many will like it and purchase it again. Sure, if they dig into the full story, they will learn that Bronco produces lots of wines and they can expect some variation from batch-to-batch and there is no way of projecting what the 2006 will taste like once it is released.

    Personally, I happen to enjoy the wine. I cannot say it is the best 2005 Chardonnay that I’ve tasted but it does have characteristics I like and you can’t beat the price (even ‘tho it is more like “3-buck chuck” here in Minnesota).

    (Interestingly, I’ve not seen the Trader Joes labeled versions that Gary showed in his tasting. And I don’t agree with his assessment of the cab — but, again, not labeled the same as what he tasted.)

  • Tim

    Dr. Debs: I think it’s a combo of batch variation and where the Shaw was tasted in the random line up. Since this wine had to go through 2 blind tastings, I find it hard to believe that the judges missed the same thing twice. The wine had to be pretty good in the bottles judged.

    Ward: I haven’t seen the label version Gary had on his podcast, either. In both Minnesota and California Trader Joe’s I’ve seen the same classic Shaw labeling. I’ll also see you down in St. Louis Park picking up some samples of the Chardonnay for my blind tasting 😉

  • Ward Bell

    What I really find interesting (and good) has been the number of people who have asked about the chardonnay — because they have heard of the prize and the buzz.

    It is sort of like the buzz that accompanied the Stag Leap Cab that beat out those French wines.

    The cool thing is that if this brings folks to wine then our “job” is to get them to try other wines to develop their palates. Since my interests lie in the area of how retail shops can help their customers to develop their appreciation of wines, the two-buck chuck is a great starting point. Getting the buzz working helps the long-term appreciation of finer wines.

  • When this award was announced, I got caught up in a heated conversation about what a travesty this award is. Finally, when someone actually pointed us to the criteria used at the fair, I decided to see for myself. I went to Trader Joe’s and tried the whole lineup available. (05 Sauv blanc, 05 Chard. 04 Merlot, 04 Cab and 05 Shiraz)

    Truly, the 2005 Chard was a nice stand out of the whole bunch I bought – when you consider that it is a $2 wine. It was the cleanest, offering the most fidelity to varietal character. If you are looking for power, oak and residual sugar, this is not your wine. But it’s a nice every day ‘house’ wine.

    Just last week I tried the 2006 Chard. I would encourage you to try the 2006. Also a good wine for 2 or 3 dollars.

    We all think different thinkgs about Fred. And if you don’t want to drink his wines because you don’t like the way he does business, that’s fine. I was personally pleasantly surprised.

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