For a quarter-century, American wines have been on a relentless upward trend increased production, but higher quality, greater refinement, growing reputation as well. It couldn't

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What's in a Name?

For a quarter-century, American wines have been on a relentless upward trend increased production, but higher quality, greater refinement, growing reputation as well. It couldn't go on forever, and last year the entire industry got a powerful signal that the future would be differenta signal that can be summed up in the words: "Two-Buck Chuck." There have been mass-produced, mass- marketed wines before, but none produced with the cold calculation embodied in the Charles Shaw label, produced by the Bronco Wine Company for exclusive sale by Trader Joe's. T-Joe's contracts with Bronco to deliver a bottle of wine cheap enough to retail at $1.99 ($2.99 in Washington). Bronco buys wine from anybody willing to sell it cheap enough, blends it, bottles it, labels it, and delivers it. Thanks to the current grape surplus, there are a lot of people eager to sell for any price at all, so both Bronco and T-Joe's are doing quite nicely, thank you. In some ways, the emergence of Two-Buck Chuck is long overdue: There's no reason Americans should have to turn to Chilean or Australian wines when they want an acceptable quaff at a rock-bottom price. And a lot of people who'd never think of drinking such swill themselves wouldn't mind if the low-end competition put some downward pressure on high-end wine prices, which, for some fabled labels, have reached absurdly inflated figures. There are two problems with that scenario. First, when grape prices drop, they drop for high-end wineries as well as low-enders; it's the farmers who take it in the shorts, pretty much across the board, too. The second problem is more subtle: What happens when Two-Buck Chuck, no longer an exception, becomes a widespread business model? And it will. In Washington, it already has: In mid-June, a new company called Precept Brands announced plans "focusing on niche products in the premium segment of the wine market." That might sound pretty ambitious, until you find out that for Precept, "premium" means "$8 and under," and that its Avery Lane label is just thatlike the rubric "Charles Shaw," a cover name for whatever Precept chooses to put in the bottle. The Avery Lane "product line" presently includes a chardonnay, a merlot, and a cabernet sauvignon (for $8) and a sauvignon blanc, a traminer, and a "red blend" for $7. For the "super-premium" market ($8 to $14), Precept has come up with another label: Pavin & Riley, which kicks off with a $12 merlot created according to the same formula. At the tip-top of the portfolio you'll find a $14 syrah under the name Barrelstone. I haven't tasted any of these wines; they may be exemplary items of their kind. But their kind is something qualitatively new in this state, and quite new in this country as a whole: Wines created by spread sheet and graphic design program, and only then realized in the crude idiom of fermented grape juice. When accountants replace winemakers in the driver's seat, the consumer's pocketbook may well benefit. A beneficial effect on the palate is less likely. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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