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 stark contrast to the exquisitely done-up Napa facility, Bronco's sprawling operation on the edge of Ceres has all of the charm of an oil refinery. Its rows of white storage tanks, which tower above the flat countryside like giant toadstools, are capable of holding up to 80 million gallons of "juice." (That doesn't include the former Titan ICBM missile fuel tanks that Franzia acquired from military surplus and that he intends to use someday in the production of champagne.)

During harvest, trucks laden with grapes arrive at Ceres around the clock from the far reaches of Bronco's domain, strategically spaced over a distance of 200 miles, north to south, so as to stagger and prolong the ripening of grapes for harvest and enable Bronco to squeeze the most efficiency from workers and facilities. The grapes are crushed and processed and their liquid treasure placed in the tanks according to wine type, almost all of it destined for bottling in Napa.

Beneath the tanks are two climate-controlled warehouses -- one stacked with traditional oak barrels for aging wines bearing Bronco's brands, many of which sell in the $7 to $12 range; another for finished goods, including however much Charles Shaw doesn't get shipped directly from Napa to Trader Joe's stores. Joseph Franzia, Fred's brother, directs Classic Wines of California, the distribution arm, from an annex of one of the warehouses. John Franzia, their cousin, oversees production.

Fred Franzia in His Office: "If anyone should 
be worried it's the Napa vintners, because 
we sure as hell aren't going away."
Gabriela Hasbun
Fred Franzia in His Office: "If anyone should be worried it's the Napa vintners, because we sure as hell aren't going away."
Trucks bring grapes to (and "juice" away 
from) Bronco Wine Co.'s sprawling Ceres 
plant around the clock.
Gabriela Hasbun
Trucks bring grapes to (and "juice" away from) Bronco Wine Co.'s sprawling Ceres plant around the clock.

The trio formed Bronco (a contraction of "brothers 'n' cousin") in 1974, the year after Coke of New York's takeover of the family's namesake Ripon winery. Starting from scratch on a 40-acre site that has since mushroomed to 420 acres, the Franzias, with Fred at the helm, have built a 1,000-employee juggernaut that dwarfs anything their parents could have imagined.

But one might never guess at the scope of the operation, judging from Fred Franzia's office in a converted portable building next to the guard shack. It is separated from his cousin John's similarly austere work space by a small conference room lined with shelves on which rest bottles of the company's wines. "Nice offices don't make you money," says Franzia. "Besides, this isn't where the real action is."

Indeed, the action appears to be wherever Franzia is. Often that means tooling around vineyards in his perpetually dusty Grand Cherokee and pausing for hearty lunches at places like the Red Steer, a roast beef joint in the town of Turlock, where employees and customers alike greet him by his first name. He works seven days a week, most days arriving at the office by 5:30 a.m. and seldom finishing before 10 at night. He spends at least a day a week in Napa, although he doesn't bother keeping an office there, preferring instead to encamp in a well-appointed conference room.

It's a routine that most people would consider grueling except that Franzia makes no distinction between work and pleasure. "Work is my pleasure," he declares. "I consider myself a very lucky guy in that respect." Yet, there's been a price. He is twice divorced, once after 14 years of marriage to the mother of his five grown children (two of whom work for Bronco). A second marriage lasted five years. By his acknowledgment, he seldom socializes outside his circle of wine friends, has no time for golf, and only rarely sneaks a peek at the Giants, his favorite baseball team.

Franzia takes a break twice a year. He gathers his children and their families for a ritual beach reunion in Hawaii, and he hosts a deer-hunting camp on the Russian River for his wine-producing pals, including members of the Gallo and Mondavi clans.

He euphemistically refers to the deer camp as his "eating trip," since, legally, he can't own a firearm.

"The felony," he volunteers. "I can't vote, either."

Of the things the intensely private Franzia prefers not to talk about, no subject rankles him more than his 1993 federal indictment on a conspiracy-to-defraud charge in which he and Bronco were accused of passing off crushed grapes costing between $100 and $200 a ton as zinfandel grapes worth a dozen times as much. According to the indictment, Franzia scattered zinfandel leaves on top of nonzinfandel grapes as they lay in bins waiting to be crushed.

The result of a yearlong surveillance operation in which 17 Central Valley grape growers and their employees were ensnared (five were sent to jail), the charges alleged that the "victims" of the crime were unsuspecting consumers, who the government contended paid some $55 million for wine that was not as it was advertised.

Franzia pleaded guilty and paid a $500,000 fine (the company pleaded no contest and was fined $2.5 million). As part of the plea arrangement, he was banned from Bronco's stewardship for five years, unable to participate directly in grape-growing or winemaking operations. He was, however, allowed a reduced role as the company's chief financial officer. "I was the big guy, and somebody had to take the fall," he says, dismissing his guilty plea as "just another business decision" to protect Bronco from further harm.

The man who prosecuted Franzia, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Lapham of Sacramento, says the government didn't press for a trial after having problems getting potential witnesses to cooperate. "People were taking the Fifth Amendment all over the place on even the simplest questions, such as, 'Do you work at Bronco?'" he says. "We did the best we could." Jack Hart, 78 and retired, who got to know Franzia well as a banker to the wine industry with Bank of America in San Francisco, and who professes to like him personally, has a different take. "Freddy was able to buy his way out of jail, but he's been punished in other ways," he says. "The indictment damaged his credibility, and it'll always give his critics something to hurl at him."

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