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Charles Shaw wine, aka "Two Buck Chuck," is one of the best-selling products ever sold at Trader Joe's, topping 800 million bottles in 12 years.
Now the man behind the brand is seeing red, and it has nothing to do with cabernet sauvignon. A blog suggested that Two Buck Chuck is inexpensive for several unflattering reasons, including large-scale machine harvesting, which ends up throwing everything into the wine, including animal blood.
"You just wonder what other propaganda gets put in the press that you don't know the real facts about," said Fred Franzia, CEO of Bronco Wine Company, which makes and sells Charles Shaw wines.
The "propaganda" Franzia refers to is a blog by a writer named Chris Knox that showed up on The Huffington Post last week.
"These aren't hand-picked vineyards. ... They are machine harvested," Knox wrote. "Everything, and I do mean everything (including all those unripe grapes, rotten grapes, leaves, stems, birds, rodents, and insects) gets tossed into the crusher and transferred to largest tanks to ferment. So think about all the animal blood and parts that may have made their way into your wine next time you crack open that bottle of Two Buck Chuck!"
Franzia's reply: "He didn't know what he was talking about. He's never been in a vineyard, doesn't understand it."
Franzia does use mechanized harvesting, as do an increasing number of grape growers. He insists the machines shake loose everything but the grapes, and there are other methods along the way to filter out leaves, twigs and animal residue.
"We're in the grape-picking business," he said. "We're looking for quality wines and quality grapes. We're not looking for animals."
Some animal matter does end up in winemaking, as it does in almost all agricultural products. "If you worry about things like that, you shouldn't eat anything, you shouldn't drink anything," Franzia said. "When the wine's fermenting, they're going to eliminate anything that's possibly there."
So who is Knox and how did his blog end up on The Huffington Post? Here's what CNBC found: The blog was posted on HuffPo through a separate news site called Quora, which has used The Huffington Post to promote its own content. CNBC's efforts to reach Knox were unsuccessful, though it appears he works in some capacity in the wine industry in Santa Ynez, California.
Knox did not respond to our messages. However, on the Facebook page of another Napa winemaker, a man who appears to be Knox said he wrote the Two Buck Chuck post three years ago for Quora.
"I actually had NO IDEA my words had even been published on Huffington Post," he wrote. "Though I certainly didn't intend to be completely inaccurate, I also never intended it as a fully qualified, well researched piece of accurate journalism. ... Lesson learned that we must all be VERY careful about ANYTHING we publish online. "
Both The Huffington Post and Quora removed the blog after CNBC contacted them.
"While The Huffington Post offers a platform for bloggers to post their thoughts, opinions, and commentary, we don't control what the more than 80,000 independent bloggers across the globe who have taken advantage of that platform write," HuffPo said in a statement to CNBC. "Posts that appear on our platform via Quora fall under the same editorial guidelines and expectations as bloggers. We have looked through this post and determined it does not meet our editorial standards and have therefore removed the post."
Quora wrote to CNBC that it, too, had removed the blog, "because it was found to be in violation of our terms of service."
Franzia is a divisive figure in Napa for the way he has managed to grow Bronco Wines into a massive operation with nearly 80 labels. ( "They all love me, don't let 'em kid you," he joked of his critics.)
He also has many friends. A luncheon on Friday at his Napa facility was attended by several members of the Mondavi family, including 99-year-old Peter Mondavi Sr. Most had heard about the blog. Michael Mondavi summed up his reaction to it by saying, "People have weird imaginations, and they may dream it or they may think about it, and then they consider it's fact. Part of our job is to make sure the facts are correct and accurate."
Franzia said Trader Joe's is concerned about the potential impact of the story, though the company did not respond to CNBC requests for information. He said there has been no reduction in orders of Charles Shaw wine, even as the price has risen to at least $2.49.
Veteran wine analyst Jon Fredrikson said sales of Two Buck Chuck have slowed because of the price increases, and also because "consumers are moving up and buying other beverages—craft beers, cocktails and cider."
Will Franzia sue the author? "Absolutely not. It's a waste of time," he said.
Franzia said he's angrier at The Huffington Post: "They should be ashamed of themselves, they're the ones I should sue. They were the ones stupid enough to print that type of crap."
—By CNBC's Jane Wells