Several jobs back, I worked for Kobrand Corporation which is a big wine importing and sales organization that represents such brands as Taittinger Champagne, Louis Jadot Burgundies, Taylor-Fladgate and Fonseca Ports, Cakebread Cellars, Sequoia Grove, St. Francis, and Benziger. My job sometimes entailed working in the market with some of Kobrands suppliers. In the course of my business, I got to know a fellow named Chuck Shaw. When I met him in 1986, he was living the dream. He was the successful founder and owner of Charles F. Shaw Winery just north of St. Helena in Napa Valley. Part of the 1982 film Yes, Giorgio was shot on the winery property in and around Chuck’s gazebo.
Chuck Shaw graduated from United States Military Academy at West Point and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Later, he worked for Bank of America as an investment banker. While working in France, he fell in love with the wines of Beaujolais. He studied the wine and became friends with Georges DuBoeuf who is popularly known as “the king of Beaujolais”. He became convinced that “Beaujolais” made in California could be the next big thing. Chuck determined to make Beaujolais-style wine in Napa Valley.
In 1974, Chuck Shaw and his wife Lucy (who is originally from Manvel, Texas) moved to Napa Valley to start the Charles F. Shaw winery. Once there, he found out that the real Beaujolais grape, Gamay, did not exist in California, What was called Gamay Beaujolais in California was actually a clone of Pinot Noir and what was called Napa Gamay was actually Valdigue. Being the resourceful fellow he is, Chuck went to Beaujolais and cajoled Georges DuBoeuf into giving him some Gamay cuttings which he smuggled into the US in the sleeves of his Burberry raincoat. He grafted these cuttings into his vineyard. As the cuttings took, he took cuttings from them and grafted more vines. Eventually he had a full vineyard grafted over to real Gamay.
I remember visiting the Charles F. Shaw Winery once at the end of the 1988 harvest. Chuck was in the midst of his Gamay fermentations. Before we left for dinner, he was adjusting the valves on some of the tanks. The valves were covered with bees which were after the sweet grape juice. Chuck’s purple-stained hands were nicked up and swollen from the bite of the acidic grape juice on the cuts and several bee stings from reaching in to turn the valves. He was dog-tired from the harvest but he was happy and relaxed.
In the land of Cabernet Sauvignon, Charles F. Shaw Winery was making very good Gamay in the style of Beaujolais and very good Chardonnay in a lighter more food friendly style. The wines weren’t flashy but they were different and the quality was excellent. As I said, he was living the dream.
Eventually, it all fell apart. In 1991, Chuck and his wife divorced. The divorce lead to a bankruptcy and Chuck had to sell the winery. The Charles F. Shaw Winery brand was eventually purchased by Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Company, one of the world’s largest producers of value wines. Chuck kicked around Napa for a bit and them moved to Chicago and started over. He was out of the wine business and back in investment banking, remarried and living a new life.
Several years latter, a California grocery chain called Trader Joe’s approached Bronco about producing a very low cost private label. Bronco came up with a palatable wine and showed Trader Joe’s a number of labels that were available for use. Trader Joe’s selected the Charles F. Shaw Winery label and a legend was born. Trader Joe’s priced the wine at $1.99 per bottle and the staff dubbed the wine “Two Buck Chuck”.
All kinds of false rumors spread tying the Chicago business man and former vigneron to the wine label but there was/is no longer any link. Still people call Chuck Shaw the man and ask for comment on the current Charles F. Shaw wines. He doesn’t like to talk about it and for a long time had not tasted the new wines. He seems a little bit bewildered by the whole thing. It is ironic that this good and decent man now lives with this never-intended-success using his name but with which he has nothing to do. What must Chuck Shaw think about all this?
As I write this on December 6th, 2007 – on which day is celebrated the “feast of St. Nicolas” – I wonder what that St. Nicolas of Myra must think about the commercial success of today’s Santa Claus. I also wonder what Jesus must think about the commercial success of today’s “X-mas”. If anyone in the world today can know, it is probably Chuck Shaw.
– Charles M. Bear Dalton