Fred Franzia, the Questionable Pillar of the US Wine Industry

Head of the fourth largest wine business in California, and its biggest landowner, Fred T Franzia, who died on September 13, aged 79, was a spectacularly divisive character. Robert Joseph considers both sides of the story.

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Fred Franzia, King of the Two-Dollar Wine
Fred Franzia, King of the Two-Dollar Wine
  • Franzia was a maverick who flouted conventions and laws
  • After the sale of the Franzia family business to the Wine Group, he - with a brother and cousin - launched Bronco and built it into one of the biggest wine companies in the world
  • The business model relied heavily on buying, blending and bottling bulk wine
  • The success of Bronco owes much to the same of over a billion bottles of Charles Shaw - 'Two Buck Chuck' - through the Trader Joe's chain
  • Two Buck Chuck arguably helped to nurture a wine drinking culture in the US, but low prices and Franzia's populist approach may have discouraged consumers to buy more ambitious wines


Fred T Franzia, was undeniably – to use a useful old word – a scoundrel who had little respect for rules, regulations and niceties. Some of the people he offended and annoyed had good ethical and commercial reasons to be upset.

The former group can point to the fact that knowingly selling wine made from cheap grapes under the name of pricier ones is against the law – and led to Franzia paying a huge fine and – nominally at least - temporarily losing his role at the head of his company.

Labelling wine made from cheap Central Valley grapes with Napa brands was, by contrast, initially entirely within the regulations, thanks to legal loopholes that were later closed, but it undeniably involved cheating his customers and competing grossly unfairly with competitors who were playing by the rules.

There were those who simply didn’t like his manner, including what former Tesco buyer, Phil Reedman MW recalls as “his facility of incorporating the F word into each and every sentence. Verb, adjective, noun and more.” A 1994 Los Angeles Times article described him as  “smart but boastful, arrogant and brash, ready to intimidate employees, squeeze growers and fight battles in court”. Steven Lapham, the Assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted Franzia, was quoted in the same piece as saying “Employees and others with whom [he] deals are afraid of him… I’m not sure what it is, if it’s his manner or the economic power he holds.”

And then there was the way he gave the metaphorical finger to almost everything the wine world holds sacred.

Lacking Respect

Famously, he declared that no wine should cost more than $10. Celebrating the sale of the 400 millionth bottle of his wine that retails for a fifth of that price, he was quoted - in a 2009 profile in The New Yorker - as saying “Take that and shove it, Napa”.

For US wine writers like Napa-based, best-selling author Karen MacNeil and New York Times columnist Eric Asimov, this stance culpably oversimplified the picture and deterred consumers from becoming more adventurous and ambitious in their drinking.

On the other side of the balance sheet, like his uncle Ernest Gallo, and John Casella, the more recent Australian creator of Yellow Tail, he delivered a torrent of affordable liquid pleasure to countless millions and created what became the fourth biggest wine business in the US and its biggest vineyard owner, with some 35,000 acres (14,000 ha) of vines.

Surprisingly, to many outside the US, that big business has nothing to do with the Franzia brand that sells the equivalent of 24m 9-litre cases every year. Fred’s father and other family members agreed to sell the firm bearing their family name to Coca Cola in 1973, causing some friction among the Franzia clan. Eight years later the brand was acquired by The Wine Group which used it to launch the US’s first widely-distributed Bag-in-Box.

Losing the Family Name

After the loss of the firm that had been launched by Giuseppe and Teresa Franzia his grandparents in 1906, Fred, his elder brother Joseph and cousin John, started the Bronco Wine Co. The new venture’s name was either derived from ‘BROthers aNd Cousins’, or – though this is less likely - from the mascot of Santa Clara University where Fred Franzia studied. In either case, it is clear that, despite his youth, Fred was the driving force in the enterprise.

The trio started out as a negociant business, buying bulk wine, blending, bottling and selling it under a range of labels, and this pattern was maintained, as they became increasingly expert at picking up bargains for which others had no use.

