Sunday, September 18, 2022

A Terrible Death in September

The death of a most beloved person can stop the world in its tracks. Newspaper editors forego the coverage of sports and politics to give the public the details of the passing of a person so adored the reverberations will be felt from the highest duke to the lowest stumblebum. The world was one way just a day ago—now it's another. The poles have shifted, the axis has been wobbled, the old order has been obliterated. Mourning throngs will fill the streets.

No, not Queen Elizabeth, you dumbass. Fred Franzia.

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Byzantine emperor Leo III banned the worshiping of icons in 717 AD. It pissed off a few Catholic priests, bishops, and other idol worshipers, but Leo III was determined that people in his empire would not be idiots. He gave birth to the term iconoclast—a destroyer of icons. More than a millennium later another iconoclast came along and took a hammer to the preciousness of Northern California wine culture. Fred Franzia said, "No bottle of wine should cost more than $10," and brought us Two Buck Chuck. That's been quite a few years ago, too, and now Two-Buck Chuck will run you around four bucks. But still, even a sidewalk wino can afford it (if he can get by the Trader Joe's security guard at the front door).

Fred Franzia was born May 24, 1943. He, along with a brother and a cousin, founded Franzia wine in 1973 and promptly sold it to the Coca Cola Beverage Company. That same year they also founded Bronco Wine Company, best known for its Charles Shaw brand of varietals, more commonly known as "Two Buck Chuck." (The name Bronco was derived from Brothers and Cousin.) The Charles Shaw Chardonnay wine won the double gold at the 2007 California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition. Franzia told ABC News, "We choose to sell good quality wines at $2 a bottle because we think it's a fair price. We think the other people are charging too much."

Bronco is based in Ceres, California and is the fourth largest producer of wine in the USA. They have 10,000 employees world wide, have the capacity to produce 61 million gallons of wine annually, and they sell about 20 million cases of wine a year. They maintain more than 250 brands of wine including Bad Dog Ranch, Fat Cat, Red Truck, and Down Under. Fred Franzia had a unique way of getting top dollar from crushers for his grapes by directing his employees to scatter zinfandel leaves over inferior grapes in their bins, a process he called "Blessing the load." The feds were not amused and fined Franzia $500,000 in 1994 and forced him to step down from the Bronco board for five years.

One might be under the impression that a man named Charles Shaw is behind the name of the $2 wine, and in a roundabout way he is. Shaw started a Napa winery in the 1970's and won several awards for his vintages until financial troubles forced him to sell his winery. The buyer was Fred Franzia, and it wasn't long until Franzia started putting Two Buck Chuck on Trader Joe's shelves. It was a smashing success. The Wine Spectator Reported that 2 million cases of Two Buck Chuck sold that first year, and 5 million cases the following year. Fred Franzia came to the rescue of many other California wineries too, telling CNN in a 2007 interview, "We buy wineries from guys from Stanford who go bankrupt."

Although no longer associated with the boxed wine that bears his name, thrifty drinkers can raise their glasses of his Chillable Red in toast, grateful for getting 5 liters of wine (about 34 glasses) for less money than an Amazon warehouse worker makes in an hour. Franzia's boxed wine is as perfect for a women's book club as it is for an impoverished pensioner living in a fleabag hotel.

Fred Franzia died at his home in Denair, California September 13, 2022 at the age of 79.


Hugh Blanton is the author of A Home to Crouch In. He has appeared in Dear Booze, The American Journal of Poetry, As It Ought To Be, and other places. He can be reached on Twitter @HughBlanton5