Remembering 'Two-Buck Chuck' Creator Fred Franzia: Pariah to Some, Innovator to Others

The winemaker blazed a unique trail in the wine industry.

By Bob McGinn October 5, 2022

Fred Franzia.

Paths cross in interesting ways in the wine business. Years ago, I was a sales representative at Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa. Wineries tend to be sedate places, where even raised voices are unusual, but during one sales meeting, I could hear Bob Mondavi speaking with a man with a raised and earthy voice all the way from another room. I later learned that the voice belonged to Fred Franzia, who died last month in California at the age of 79, and that this was his usual manner of speaking.

Franzia grew up in the wine business with his parents, producing the Franzia line of wines. The family eventually sold to Coca-Cola, and Franzia soon created the Bronco Wine Co. with relatives. The winery focused on low-end wines in a fashion similar to Gallo. (Not a surprise, since Ernest Gallo was Franzia's uncle.) Currently, Bronco has more than 100 wines in its portfolio and it is rumored that Franzia had more than 1,000 labels for wines he created or purchased.

After leaving Robert Mondavi Winery, I began representing several small Napa wine producers, including Charles Shaw. Shaw made excellent chardonnays under winemaker Ric Forman, but his main focus was an American Beujolais made with gamay grapes.

This plan never really worked out, and Shaw filed for bankruptcy in 1995. The label and name were sold to Franzia for around $30,000. Franzia seemed interested in maintaining the Napa image, but planned to create a low-end wine for the masses. In a deal with Trader Joe’s, the grocer was able to sell Franzia's wine at $1.99 a bottle. This brought chardonnay to the broader public and, for the first time, consumers were buying cases of wine instead of bottles.

As the wine's popularity grew, someone referred to it as “two-buck chuck” and the moniker stuck. (I've always found it ironic that a store like Trader Joe’s, which catered to an upscale clientele with a penchant for organic products, would feature a wine with no organic pretensions.)

Franzia went beyond simple winemaking to create a crusade against any wine that cost more than $10. He created wine country vitriol with his stand against people he branded Napa elites and by claiming that anyone paying $40 a bottle was being hoodwinked. In a 2009 profile in The New Yorker, he said, “Take that and shove it, Napa,” after selling his 400 millionth bottle of Charles Shaw. This obviously caused a great deal of tension with other winemakers and boiled over into a territorial argument between his beloved Central Valley and Napa.

Eric Asimov, the wine writer for The New York Times, has particular feelings about Franzia. "His message not only promoted his own company’s products, it also destroyed the notion that any wine could be better," Asimov recently wrote. "Franzia liked to say that Two-Buck Chuck was the People's Wine, but in his hand it was a crowbar, used to divide wine drinkers.”

Bob McGinn has spent his entire career in the wine industry—forming wine clubs, working in wine sales marketing and engaging in all facets of the winemaking process, including vine management, fermentation and yeast analysis. He has developed wine programs for companies such as Marriott, Sheraton and Smith & Wollensky, and consults with local restaurants. You can read more of McGinn’s work at gulfcoastwinejournal.com.

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