Death of a revolutionary winemaker - the creator of "Two Buck Chuck"

He repeated that everything is too expensive in winemaking, so he bought the cheapest glass bottles, printed labels on recycled paper, used ordinary natural adhesives, and shortened supply chains. He focused on "sustainable production" when no one knew the term.

His maxim was that wine should be available to everyone. And he made it like that. He has sold over a billion bottles of his liquor. On the night of September 13-14, European time, Fred Franzia passed away at 79.

Even though it was midnight, the wine news agencies suddenly resumed their activities to announce the sad fact. Although Fred had few true friends in the competitive world of producers, his actions were followed by the entire industry with bated breath. To this day, probably no one else in the world, and certainly not in the European Union and the United States of America, can put wine in a bottle for $ 1.99 on the shelves - that is, at a cost - and earn a lot on it. He would probably never call himself a revolutionist, but he liked shocking - or at least that's how he did it.

For the past twenty years, his constant companion has been endless media, often sucked from the finger of accusations and suspicions. Some ended up in the courts, and some he lost, but he always fell on his feet, paid penalties quickly and went back to work keeping the prices. Every day, turning on the computer in the morning, he could read something about himself.

Unfortunately, I have never met him, although journalistic visits usually involve the most famous personalities in the region - Franzia was not one of them, and he often acted out of the box. A friend of a Californian journalist wrote about such an extraordinary press meeting, and I remembered it. Franzia gave him and his friends his cheapest wine for lunch. When they waited for another one, because Fred's company, Bronco Wine Company, makes a total of about a hundred brands of other, more expensive copies, it turned out that this was the end. Franzia chuckled, then stated that he wanted to see trade journalists drink his wine for two dollars a flask.

"Chuck" cheaper than water

His life path was probably most influenced by the commercial turmoil - in 1973, the Fred family sold their wine business - including the brand, that is, the family name - to the Coca-Cola concern, which in 1981, sold it to the famous producer The Wine Company. To this day, Franzia is a renowned, cheap wine produced by this concern and offered in 3- and 5-litre cartons, which made Franzia extremely nervous (maybe that is why his Bronco does not sell wine in such packaging). "My father was not a fighter; we did not speak to each other for five years or so," he said in one of the interviews.
Fred Franzia in 2003, a winery in Lodi, California. Photo Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
In 1973, Fred, his brother, and his cousin founded the Franzia Brothers Winery, which was soon changed to the Bronco Wine Company under pressure from the new owner. Interestingly, Fred Franzia was partially related to the Gallo family (Ernest Gallo was the husband of his aunt Amelia), the founders of the largest and the second in the world family winery - the well-known E&J Gallo.

In 1995, Bronco acquired the right to the cheap Charles Shaw brand in a bankruptcy court, and here you should look for the origins of the future most affordable wine. It appeared on the shelves in 2002 and caused a scandal with its price. It cost… $ 1.99, cheaper than a bottle of mineral water, let alone other drinks! "Cheaper than water? They are charging heavily for it in their shops,”- he used to say.

It seemed like a temporary promotion, but still something completely unreal. However, it has become a fact, although - as it is easy to guess - there were many protests and calls for competition control. It's hard to cheat the American tax office with shop goods, especially in the field of stimulants, but the authorities did not find any shortcomings.

  In that region, the prices of the cheapest bottled wines in supermarkets were $ 7-8. After all, two dollars is almost as much as the cost of packaging, transportation, production, store margin, taxes, etc. Bronco wines were quickly (because of the price, of course) dubbed "Two Buck Chuck"

Large trade concerns also expressed their surprise because the wine appeared only (and it is still today) in the extensive American grocery chain Trader Joe's, which belongs to the German giant Aldi. Trader Joe's is present in most large cities across the ocean, often smaller ones, and has an excellent reputation. It is a leader in introducing its brands, i.e. various products not with the name of the manufacturer but with their own - "Trader Joe's" ( which is less pleasing to their producers.) That is why we can find some products with such an imprint on Aldi's shelves in Poland. However, Charles Shaw's wines do not hold such a position, which was even more surprising to many: where did such attachment to one chain of supermarkets come from? Others would also take this wine, but the trade deal is sacred.