Where it bought grapes to vinify itself, Bronco also played hardball. As the Los Angeles Times reported, in 1985, its licence was briefly suspended – a “rare action” – after an “unprecedented number of growers” complained at “repeated” use of “improper tactics to lower the prices it paid… for their grapes”. One tactic involved “refusing to take deliveries until the grape quality had deteriorated.” One official described Bronco’s behaviour as “reprehensible.”

Breaking the Law

Three years later, investigators began a five year enquiry into the passing off of grapes and wines under the labels of premium varieties. The authorities focused their attention on several suspects with Franzia being named as the “chief figure in the biggest and most sophisticated of four criminal ventures unmasked in the scandal”. He was charged with selling some five million bottles of mislabelled wine. According to the New Yorker “Franzia was said to have instructed that Zinfandel leaves be scattered over less expensive grapes, a practice that he allegedly referred to by the Whitmanesque euphemism the ‘blessing of the loads.’”

In 1994, five members of the California wine industry went to jail as a result of these investigations. But not Fred Franzia. He made a plea deal and, taking account of his previous role as Chairman of the prestigious California Wine Institute and the suggestion that Bronco would collapse without him, losing hundreds of jobs, the judge allowed him to pay a $500,000 fine and lose his CEO title for five years. On paper, he became Chief Financial Officer, but whatever the sign on the desk, however, Franzia later left journalists in no doubt about who was running the business over that time.

Birth of Two Buck Chuck

Franzia was certainly fully involved in the 1995 purchase after its bankruptcy, and for just for $27,000, of a wine brand called Charles Shaw. Founded 11 years earlier by the investment banker after whom it was named, this Napa winery was, unusually for California, initially focused on making Beaujolais-style wine from Gamay grapes. At first, things had gone well, with Shaw’s wine winning medals and being served at White House dinners but sales were slow and, as he told Business Insider, he had to sell surplus stock to Joe Couloumbe of the retail chain, Trader Joe’s. Couloumbe, a fellow former student at Stanford University, had launched the chain in 1967, and, despite selling it to Theo Albrecht, founder of the German discounter Aldi, was still running the business and ready to buy excess inventory. Ironically, given the later history of the Charles Shaw brand, the price of that wine was just two dollars.

Initially, Franzia did nothing with his new acquisition but then he saw an opportunity for it.

Over the last five years of the 20th century, Californian production of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon doubled and Merlot tripled. In Franzia bought heavily and, in 2002 he went back to Trader Joe’s with a proposition. Couloumbe was no longer in charge, but the chain’s buyers were happy to discuss the regular supply of varietal wines that could be retailed at $2.

Cheap Varietals

There was nothing new about cheap wine. In 1972, Fred Franzia’s uncle, Ernest Gallo, had launched 1.5liter jugs of a highly successful brand called Hearty Burgundy that was described by Los Angeles Times wine critic, Robert Balzer as “the best wine value in the country today.” But Franzia broke new grounds by offering Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Chardonnay wines at bargain prices.

Inevitably, by accident or design, the cheap Charles Shaw wines became colloquially known as Two Buck Chuck.

Soon, the new wines – still bearing the labels Charles Shaw had used on his premium bottles – were given a further boost in the shape of critical acclaim. The 2002 Shiraz, beat 2,300 wines to win a prestigious double gold medal at the 2004 International Eastern Wine Competition. Three years later, the 2005 Chardonnay was top wine at the 2005 California State Fair competition.

Buy One Try One

Critics questioned the skills of the judges at these events and whether the samples submitted were truly representative of the wines on the shelf. In this last respect, their doubts were probably well-founded because, unlike Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy and Casella’s Yellow Tail, consistency has never appeared to be a major concern for the Charles Shaw brand. There were good and bad batches, and customers learned to buy and then sample a single bottle in the car park before splashing out on a case or two. This variability - a consequence of relying heavily on the bulk market - may have shocked some in the US, but it would have been something older Europeans were well used to in the days when French supermarkets would offer Bordeaux or Côtes du Rhône sourced from the several cooperatives in the same vintage, under the same private label.

What's in a Name?

For a man who mocked wine industry tropes, Franzia had no compunction in exploiting them. Where Gallo had (totally legally) called wines ‘Burgundy’ and ‘Chablis’ despite their being produced in California from grape varieties that had nothing to do with either French appellation, Franzia went further. He used Napa Valley labels he had purchased - principally Napa Ridge, Napa Creek and Rutherford Vintners - for wine cheaply produced in the Central Valley but bottled in Napa.

