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A rambunctious little vintage

January 25, 2006

FOR MOST OF US SLOBS, any wine that goes for $2 to $5 a bottle and doesn't remove nail polish is gift enough in this life. A label implying Napa Valley vintage is unnecessary -- especially when it's untrue.

Fred Franzia, the owner of Bronco Wine Co., should rest on his laurels as the creator of "Two-buck Chuck," the $1.99 Charles Shaw wine sold at Trader Joe's. More than one sommelier has called it surprisingly drinkable stuff, but its true miracle is the price. The biggest drawback: It's impossible to give as a gift. The label fixes the exact level of your miserliness.

For just a few dollars more, you could buy a bottle from one of Bronco's more prestigious labels, Rutherford Vineyards or Napa Creek. The names gave off the fruity implication of a Napa Valley tasting room and the oaken undertones of Napa Valley prices -- without the Napa Valley price. In fact, without the Napa Valley altogether.

The wines ran afoul of state law, which requires Napa-label wines to be made mostly of Napa grapes. Bronco's weren't. Franzia defended his labels all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- twice.

The first time his argument was that federal law, which allows preexisting wine labels to continue their misleading siren song, overruled stricter state law. The justices weren't buying. (While they were at it, they should have taken the occasion to call the feds on that nonsensical bit of lawmaking. Since when is it OK to fib simply because you've been fibbing for years?) The second time before the court, Franzia's argument was that the state law interfered with his constitutional right to free speech. But misleading marketing has never enjoyed constitutional protection.

Franzia plans to continue the Napa-named labels with the requisite Napa grapes. Why bother? He doesn't need to do that to make a buck, or a two-buck Chuck. Franzia's legacy as a genius of the grape is secure for turning Charles Shaw into a fermented phenom for the common man. It's honest about its working-class origins -- a wine cheaper than some bottled water, a wine with a sense of humor and no Napa pretenses. And that's exactly how we like it.

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