if you spend time inCalifornia and drink wine, chances are you are a fan of Two Buck Chuck. In that far-off nirvana where one can freely purchase wine (or any other kind of beer or liquor) at convenience stores, Trader Joe’s is the go-to grocery store for a certain brand of premium wine with Skid Row pricing. I speak, of course, of Charles Shaw wines, which have gained a passionate following in California for their excellent taste and, more importantly, the $1.99 price tag, hence the nickname.
Visit any Trader Joe’s and you’ll find customers carting cases of Two Buck Chuck out the door, stocking up as if a nuclear winter were forecast. Indeed, many live in fear of the day when these award-winning wines’ bargain-basement price will disappear. That’s not likely. Fred Franzia, who along with his brother, Joe, own Bronco Wine, which makes Shaw and other low-cost domestic brands, has for years engaged in a war against the pretentiousness and priciness of his competitors, saying only a sucker would pay more than $10 for a bottle of wine and colorfully taunting other winemakers as “bozos in a glass.”
You won’t find Two Buck Chuck in Chattanooga, since it is exclusively sold through Trader Joe’s, the charming California-based chain of small grocery stores who’ve made their legend by selling a wide variety of high-end products at reasonable prices in stores staffed with knowledeable foodies and wine experts. Tennessee’s arcane liquor laws prohibit the sales of wine in grocery stores, and until this is corrected we’ll likely never experience the joys TBC or Trader Joe’s.
I relate this tale not to rail against the state’s laws (although they deserve to be railed against; but that’s another story), but because Two Buck Chuck reminds me of a time when bargain-priced wine was less about quality and all about bang for the buck. Even wine snobs agree that TBC is actually a very good wine. But it’s the $1.99 price tag that has made it legend and its only competitor in the low-end market prior to its introduction has been a certain stable of wines most connisseurs would politely call swill. You know them as the flavored, low-alcohol wines that cost less than $5 and would, if consumed quickly enough, produce the desired effect—namely a cheap buzz. I speak here, of course, of Boone’s Farm and Mogen David 20/20.
Ask anyone over 40 about Boone’s Farm or MD 20/20 and you’ll likely be regailed with stories lodged deep within their high school memories. At any high school party in the 1970s or ’80s, these were the preferred beverages of our dates and girlfriends. And because they were both cheap and easy to procure (even for under-age students with bad fake IDs), they remain a nostalgic favorite. But they also occupy different levels in the social strata of teen drinking of which an entire study could be written.
It is my memory that Boone’s Farm appealed to most teenage girls because it did not taste like alcohol and had at least an element of “class.” In the supremely preppy era of my high school years, this rather dubious distinction mattered a great deal. While many girls I knew were eager to party—as eager as any boy, as I recall—they were not so eager to be seen swilling Miller Ponies or a Mickey’s Big Mouth. Sipping a glass of Boone’s Farm (strawberry was a particular favorite) lent a certain degree of sophistication to even the most debaucherous gathering. And if they sipped their way through an entire bottle, as was often the case, chances were the provider of said “fine wine” would be rewarded with some form of carnal pleasure. Rather louche, I know, but consider the time.
Less favored by my crowd’s female population was MD 20/20, the grape-flavored fortified wine we simple referred to as “Mad Dog.” Mad Dog gained its popularity as a “bum wine,” a cheap high without the sting of liquor but with a boosted alcohol content that hit the mark much faster than Boone’s Farm. Indeed, 20/20 originally stood for 20 ounces at 20 percent alcohol, something my friends and I became aware of rather quickly. The girls of my high school years rarely ventured into Mad Dog territory, but it was quite frequently used as a base for an even more fortified punch (mixed with Everclear) that became a popular non-beer option at many parties of my misspent and reckless youth.
The boys, of course, found both Boone’s Farm and Mad Dog to be of sufficent alcohol content to achieve the maximum buzz in the minimum time, which of course was the point when one was 16. And while it was certainly easy to drink oneself sick by pounding ponies, nothing said sicker than a post-party ralph-fest brought on by the sugary sweet aftertaste of strawberry or grape wine.
Nevertheless, there remains an entire cult of devotees who continue to sing the praises of Boone’s Farm long past their high school days. At the Boone’s Farm Fan Club online (boonesfarm.net) pages of testimonials declare the superior taste and value of the brand with vigor and zeal. Consider this high school memory from Sandie, who followed her own son’s post with this: “I remember drinking Boone’s Farm Strawberry Wine in high school while I was a dating a guy named Randy. He drank MD 20/20 while driving. Good times!”
Good times, indeed, and with my 30th high school reunion on the horizon later this year, I suspect a certain group of those attending will fondly recall the fruity beverage of their youth with dewy-eyed nostalgia. Living in a post-ironic era that celebrates Pabst Blue Ribbon and other downscale beers, it’s quite possible Boone’s Farm could make a comeback. But then again, my suggestion at marketing the stuff as the “Official Beverage of High School” will probably never pass muster—it’s just too obvious. After all, I’m pretty sure there’s a high schooler down the street who already knows this, so why ruin the secret—hipster marketing is all about a wink and nod.
Bill Ramsey is the creative director of The Pulse and consorted with many girls in high school who drank Boone’s Farm.
“1,000 Words: A Writer’s Journal” is an occasional feature showcasing essays, stories and anecdotes about Chattanooga, the South and our world. To be considered for publication, submit 1,000 words or less to http://scr.im/2joi. Use “1,000 Words Submission” as the subject of your email.