Skip to comments.The origins of Trader Joe's and why Americans don't drink more wine
Posted on 03/04/2004 11:47:11 AM PST by Stone Mountain
The origins of Trader Joe's and why Americans don't drink more wine
By PAUL FRANSON Register Correspondent
At the recent Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, some of us had the pleasure of meeting the real Trader Joe and hearing how he started the cultish chain.
To celebrate its 30th Anniversary, the California Association of Winegrape Growers invited Joe Coloumbe to address at its annual meeting.
Telling a tale worthy of PBS's "Nova," he enthralled the audience about why the Little Ice Age kept Americans from drinking wine, how the breakdown of an international monetary agreement affects the wine business -- and how he started the chain of quirky gourmet stores that upended the demand for California wine.
Why America is a land of beer and booze
He started by explaining why America isn't a wine-drinking country. In short, it's because the Little Ice Age of 1450 to 1850 turned our mostly Northeastern forebears from wine into beer and booze drinkers.
About 600 years ago, the climate in the Northern Hemisphere plummeted for 50 years, and Northern Europe stayed uncharacteristically cold until the middle of the 19th century.
This Little Ice Age replaced the Medieval Warming that preceded it, a time when vineyards grew across northern Europe and even in Iceland and Greenland.
In the 13th Century, French vintners complained that English wine flooded their shores and undercut their prices.
With the cooling climate, however, these vineyards retreated south, and northerners had to satisfy their need for alcohol with grain-based beverages, namely beer.
Of course, with cold temperatures, the wheat crop also failed, so laws were passed prohibiting its use in beer, forcing brewers to use tougher grains such as barley. Germans brewers still cite these old laws in proclaiming the "purity" of their beer made only from barley.
The Czechs learned to add hops to preserve the beer, and the member of the Cannabaceae family added a certain appeal. The public soon developed a taste for this slightly bitter brew.
As technology advanced, scientists learned to boil beer to extract its alcohol, making whisky and other alcoholic beverages possible.
The result: Northern Europeans drank beer and hard liquor, not wine. And since the United States was populated mostly by northeastern Europeans, we became a nation of beer and spirits drinkers, a tradition that still exists. More than 80 percent of the wine consumed in America is drunk by little more than 10 percent of the population.
A warming climate
Joe Coloumbe's ancestors came from Normandy to Quebec in 1665 to escape the cold and were surprised to find that area even colder. Their ancestors eventually made their way to warmed climates; Coloumbe lives in Southern California.
Generally, however, the climate has been getting warmer since the 19th Century. Many blame it on greenhouse gasses, but it should be noted that a similar situation existed 1,000 years ago and natural climatic cycles have existed for millennia. "I believe we're returning to the climate of the late Middle Ages," says Coloumbe.
He notes that with the warmer weather, vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere are sneaking north once again.
Last year was the first when the growing group of vine growers in England didn't have to add sugar to their juice and long-abandoned parts of Northern France are being replanted to vines as they were when the Yonne Valley near Chablis was the primary supplier of wine to Paris.
Closer to home, parts of North America where vitis vinifera grapes were untenable are now flourishing, including Virginia, the North Folk of Long Island and even parts of Canada. Coloumbe even sees a great future for vines on the south-facing shores of Lake Huron.
That climate change has other implications for the wine business.
Coloumbe forecasts that premium wine production will shift to latitudes as high as 50 degrees as locations closer to the Equator become warmer. The Bay Area lies at about 30 degrees, by the way, as are Santiago, Chile and the wine regions of Australia, Argentina and South Africa.
Maybe California wine companies that have invested in Washington are just thinking ahead.
Coloumbe notes that there's little land mass at higher latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, however, only New Zealand's South Island, Tasmania and Argentina.
He envisions an increasing vinous future for the latter nation's lower reaches. "Argentina has a long tradition of making wine, most not very good, but that's changing."
A bright spot for California growers and winemakers
The second part of Trade Joe's talk concerned why currency rates fluctuate so widely, and in the interest of space, he says that the weak dollar is the best thing that could happen to American wineries.
He notes that the Euro has risen from 87 cents to the dollar to today's $1.30, and he thinks it will hit $1.40. That makes U.S. wine cheaper overseas -- and imports pricier to American consumers.
Likewise, the Australian dollar was at 50 when that nation's imports started flooding our markets. It's now at almost 80 cents. "The Australian dollar was at $1.25 in 1975," he notes. "If it goes to $1.25 again, you can forget about Yellowtail," the fastest growing Australian wine import.
