Discount Dynasty

After scoring big with "Two Buck Chuck," renegade vintner Fred Franzia once again has Napa Valley's wine burghers in an uproar

In 2000, Franzia piqued Napa wine growers again by filing "NVVA Ridge" -- as in Napa Valley Vintners Association -- as a Bronco trademark. He withdrew it after the vintner group protested to the federal government.

That same year, Franzia spent $42 million to acquire the Napa Ridge brand from Berringer Vineyards, triggering alarm bells among Napa's wine mavens that he would flood the market with Napa Ridge wine made from non-Napa grapes (something that, to some extent, Berringer was already doing). In 2001 their fears were realized when Bronco opened its Napa bottling plant.

Even now, in view of Franzia's recent court setbacks, some of his detractors are convinced that he's producing his new "Four-Buck Fred" for spite. "No one can use Napa grapes and sustain that kind of price," says Vic Motto, the wine consultant and longtime Franzia critic. Franzia, meanwhile, clearly relishes the speculation. "Let 'em say what they want," he says, not quite concealing a grin. "We don't lose money."

Nonstop Fred: Franzia works seven days a 
week. "Work is my pleasure."
Gabriela Hasbun
Nonstop Fred: Franzia works seven days a week. "Work is my pleasure."
The Bronco empire included 35,000 acres 
of grapes under cultivation in the Central 
Gabriela Hasbun
The Bronco empire included 35,000 acres of grapes under cultivation in the Central Valley.

While outrageous at times, Franzia's lobs at Napa Valley's wine elite are rarely uncalibrated. When he insists, for example, that "there's not a wine anywhere worth more than $10 a bottle," he speaks not as a connoisseur, but as a businessman who takes delight in knowing the precise cost of juice, glass, cork, and label. "I probably spend more time buying corks than anything else," he confides, recounting how shaving a penny from the cost of each specially designed cork used in Charles Shaw bottles saved Bronco $720,000 last year. "I don't always agree with him, but when it comes to the minutiae of the wine business, Fred knows his stuff," says vintner Michael Mondavi, son of the legendary Robert Mondavi.

Michael Mondavi has known Franzia since their days at Bellermine College Preparatory in San Jose, the Jesuit high school long favored by families of prominent Central Valley wine growers. There, they played together on the football team. (A better-than-average placekicker, Franzia once booted a 42-yard field goal in a game at Kezar Stadium.) Like Mondavi, Franzia went on to Santa Clara University, where he graduated in 1965 with a triple major in finance, marketing, and accounting.

"No one who knew him ever doubted that Fred would do well in the wine business," says vintner Don Sebastiani, the son of another wine legend, August Sebastiani. The younger Sebastiani recalls the many times his father dragged "Freddy" home to lunch when Franzia was in his 20s, and the elder Sebastiani's marveling "at how someone that young could go toe-to-toe with him in discussing almost any facet of the business."

As a third-generation member of a venerable Italian-American wine-producing family, Franzia came by his acumen naturally. His grandfather, Giuseppe Franzia, arrived in the Central Valley from Genoa in 1893 and staked a claim on 80 acres near Stockton. He and his wife, Teresa, who came over from Italy to marry him sight unseen, made wine on a modest scale until Prohibition in 1917. (One of their three daughters, Amelia, married Ernest Gallo.)

After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the couple's five sons established the Franzia Brothers Winery near the town of Ripon. But unlike those of Gallo, Mondavi, and Sebastiani -- names that became synonymous with California wine -- the Franzia legacy suffered a painful breach, one that friends say profoundly influenced Fred Franzia's relentless drive to become perhaps the single most influential player in the California wine industry.

Turning a deaf ear to other family members, three of his uncles sold their shares of the Franzia winery to investment bankers in 1971 in a deal that netted them a relatively paltry $1 million apiece. In 1973, after taking the company public, the new majority owners -- over objections from the two remaining brothers, including Fred's father, Joe -- sold the winery to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York for just under $50 million. As part of the arrangement, the Franzias were barred from using their name in new winemaking ventures.

The bottling company didn't last long in the wine business. In 1981, Coke of New York sold the Franzia operation and its other wine interests to the Wine Group, a privately held producer of bulk wines based in San Francisco. Today -- to Fred Franzia's chagrin, although he doesn't like talking about it -- the Franzia legacy is extolled on boxes of the Wine Group's bargain-basement "bag in a box" wines. Printed on each "Franzia" box is a warm and fuzzy retelling of Giuseppe and Teresa's story above the signature of Carlyse Franzia, Fred's cousin and the offspring of one of the brothers who sold out in 1971. She is married to Arthur Ciocca, the Wine Group's publicity-averse principal owner.

"People use the tools available to them. Let's just leave it at that," Franzia says when asked about his family's name and legacy being in the hands of a competitor. Neither is he eager to talk about what happened in the '70s. "That's over and done with. It's a nonissue," he says. "It doesn't really bother me." Others, however, offer another view. "There's no question that there was a lot of hurt and sadness with the loss [of Franzia Brothers]," Mondavi says. "It's a large part of what drives Fred. If you love this business as much as he does, you don't lose your family's century-old winemaking name without it having an impact."

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