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Meet the real 'Two Buck Chuck' — Charles Shaw

Meet the real 'Two Buck Chuck' — Charles Shaw

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Charles Shaw hasn't been a wine man for more than a dozen years. Yet, his name thrives on the business acumen of others, who have turned a forgotten brand into a quirky name that has gone on to become just about the most astonishing phenomenon in American wine history.

The Charles F. Shaw — nicknamed Two Buck Chuck — wines, through an exclusive distributorship with the Trader Joe's food stores, have sold millions of cases over the last couple of years; and made a whole lot of money for a lot of people.

But the real Charles Shaw, who now tries to make a living by selling software that monitors cardiac surgery, sits in a north-Chicago suburb pining for the wine business and trying to figure out a way to get the people who sell Two Buck Chuck, to not misuse his good name.

Never mind the fact, that while others get rich off of his wine brand that he lost in a divorce in 1990, the real Chuck Shaw hasn't seen a penny from the wines which have created such a stir that they named a sales category after it.

They call Two Buck Chuck a super-value wine. While some have made the assumption that the wines, which sell for $1.99 to $2.99 a bottle, will help neophyte wine consumers to the next level, others believe the wines are the bane of their existence. Two Buck Chuck, they claim, has driven prices down in an economic climate which can ill afford down-sized revenues.

But this is none of Chuck Shaw's concern now. He doesn't seem bothered by much these days, a far cry from the times in the late 1980s when he was trying to keep both his eponymous Upvalley winery-located south of Calistoga on Big Tree Road-and his marriage afloat. He didn't succeed on either front.

As he turns 60, and less than two months into a second marriage to a woman who manages a decorative arts gallery, about the only things that seem to bother Chuck Shaw these days about the wine business is that he's no longer a part of it, and that he doesn't like the wine brand for which he attempted to gain respect, being sullied.

He calls the Two Buck Chuck wines and the use of his name, "embarrassing and demeaning."

He says too, he's "not into" caring that he didn't make any money from Bronco's wildly populist brand.

But he does say he's tasted the wines, brought to him by his children who are upset about the turn of events which saw the demise of the family business, only to see someone else profit.

He declined to comment on the properties of the Two Buck Chuck.

He did say, however, that "it's not a Napa wine, not a Napa Valley wine, and not of the quality of the Charles Shaw brand where we spent all that time — visiting every hotel and restaurant in every state — and using techniques where every one of my wines was estate grown with layers of complexity.

"Then to take that and come out and have a lesser wine from another appellation, that isn't what I started out to do, was it? And I paid a pretty big price."

He adds that he wishes the Napa Valley Vintners Association would take up the cudgel for him and try and get Bronco to stop selling the Charles F. Shaw wines.

From the time he was capitalized by the inheritance from his wife Lucy in 1979 and through a panoply of business decisions — which included the quixotic but short-sighted notion that he could sell lots of wine made from a grape variety that America knew nothing about - the Charles F. Shaw Winery was doomed to failure.

The Shaw winery earned less than a half-million dollars in revenues in each of its first five years. Gamay was a difficult sell coming from a region whose Cabernet Sauvignons were burgeoning. By '84, however, the winery generated over $800,000. But still needing an infusion of capital, the winery took on an investment group headed by Reg Oliver for a 30 percent stake in the business.

Oliver, who has his own Napa Valley winery, El Molino, claims his group helped the Shaws improve their debt-to-equity ratio and helped them expand to the next level.

But Oliver laments the winery's demise.

"Chuck was ahead of his time because he was never around to see the post-'French Paradox-era,'" he says.

Meaning: That the demand for wine was at its optimum after reports — immediately following the demise of the Shaw winery — determined that it must be red wine which staves off all kinds of illness and disease.

"Chuck was a classic entrepreneur who had solid education (West Point, Stanford Business School) and training," says Oliver. "He had a vision nobody else had but maybe everyone else figured out they'd lose their shirt."

Sure enough, after the crush of '89, the beginning of the end had overtaken the Shaw winery internally just as an infinitesimally sized mite was eating away at the vines outside.

While the financial problems ate away at the Shaws, the inevitable came crashing down, some say, exacerbated by Chuck and Lucy's marriage, which was in disarray.

The banks began calling in the loans and Shaw's distributor, Kobrand, was putting the squeeze on to modify prices in order to increase production. All the while, the winery, now highly leveraged, was failing to meet its budgets.

Neighbor and grape grower Bill Collins, whose vineyard on Big Tree Road is adjacent to what is now Benessere Vineyards and what used to be the Charles Shaw Winery, says the winery folded because of Lucy and Chuck's disintegrating relationship.

"The winery went down the tubes because of the divorce," he says. "He (Chuck) told me the day his wife sued for divorce, his distributor cancelled their agreement.

"It wasn't coincidental."

According to Reg Oliver, "the partners made the decision to remove him (Chuck) because he was so upset by the prospect of the divorce, he was incapable of running the business."

Indeed, Lucy and her family, too, had asked Chuck to resign and to leave the winery as Lucy stepped in by October of '91 to head the company. It was a move that apparently left Kobrand — already apparently disturbed by the internal turmoil, as well as the financial leakage — cold.

Two and-a half million dollars was owed to West America Bank, $630,000 was coming to Kobrand, and $500,000 was outstanding to Oliver's group. In '92, it all coalesced to force the Charles F. Shaw Winery to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

"The business was incapacitated," is how Oliver describes it. "Chuck was always struggling. That's what probably wore on Lucy. It would wear on anybody."

Charles Shaw left his namesake winery and the family home where he and Lucy raised five children. For about eight months, Shaw began to live at various places in the Valley. Astonishingly, he moved in with his mother-in-law for a few weeks several blocks from downtown St. Helena. He settled in Reg Oliver's guest house for four months on the Rutherford Crossroad, and then he rented a house from Pat Garvey on Zinfandel Lane for another three or four months.

He claims he had no money when he relocated to Boston where he joined a group that was involved in medical data bases. It didn't work out. So he ventured to downtown Chicago where he moved in with his sister.

He's now living in Northfield with his new wife Susan, about five miles from Chicago. He owns a small piece of a company which collects 250 "data points" in order to track risks involved with open heart surgery.

He's reluctant to speak about the financial machinations of the bankruptcy, as well as the emotional aspects. But he says, "I miss the wine business terribly. It's the best thing I enjoy."

He also says he won't be coming back to the Napa Valley. He was last here two years ago attending the graduation of his son Clark. He often speaks to his children, and occasionally speaks on the phone to his former wife Lucy, who is also remarried. To a reporter at least, he refers to her as "Mrs. Shaw."

He's an avid fisherman and says one day, he'd love to have a winery on the western shore of Lake Michigan where he says "the breezes from the lake warm up in the fall and extends the growing season." Conducive, he insists, to growing a few cases of Gamay.

Renowned winemaker Ric Forman, who consulted on the Charles Shaw Gamay in 1982, laments Chuck Shaw's departure from the Napa Valley.

"He left town with nothing. It was very sad," he says. "It was unfortunate that his idea didn't work. It was the wrong product."

In another time, and in another place, others have found however, there's magic in another product with the same name that sells for two bucks.

Sad? Depends upon to whom you speak.

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