Longtime California vintner Fred Franzia, the co-founder of Bronco Wine Co. best-known for his Charles Shaw brand, aka "Two Buck Chuck," passed away Sept. 13 at age 79. He will be remembered as a larger-than-life character who expanded the reach of California wine with budget bottlings that offered consistent quality.
Franzia founded Bronco Wine Co. with his brother and cousin in 1973, shortly after his family sold their Franzia wine brand to the Coca-Cola Company. Bronco is well-known for its budget line of Charles Shaw wines, known affectionately as "Two Buck Chuck" and sold almost exclusively at Trader Joe's grocery stores. The Franzias operated Bronco in Modesto, Calif., with a wine lineup primarily sourced from bulk wine in California's Central Valley. Franzia was also the nephew-in-law of Ernest Gallo.
Over the years Franzia developed a reputation for brash dealmaking and acerbic remarks, renowned for verbally sparring with the likes of Robert Mondavi and Sam Sebastiani. He built Bronco into one of the largest wine producers in the U.S. with a brazen attitude and no-holds-barred business practices, closely watching grape price trends so he could find value and pass it along to customers. He liked nothing more than buying excess wine from top producers and blending it into his value-priced bottlings.
In a 2006 article, Wine Spectator labeled Fred the "Bad Boy of California Wine” for his mantra that fine wine was overrated and overpriced. He held a disdain for high-end wine.
Bronco was originally set up as a négociant, sourcing bulk wine and also distributing other brands. But opportunity knocked in the 1980s, as Bronco began buying foreclosed vineyards and selling much of the fruit to other producers. In 1990, Bronco lost the distribution rights to Benziger's Glen Ellen wine brand, after which Bronco laid off 175 employees. Franzia stated of losing Glen Ellen, "those were the worst business dealings we ever had, building up that brand without building up Bronco. From that point on we wanted brands that we owned because you couldn't trust people."
Franzia followed up on that: Bronco acquired numerous budget wine brands in the 1990s. However, his greatest success may have been acquiring the Charles Shaw name in 1995 for a mere $25,000. What had been a failed Napa Valley winery, he built into a $1.99-a-bottle empire ($2.99 outside California), arguably creating a new market segment for ultra-budget wines, and streamlining distribution exclusively through the Trader Joe's grocery chain as an additional cost-saving measure. Franzia famously retorted when asked how he made wine cheaper than a bottle of water, "They're overcharging for the water. Don't you get it?"
Franzia's brashness extended to his wine labeling practices as well. In 1993, he was indicted by a federal grand jury for selling bottles of wine labeled Zinfandel but containing cheaper varieties. He also fought the Napa Valley Vintners over a 2000 California law requiring wines labeled with the word "Napa" to contain at least 75 percent Napa Valley fruit. He tried to skirt it by purchasing brands that had Napa in their names. Franzia lost in court but some of his brands were grandfathered in, allowed to keep “Napa” on their labels despite having no Napa fruit inside the bottle.
Despite his intense image, Franzia also had a charitable side. He made substantial donations to the American Vineyard Foundation, which funded viticulture research, and helped endow a faculty position for viticulture at California State University, Fresno. He is survived by his five children, Renata, Roma, Joseph, Carlo and Giovanna; 14 grandchildren; his brother, Joseph; and his sisters, Joellen and Catherine.