Enthusiasm of customers, sadness of producers

As you can guess, the appearance of such cheap wine did not arouse enthusiasm among Californian winemakers. In addition, the bottles looked elegant; they were corked and covered with matte foil on the neck. If not for the flashy campaign advertising its price, it could stand out on the shelf among much more expensive offers. However, the price was supposed to attract buyers' attention first.

And it was: 300 million bottles were traded in the first five years. Until today, sales have exceeded one billion bottles! In California alone, its sales account for nearly 10 per cent of all wines offered (and therefore consumed)!

Wine crimes. Counterfeit liquors of the ages, precious ones, your favourites and the pretty cheap ones

French police entered several wine depots in the Bordeaux region.

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After the premiere of the wine, Fred Franzia told everyone what was obvious from the point of view of advertising: "I would like to make every consumer able to afford wine every day ”. Most critics were wrong about his intention that this was just a promotional gimmick. Franzia kept saying everything was too expensive in winemaking, so he focused on brilliant logistics and shortening the supply chains. We could say that he contributed greatly to protecting the environment, or "sustainable production", at a time when no one had ever heard the term.

He bought the cheapest glass bottles, printed labels on recycled paper, used ordinary natural adhesives and shortened the mileage of deliveries. Supplies travelled to individual stores in enormous numbers, not in single delivery vans, and finally, they sold wines from cardboard boxes. Because Trader Joe's does discount stores, and in addition, customers buy not individual bottles but entire cartons. He didn't spend any money on promotion and marketing. He did not have to; all the media across the ocean constantly wrote about him anyway.

Fred also repeated many times that no wine should cost more than ten dollars and should not be available only on public holidays. He spoke out against the practices referred to as "premium", that is, the desire to put at the forefront of every winery's offer a product of the highest quality, expensive and made in small numbers. Usually, only glossy magazines could advertise that sort of thing, and, according to Fred, that practice was downright insulting, but nobody ever wanted to listen to him at the time.

Other big producers chose not to make an official statement about "Two Buck Chuck", especially when they were asked thorny questions about why their wines were more expensive. Each negative statement would be balancing on the verge of accusing Bronco of unfair practices, which can cost a lot in the US.

However, it was obvious to everyone that when you want cheap goods on the shelf, you must make some (or very large) compromises. Fruit for cheap wines (as well as mid-range wines) are harvested mechanically; they are collected from various suppliers, considering the price, and processed by machine in large tanks. It is no secret, and all mass producers do that. Not only in the wine industry.

There was even more hype when "Two Buck Chuck" started showing up at wine competitions and was judged blind. Shockingly, it started to bring back rewards!

Bronco Wine Company was once caught cheating, but it was long before Two Buck Chuck was written. In 1994, a court proved to Franzi that the wines sold as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel were made of much cheaper Carignane and Grenache varieties. Bronco paid a $ 2.5 million fine, and Franzia himself personally half a million extra and had to leave the company for five years (he became its chief financial officer). But he did not go to jail - he convinced the judge that his imprisonment would result in mass unemployment in the town of Ceres, where Bronco is located.

Over the years, the price of "Two Buck" has risen to $ 2.99-3.99, mainly due to inflation, taxes and the pandemic, but it is still the cheapest bottled wine in the United States. It is an icon described in books, a role model, and a wine mentioned in economic publications worldwide. A symbol that does not need to be explained.

And best of all, it's been re-selling in California for $ 1.99 since the beginning of this year…

Goodbye, Franzia.

- Wojciech Gogoliński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

-translated by Katarzyna Chocian

The author is the editor of the magazine “Czas Wina” ["Wine Time"]. In addition, he published, among other things, “Leksykon Alkoholi” ["Alcohols Lexicon"] and is the co-author of the book “Wiedza o winie” ["Wine knowledge"]
Main photo: Charles Shaw Wine for $ 1.99 in 2010 at Trader Joe's. Photo Mack Male -, CC BY-SA 2.0,
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