Sue and I will be at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento on January 26-28, 2016 where I will once again moderate the State of the Industry session featuring presentations by Steve Fredricks of Turrentine Brokerage, Nat DuBuduo of Allied Grape Growers and Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates.
I always look forward to the Wednesday “State of the Industry” panel because the speakers are so well-informed and the information so timely and interesting. But if I am honest, this year I am even more excited about the Tuesday luncheon gathering because that speaker will be the legendary Fred Franzia (a.k.a. Mr Two Buck Chuck) of Bronco Wine. Wouldn’t miss this for the world!
Bronco By the Numbers
Bronco Wine Company is a major force in the U.S. wine industry. According to the most recent Wine Business Monthly report, Bronco’s 20 million annual case volume makes it the fourth largest U.S. wine company after Gallo, The Wine Group, and Constellation Brands. Although Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck) is the best known Bronco label, the company has more than 50 brands. One of the products that Bronco does not make is Franzia, the popular box wine, which belongs to The Wine Group. Franzia doesn’t make Franzia? It’s a long story that I will tell another time.
Bronco’s history began in 1973, when Fred Franzia and his brother Joseph met with their cousin John and pledged to go all in to build a new wine company. Equipped with a tiny bank loan, their knowledge of the business side (Fred and Joseph) and of winemaking (John), plus a major measure of determination, they set out on the twisting road that has brought them to their current position.
Their accomplishment is quite breathtaking when you think about it. Bronco today boasts impressive winemaking facilities, a packaging and distribution center in Napa and about 40,000 acres of vineyards. No, I didn’t make a mistake, the number is 40,000, making Bronco one of the largest vineyard owners in the world.
The Miracle of Two Buck Chuck
One of Bronco’s greatest achievements, of course, is the success of the Charles Shaw wines sold at Trader Joe’s stores. These clean, balanced, and affordable wines played an important role in the democratization of wine in the United States. So many previously intimidated consumers were drawn into the wine market by Two Buck Chuck and the other wines it inspired or provoked.
I wrote about “the miracle of Two Buck Chuck” in my 2011 book Wine Wars. The quality of these inexpensive wines forced other winemakers to raise their game and give better value, which in turn gave consumers more confidence and expanded the wine market’s reach. If you think about the U.S. wine world before 1973, well it really is a miracle that we have come so far. The Franzias played an important role.
The View from Bronco Wine
What will Fred Franzia talk about at the Unified Symposium luncheon? Obviously I don’t really know, but I hope that he will look back at some of the inspiring figures that he has known in his life in American wine and look ahead at some of the challenges he sees for the future. I’m hoping to be informed, entertained, and inspired.
Sue and I had an opportunity to talk about the past, present, and future of American wine with Fred Franzia back in September. Fred invited us to come down to see what a large-scale grape harvest looks like. Fred’s son Joey took us to see the night harvest at a 4000-acre vineyard ranch near Lodi — quite an experience to see the big machines at work under the stars.
We also visited the Napa bottling and distribution center and the main winery in Ceres, where we had lunch with Fred, Joseph, and John Franzia. Then John took us through the working winery (he designed it and supervised its construction), which was receiving grapes picked the night before (more than 300 big truck loads a day at that time).
Big and Bigger
The scale of the Ceres operation got our attention, of course. We saw some tanks that held 350,000 gallons of wine each. Big as they are, they were dwarfed by other tanks that held twice as much. Amazing.
Once we got used to the scale of the Bronco winery we began to appreciate the tremendous attention to detail, which was apparent in all of the other Bronco operations we visited. So many moving parts coordinated so efficiently. Very impressive. We enjoyed the opportunity to sit and chat with Fred in his modest trailer office and to hear some stories from the past and his vision of the future. I’m hoping to hear more along these lines when Fred gives his luncheon talk.
The Name is Shaw, Charlie Shaw
Let me share one story. Fred told us that he was making a call at a Trader Joe’s store — he still handles that account himself — and struck up a conversation with a young man who was stocking a Charles Shaw display. Fred asked about how the wine was selling and what customers were saying and so on and the clerk asked who he was and why he wanted to know. Well, Fred replied, I’m one of the people who help make this wine — I work at the winery.
Wow, the clerk exclaimed. You’re Charles Shaw? You’re Charlie Shaw! No, no, my name’s not Shaw, Fred tried to explain, but it was too late and a minute later the store PA system announced that Charles Shaw was visiting the wine aisle. Amazed customers surged to the Two Buck Chuck display to thank their hero and Fred spent the rest of his visit happily autographing wine bottles. A rock-star moment!
I hope I have the details of that story right (and I apologize if I’ve messed up) because it says a something about the pride and personal touch that we found everywhere at Bronco and about the warm enthusiasm that Charlie Shaw inspires in his fans.
Sue’s photos above show the blur of the Charles Shaw bottling line at the Bronco Napa facility and a tractor driver during night harvest.