There was Dago Red long before there was Two Buck Chuck.

More than 136,000 cases of Dago Red wine were sold in the mid-1980s. That’s miniscule compared to the more than 50 million cases of Charles (Two Buck Chuck) Shaw wine sold so far by the Franzias’ Bronco Winery.

Numbers aside, Dago Red is a far more compelling story than Bronco’s economic assault on bulging wine tanks during the miserable economic plight of the California wine industry in the early 2000s.

Dago Red was an admitted desperation idea two decades ago of crafty, veteran California wine grape grower Joe Carrari of Los Alamos, Calif., who refused to fall prey to measly winery grape prices.

When grape prices are low, there is always the debate among growers, vintners and wine merchants about the wisdom of custom crushing. Although wineries and wine merchants say it is a bad idea, many growers do it. However, what about times like now when prices are the highest they’ve been in a couple of decades? Does it make sense to custom crush to meet what seems to be a growing wine grape shortage for at least the next few seasons?

Carrari, the 78-year-old son of an Italian immigrant, has won the custom crush gamble more than once, and he would no doubt do it again, if he felt like it made economic sense. However, he’ll tell you it’s not for the timid.

Carrari is a gregarious, wily, calculating grape grower whom his wife Phyllis claims was born under a grapevine. Joe denies it, although he is not sure about conception. He will confess to picking his first wine grapes at age five.

He whet his wiles growing up in the sand hill vineyards of San Bernardino County, once the largest pre-Prohibition wine grape growing region in the U.S.

Carrari, christened Ferruccio when he was born in 1934 in Alta Loma, Calif., is easily likeable. He has a joke-a-minute and has a remarkable memory with one tale after another about his six decades in the wine grape business and one year of going broke growing corn in Argentina. He ends almost every narrative with a gravelly chuckle.

Although his grapes have become wine behind hundreds of wine labels from wineries big and botique, Carrari will never adorn the cover of a glossy wine aficionado magazine.

However, you will find his craggy mug in American Farmer, a pictorial depiction of hundreds of men and women who farm America. Joe doesn’t particularly care for his likeness there. It’s an artistically darkened black-and-white photo that makes his well-weathered face look like a Texas Farm to Market road map. Nevertheless, it’s definitely the portrait of proud farmer Joe Carrari, who is as adept in a machine shop as he is in a vineyard or on the phone marketing his grapes or bulk wine.