At first this was totally within the law because the Napa Valley wineries whose names he used benefitted from a rule known as ‘grandfathering’ that exempted brands created prior to 1986 from appellation rules. After a long fight, against the 270 members of the Napa Valley Vintners, however, in 2000 the California State Legislature passed legislation stating that at least 75% of any wine labelled as Napa, had to be made from grapes grown there.

Famously litigious, Franzia took the case to the Supreme Court and continued to make Napa-ised Central Valley wine until the 2004 vintage. In January 2006, he finally lost the battle, and the 600,000 bottles Bronco still had in stock a year earlier were the last of their kind to be sold.

Today, the Napa Ridge and Rutherford Vintners labels are used on Napa Valley wines and are part of a huge Bronco portfolio that includes imported Barolo from Tenuta Carrera and Ribera del Duero from Viña Mayor. All wines that retail for significantly more than Franzia’s $10 maximum.

Still Cheap

Even so, given the focus on the billion-bottles it has sold over the last two decades, the focus of outside attention still comes back to Charles Shaw. The average price of California grapes has almost doubled over that period, rising from $462 per ton in 2022 to $897 in 2021. Other costs, including glass, corks and cartons have all famously risen too, especially recently. How is it possible for the wine to still be sold for the same price as it was when George W Bush was in the White House? Even if the retailer is making little if any margin on a wine that undoubtedly brings buyers into its stores.

Eric Asimov points out that “A lot of wines, inexpensive and not, are made without regard for the environment and workers.” In the case of Bronco,  a little online research reveals that, according to reviews on, its workers are not a particularly happy bunch, with the company earning a score of just 2.7 out of 5 for Pay and Benefits, and an overall rating of 3.1 from 133 employees). This compares to 3.5 (from 98) for the Wine Group and a more respectable 4.1 for E&J Gallo (from 382) which suggests that some producers of inexpensive wines may behave better than others.

Greener than Some Might Suppose

When it comes to the environment, however, Bronco apparently makes efforts to perform well. It is, for example, a member of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, on whose website the company vineyard manager Jose "Junior" Robles is featured talking about the owls that are used to control rodents.

More specifically, Bronco has launched a ‘Four Buck Chuck’ in the shape of an accredited organically farmed range of wines that are also exclusive to Trader Joe’s. It now has Zero Waste accreditation at all of its plants, has switched to environmentally-friendly rail transport and is a Diamond Corporate Member of the Women of the Vine & Spirits.

How Fred Franzia whose attitude to female employees clearly predated the ones associated with Me Too truly viewed any or all of these moves is open to conjecture. Even so, it seems reasonable to suppose that the arrival of modestly-priced organic wine in hundreds of Trader Joes’s stores may have prompted some consumers and producers to think about exploring that category, just as the hundreds of millions of bottles of varietal Charles Shaw prompted a swathe of Americans to try wine rather than another beverage.

MacNeil and Asimov are probably correct in imagining that many of these people have never dug deeper into their pockets to try ‘better’ wine, but this is almost certainly true of tens of millions of Europeans who, like their parents and grandparents, happily wash their meals down with very basic fare.

Promiscuous Drinkers

But these are not the only Charles Shaw drinkers. If you spend a bit of time online, it is not hard to find many who happily buy Two Buck Chuck or its equivalent – quite possibly a box of Franzia – to drink with chilli-spiced ribs and steaks they’ve charred on the barbecue. These are men and women who’ve never agreed that life is too short to drink bad wine or beer – and sometimes do both, while readily splashing out on at least somewhat more ambitious ale and appellations when the occasion seems appropriate.

Like his uncle, Ernest Gallo, some of whose early business practices – as described in Ellen Hawkes excellent Blood and Wine – were frankly unethical, Fred Franzia was no gentleman of the wine industry. But just as less-than-laudable politicians have sometimes achieved undeniably good things, both men almost certainly contributed more towards making the US a wine-drinking nation than a long list of more impeccably behaved members of the industry.





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