The Complicated Legacy of Fred Franzia

Fred Franzia in his Bronco Wine Company vineyard in Herald, CA
Photo Courtesy of Alamy

Wine industry icon Fred Franzia died earlier this month at the age of 79. A prominent figure in the California wine scene, Franzia built his legacy around increasing American consumers’ access to bottles at bargain prices.

However, the man behind iconic brands like Charles Shaw wine—affectionately known as “Two-Buck Chuck”—had his fair share of critics. In his time, Franzia grabbed headlines as much for his innovations as his questionable business practices, the latter which landed him in courtrooms more than once. But do a person’s successes forgive their missteps? In all, Franzia’s place in wine history is… well, complicated.

Branding Innovations

In 1973, Franzia co-founded the Bronco Wine Company in Ceres, California, with his brother Joseph and cousin John. The company’s approach to creating best-selling wines involved more than simply choosing the right grapes. It relied on vertical integration, which is the practice of overseeing every stage of production rather than outsourcing them to other companies. This gave Franzia a deep level of control over the company’s products and translated to huge success. Today, Bronco Wine is considered one of the largest vineyard owners in the U.S., producing wine under more than 100 labels for a global market.

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Through it all, Franzia stood out for his anti-snob spirit around wine, a trait that often put him at odds with mainstream Napa culture. He outwardly criticized the famous California wine region for its unaffordability, pushing forward an alternative: cheap wine marked lower than a case of water. When pressed as to how such pricing was possible, he famously quipped: “They’re overcharging for the water… Don’t you get it?”

Bending the Rules

Franzia understood that value is something created in the mind of consumers. Even low-quality grapes can produce a wine of high value, so long as people think what fills their glass is of a high quality. But Franzia took this principle to extremes.

In 1993, he pled guilty to misrepresenting grapes in some of Bronco Wine Company’s offerings. Franzia reasoned that using and marketing a varietal like Chardonnay in a blend would result in a loss of character. Deception, it seemed, was a more profitable alternative. Bronco Wine employees would sprinkle prized Zinfandel leaves over cheaper grapes in a practice Franzia called “blessing the loads.” A similar tactic was used to market Carignan and Grenache grapes as Cabernet Sauvignon.

His status as a major player in the California wine scene was not enough to avoid conviction. Franzia was forced to step down from his company for five years and pay a personal fine of $500,000 with an additional $2.5 million sum from his company.

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Franzia returned to court in the early 2000s to address decades of exploiting a loophole in California labeling laws. The Napa Valley Vintners questioned the integrity of three bottles sold by Bronco Wine that had “Napa” in their names but were made with grapes from the Central Valley. This went against legislation that requires 75% of grapes to come from Napa to reference the region.

After a lengthy legal dispute, Bronco was given a deadline to sell off its remaining inventory of over 50,000 bottles. Anything that didn’t sell in time had to be relabeled, distilled or destroyed.

The Rise of Two-Buck Chuck

Much like Franzia, Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe built his company in part on the philosophy that value is created in the mind of consumers. Therefore, it’s not surprising that its aisles served as an incubator for one of Franzia’s most successful bottles: Charles Shaw, otherwise known as “Two-Buck Chuck.”

Franzia was ultimately responsible for cementing the brand’s icon status, but he was not, in fact, its creator. That honor goes to Charles Shaw, who started his eponymous Napa winery in 1974. This was before Northern California became the wine-soaked Land of Oz it is today, enabling Shaw to stand out in the industry with an American version of Gamay wine. The award-winning bottles sold for $13.50 back in 1983—more than $80 a bottle in 2022 dollars—until things started going south.

A series of unfortunate events wreaked havoc in Shaw’s life. A production issue tainted over 1,400 bottles of wine, and the French grape did not support a chic audience in the U.S. To make matters worse, his wife filed for divorce.

Franzia, who had a sixth sense for buying companies in financial peril, swooped in. In 1990, after Shaw filed for bankruptcy, Bronco bought Charles Shaw wine for $27,000. Today, the name “Charles Shaw” on the label is seemingly the only remaining trace of the winemaker’s influence on the brand. After taking control, Franzia completely redesigned the production process to slash costs, using inexpensive grapes from lesser-known regions in California.

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In 2002, Charles Shaw wine hit Trader Joe’s shelves under a private label for $1.99 per bottle. The precise origins of its quirky nickname are unclear, but the term “Two Buck Chuck” began appearing on as early as 2003.

“Charles Shaw—a dirt-cheap (but better than you’d expect) wine you can get at Trader Joe’s for $2 a bottle in Cali,” reads the entry.

The wine’s true quality is still up for debate. In The Secret Life of Groceries, author Benjamin Lorr describes it as “so devoid of character it achieves an almost frictionless drinkability, yet neither too sweet nor thin to inspire scorn.”

Regardless of where one’s opinion lands, Two-Buck Chuck is undeniably an iconic American wine. Perhaps there’s a grander point to be made about stateside palates, perhaps not. But one fact is clear: For it, we have Fred Franzia to thank.

Published on September 16, 2022
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