And though the U.S. dollar is weak, he notes that the Argentine peso is even weaker. "Today, Argentina is the cheapest place in the world to grow wine."
Serving the over-educated, underpaid of society
Finally, Coloumbe talked about how he started Trader Joe's.
In 1966, he owned a chain of convenience stores called Pronto Market, but he could see that those businesses were becoming commodities. "I realized I had to change."
In searching for a new business model, Coloumbe discovered a prime customer target: the relatively small group of people with college degrees.
Thanks to the GI Bill, it was growing very fast, and he discovered a very strong relationship between years of education and alcoholic consumption. "It was as perfect a correlation as found in market research," he notes.
Attempting to exploit this group, Coloumbe outfitted a Pronto store with the "world's largest selection of alcoholic beverages."
In those days, California had "fair trade," i.e., manufacturers could fix retail prices. "We had 100 Bourbons, 50 Scotches and the world's largest assortment of California wines." He claims to be the first to give space to brands like Mayacamas, Schramsberg, Souverain and Mirassou in Southern California.
Eventually, Coloumbe found a loophole in the fair trade laws. He acquired an old license so he could also act as a wholesaler and developed a private label program, the precursor of today's Charles Shaw wine, better known as Two Buck Chuck.
Over time, he realized that his stores especially appealed to the over-educated and underpaid, notably teachers, classical musicians, museum curators and journalists. "That group now includes starving Silicon Valley engineers," he jokes. "It became our sacred mission to serve these customers."
It was a winning strategy, especially since the targeted customers has influence out of proportion with their salaries, and love to share their discoveries with others of the same ilk.
He adds, "We built Trader Joe's on wine first, then food. I tasted 100,000 wines, and most weren't wonderful. They were submitted to us by desperate vintners."
Joe Coloumbe left the company 15 years ago, but he notes that Charles Shaw wine is a return to the company's roots. "Is Two Buck Chuck as good as our private label wine of the '70s?" he asks rhetorically. "Eight million cases later, who's going to argue?"
He concluded by saying, "I look forward to trying Carlos T. Shaw from Argentina."
You're right. I can't drink their Cabernet or Chardonnay, but at $2 a pop their Merlot is amazing.
In the absence of any reliable proof of GW I'll believe this too.
Did they have a lisp?
Yikes! You're out of my league. (Definitely not serving wine when you come over for dinner.)
What are you inthinuating?
TJ's also has some of the best quality/prices on nutritional supplements. They buy in MASSIVE quantity from high quality manufacturers. And they honestly do pass the savings along to their customers. People in the supplement/health food store talk derisively of TJ, but they refuse to meet their prices.
I highly reccomend their "VERY GREEN" product if you do green foods.
That's not what was said.
But, the point remains nonetheless: California Merlot is almost uniformly flat, lacking in structure and tanin, and sweet to the point of being as cloying as wines like Almaden or Paul Masson 'burgundy' or 'claret' were 40-50 years ago before the varietal revolution. Oh, they have a decent enough nose, but they're devoid of character (thank you San Joaquin Valley varietals programs of the '70s and '80s), have a short entry, blandly flat middle palate, and short to nonexistent finish. When not sweet, sharply acidic where they should be tannic. Faugh!
P.S. My absolute favorite underappreciated wine: Inglenook Charbono. I don't think it's made any longer, but the 1941 was as good as any of the '41 Cabernet Sauvignons, and that's sayign something. The '66 and '68 were legendary, the '70 was magnificent, and the '76 is probably just ready to drink. It's a pity no one I know has a bottle anymore.
I remember going into a Trader Joe's in Los Angeles in 1978 and finding three cases of '70 Inglenook Charbono for $20 a case. Wonderful wine!
Touted for its varied medicinal uses, whisky was even said to cure lisping. One can assume from this that were professional wine tasters around even then. I have tested this anti-lisping theory my self for 35 years and will, after a bit more study, be ready to pronounce it true.
Have you given the Coppola wines a whirl? I received the 1998 Diamond Series Claret and Merlot as a gift and the 2000 Director's Series Chardonnay and Merlot as gifts. As a general rule, I find all of them to have a strong oaky flavor which seems to overpower the fruit notes.
