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In 2002, Fred Franzia began marketing a new line of wines. They looked like vintage wines -- they were sold in 750-milliliter bottles with corks, and sported classy labels -- but the price was just $1.99 a bottle. Sold at Trader Joe's stores under the Charles Shaw brand, the wines were a quick and enormous hit. After a Trader Joe's employee referred to the wines as "Two Buck Chuck" in an Internet chat room, a Franzia promotions consultant shared the moniker with newspaper reporters.
It took hold -- with a vengeance.
"It was like proverbial wildfire," the consultant recalls. It didn't hurt that a couple of months earlier, Wines & Vines, a trade journal, had reported a staff tasting in which Charles Shaw won out over a $67 bottle of chardonnay.
Nowadays, Franzia bristles at the use of the word "cheap" in connection with his flagship wine, which, he says, sold 72 million bottles last year. "It's inexpensively made," he declares with a slight glower.
But that attitude hasn't kept him from jealously guarding the "Two Buck Chuck" nickname -- which he didn't create and hasn't spent a dime to promote. In 2002, Sonoma vintner David Coleman used surplus grapes to produce a few thousand bottles of $1.99 wine for the Beverages & More chain, choosing to call it "Two Buck Chuck" and featuring a woodchuck on the label. The sometimes pugnacious Franzia threatened to sue.
"I told him, 'Fred, just calm down. I'll sell you whatever claim I have to the name, and if it makes you feel better, you can even pay me a little something to make it official,'" Coleman recalls. "He sent me a signed $2 bill. I still have it."
At first glance the imposing building on the outskirts of Napa appears to be a winery like any other in California's premier wine-producing region. But behind the faux-Tuscan facade of Bronco Wine Co.'s sprawling facility no grapes are being crushed, and no juice is being fermented. Instead, its tile roofline and trellised gardens disguise a high-speed bottling plant capable of churning out 18 million cases of wine a year, double the annual production of all the rest of Napa Valley.
Each day tanker trucks filled with wine made from grapes grown in the considerably less prestigious Central Valley rumble into Napa to empty their liquid cargo into the Bronco plant's huge stainless-steel holding tanks. Within hours -- and sometimes minutes -- the wine is squirted into bottles bearing the label of whichever of Bronco's two dozen brands is being produced, the most famous being Charles Shaw, the ubiquitous "Two Buck Chuck."
With few exceptions, the grapes used to make the wine in those bottles have no connection to Napa Valley's heralded grape-growing soil. Yet Bronco's decidedly less expensive wines are imbued with the coveted Napa cachet -- unfairly so, many of the region's vintners say. That's because its bottles are either stamped with one of several Napa Valley-associated labels that Bronco has managed to acquire from distressed wineries over the years, or, at the very least, because the plant's carefully chosen location makes it possible for the labels to proclaim that the wine is "bottled" in Napa.
By most standard business measures, privately held Bronco, headquartered in the town of Ceres (near Modesto), is an unqualified success story, racking up an estimated $300 million in sales last year, which makes it the fifth largest player in California's wine industry. But to Napa Valley's elite wine producers, the company's presence in their midst is a sacrilege, and Fred Franzia, 61, the renegade vintner most responsible for Bronco's success, the devil incarnate. "He's using a Napa address to sell wine from non-Napa grapes, and I think anyone has to question the ethics of that," says Tom Shelton, chief executive of Joseph Phelps Vineyards.
Others see another kind of opportunism. "His being able to sell a $2 bottle of wine is only possible by taking advantage of the misfortunes of others," says wine consultant Vic Motto, referring to Bronco's propensity for buying surplus grapes at deep discount. At a gathering of wine industry luminaries in Sacramento in 2003, when Bronco was named Winery of the Year, the announcement was met with gasps and hisses. "A lot of people in the Napa Valley wine community detest Fred," says veteran winemaker Richard Peterson. "And they really don't know what to do about him."
That's especially true in view of Franzia's latest parlay. In July, to the doubtless consternation of some of those same vintners, Bronco rolled out a merlot and a chardonnay under its Napa Creek label. Both are made from Napa Valley grapes to sell exclusively at Trader Joe's for the nearly unheard-of price of $3.99 a bottle. And they, too, have quickly absorbed a nickname: "Four-Buck Fred."
"They're a bunch of whiners," declares Franzia, who doesn't conceal his disdain for the Napa vintner group, even though he insists that some of its 275 members are his friends. For someone who rarely talks to the press, he's on a roll, extolling his quality-at-a-reasonable-price mantra from his unpretentious Ceres office, which, despite Bronco's prosperity and Franzia's considerable personal wealth, is little more than a desk, a phone, and a couple of chairs. "Grapes aren't like gold. They have to move. And if they don't sell for the high prices that the Napa folks think they ought to demand, then they'll sell for whatever they'll bring, and that's when we like to buy them."