I have enjoyed the Claret in a couple of vintages. I wouldn't know about the Merlot. IIRC, I was not thrilled with the Chardonnay, the oak reminded me of cardboard. Often they are not made from grapes on the estate, or even with his own wine (when it says "vinted and bottled by" you know the named producer did not make the wine, he bought it and finished it, perhaps blending it.
That would have been difficult, as I never attended seminary. Actually, it was just sitting with my great uncles and grandfather and their friends, drinking and discussing wines of various degrees of seriousness. Also going visiting with my grandfather (and sometimes one or more great uncles) to various wineries to have luncheon or dinner with the owners or winemakers. Everyone would bring interesting old wines, and interesting old wines would come out of the winery's vaults.
My grandfather had a fairly large stock of '28 and '29 first and second growth Bordeaux, which were very popular as benchmark wines to have alongside old California wines. The '35s and '37's were good, the '41s probably the best vintage in California in the 20th century (but there were only a handful of ageworthy cabernet sauvignons then: BV reserve, Inglenook cask, Simi reserve, Martin Ray, Louis Martini Special Selection, but the BV and Inglenook cask are -- for me -- the greatest California cabs I have ever drunk. Although having the complexity of age, they still had significant fruit, perfect structure and plenty of tannin left when I drank them in 1960, in 1966, in 1970 and in 1978.) The '47s were excellent, as were some '55s and '57s. In the '60s, '66 and '68 were the oustanding years, and 1970 was a close runner up to 1941.
I think it should say, "Their descendants eventually made their way to warmed climates; Coloumbe lives in Southern California."
I understand that the amount could as much as 25% not from the vinter. Sad!
European standards are much higher in this regard.
I would be interested in hearing info from your cousin ;)
"grown, produced, and bottled by" which means the winery had to grow all (or almost all, I think there's a 5% leeway) of the grapes, had to crush the grapes, make the wine, age and blend it, and bottled it. In other words, the winery performed the entire process.
"produced and bottled by" which means that the winery crushed the grapes, made the wine, aged, blended and bottled it. In this situation, the winery may or may not have grown some or most of the grapes, and bought some, most or all of the grapes from other growers. This is probably the most common designation on quality wines.
Below that are three designations you see, but which don't mean much, if anything, legally:
"made and bottled by" which doesn't mean the winery made the wine, or very much of it. The wine was probably purchased from another winery (it could have been surplus, or not up to the other winery's standards, or just not needed for in the blends). By custom, this designation means that the winemaker at the winery whose lable it's under did something to the wine, perhaps blended it.
"vinted and bottled by means just about the same as "made and bottled by" but customarily means the winery did a little (how little?? who knows, it's anyone's guess) less than for "made and bottled by". These are entirely purchased in wines that are blended and finished for sale by the winery or negociant. This is commonly seen on negociant wines sold under a wine merchant's lable, rather than an actually winery's lable.
"cellard and bottled by" legally doesn't mean much less that the "made and bottled by" or "vinted and bottled by", but by custom this reflects the least work by the winery or negociant. It is very common on negociant wines.
Very often, some winerys do not grow enough grapes to meet their needs, or they don't like the quality of their own grapes in a given year or given vineyard, and so they buy grapes from other growers. Sometimes this is done on long term contract, other times on the spot market.
Likewise with freshly made wines. Some wineries will have more than they need (or have room to cellar and age) or particular wines (e.g. a winery that uses merlot to blend with cabernet might have more merlot than it wants for blending, but doesn't want to bottle a varietal merlot), and others will have wines that are perfectly decent ("sound commercial wine" in the trade) but are not up to the winery's standards. Other wineries will need wines of varying quality for their blends or to fill out their lines. And, it bountiful years, there's more wine than anyone wants, sometimes of excellent quanity. To keep prices up, a lot of this wine is sold off to merchants who will act a negociants and create 'house' blends for sale.
‘Two-Buck Chuck’ Wins Wine Competition
North County Times/The Californian | Friday, June 29, 2007
Bradley J. Fikes - Staff Writer
Posted on 06/30/2007 5:05:16 PM EDT by DogByte6RER
Medieval history topic:the Little Ice Age of 1450 to 1850 turned our mostly Northeastern forebears from wine into beer and booze drinkersJust adding to the catalog, not sending a general distribution.
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Two Buck Chuck is one of the best wines I have ever had.”
My taste in wine always ran to Maddog and Wild Irish Rose, but then I drank for effect.
I wasn’t bad enough for Thunderbird(sorry Mozilla).