Book Review: A Dynamic New History of the French Wine Industry

12912-160Rod Phillips, French Wine: A History. University of California Press, 2016.

Many people think that history is the study of facts and I suspect that they might not be strongly attracted to a book called French Wine: A History. Another book full of facts about French wine? Oh, no!

But history is really the study of change not just facts and it’s that dynamic sense that makes history generally and Rod Phillips’ new book about French wine, so interesting and exciting. Yes, I admit that there are lots of facts here, but Phillips puts them to work telling the story of the changing world of wine, or France, and French wine.

The book has a multi-dimensional organization. The nine chapters proceed chronologically starting with the beginnings to 1000 CE and ending with 1945 to the present, when Phillips argues that French wine was reinvented. Each era of history is organized according to a few dominating themes, with case studies that most effectively explore the issues. It’s an organization that works, although I would have appreciated headings within each chapter to make the outline even clearer.

Phillips apologizes in his introduction that this theme-based approach means that some regions — Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne in particular — get more attention than others, but they are the places where change is often more dramatic or apparent. He notes that any attempt to treat all the regions equally would dilute the narrative and, in my view, turn this from a dynamic history into a stale book of facts.

Wine, the wine industry, and shifting wine markets all treated here. Examples? Well, the chapter on the Middle Ages provides much to think about. The British loved a wine they called Claret, for example, which today means a dark red wine from Bordeaux. But that’s not what the term meant back in the day when it was coined.

Clairet wines came from many places besides Bordeaux and their key characteristic was that they were not dark red. They were fairly clear (compared with red wines), field blends of red and white grapes of various degrees of ripeness that were pinkish more than red. They were the default non-white wines until the 17th century, Phillips tells us, which suggests just how much French wine has changed.

That same chapter explores the changing role of wine in the French diet at the time. Wine was more than a drink, it was a very significant source of calories as the high consumption levels reported here suggest.

Factoid alert: I could not help but be a little envious when I read the list of provisions for the 1251 wedding of Alexander III of Scotland to King Henry III’s daughter Margaret: 1300 deer, 7000 hens, 170 boars, 60,000 herrings, 68,500 loaves of bread … and 96,500 liters of wine. Wow, what a feast.

A great deal has changed over the years in both the wines and their role in our lives, but it is a mistake to think that the most dramatic changes are in the long-ago past (the Middle Ages) or even the more recent past (Phylloxera in the 19th century, the rise of the appellation system in the 20th century).

My favorite chapter examines the last half-century, which Phillips suggests is a golden age of French wine. I learned a lot from his analysis of the French wine industry in the early post-war years. I was impressed by the discussion of the French-Algerian wine relationship and Algeria’s rapid decline from its position as the world’s largest wine exporter (mainly to France) to its much more marginal role in global wine today.

I was particularly interested in Phillips’ take on the changing status of wine in French society and French wine in the global market. The analysis is typically thorough and thought-provoking. He notes that the decline in per capita wine consumption in France, for example, coincides with the development of a mass market for bottled water.This, plus anti-alcohol laws and regulations, explains a lot. The decline in wine consumption has many effects including, he argues, a change in social behavior as the number of cafés licensed to sell wine and spirits has collapsed.

The more things change the more they stay the same — that’s a famous French saying, and it occurred to me several times as I was reading this book. Concerns about wine fraud and adulteration appear frequently in French history, just as I suspect they will in future histories of Chinese wine!

French Wine: A History is a fascinating book that belong’s on every wine lover’s bookshelf. Highly recommended.

Talking About My Generation: Wine Spectator Turns 40

WS111516_CoverUS.indd“Don’t look back,” Satchel Paige said, “something might be gaining on you.” That’s probably good advice in most circumstances, but sometimes it pays to glance over your shoulder to get some perspective on the present and inspiration for what’s ahead.

That’s what Wine Spectator magazine has done in their November 15, 2016 issue, which celebrates their 40th year. The very first issue was dated April 1-15, 1976.  A lot has changed since then. The magazine has changed, the wine world has changed, and we have all changed, too.

Start at the Beginning

The editors confront all this change in many interesting ways. Several illustrated features that look back at memorable wine world events and trends in each decade and provide interesting profiles of the important personalities who shaped the industry and our perception of it.

Publisher Marvin Shanken and the senior editors provide personal reflections and a gallery of covers captures the dynamic wine world through colorful images. Harvey Steiman’s contribution is an intriguing essay on “The Future of Wine.”

Although I appreciate all the essays and features, I admit that my favorite part of this issue is the reproduction of the very first Wine Spectator that is included with the magazine.  It is impossible to resist the temptation to compare the 288-page current Wine Spectator with its 11-page ancestor. A lot of the change in wine can be seen dramatically just be looking at these two publications side-by-side.

1976 and All Thatwinespectatordebutissue

Many of my friends read Wine Spectator for its wine reviews and ratings — they start at the back of the magazine, not the front — but the 1976 issue provides very little in the way of consumer guidance. It was more of a wine trade publication, filled with news and features not wines and scores. The page one headline, for example, was “Hearings set to define ‘estate bottled’ wines,” something of more interest to industry readers than consumers.

“California wines win high awards” is the lead article on page 10 and, since it was 1976, the year of the Judgement of Paris, I expected to read about the now legendary triumph of California wines over their more famous French rivals. But the Paris tasting was on May 24, 1976 — more than a month in the future when this issue hit the streets.

The awards that Wine Spectator reported here were those given at the Oenological Institute’s International Wine Awards in London and the big California winners were Inglenook and Italian Swiss Colony, both then owned by the United Vintners. The 1972 Inglenook Petite Sirah received the highest mark of any American wine while several Italian Swiss Colony wines were awarded silver medals. Italian Swiss made no vintage-dated wines at the time, according to the article, something that set them apart from most of the wines judged in this international tasting.

It’s a Corker!

Wine Spectator today is filled with advertisements — especially the 40th anniversary issue, which features many colorful full-page tributes by industry supporters. Not many ads in the 1976 issue by comparison. My favorite is “It’s a Corker! from Paul Masson,” which highlights the real cork stopper in the “new generic magnums” of Burgundy, Chabils, and Sauterne.

Other ads promoted Concannon’s Muscat Blanc, Ambassador’s Colombard Rosé, Voltaire’s Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc (Voltaire was a Geyser Peak Winery brand), B&G, Sebastiani, and Llords & Elwood (“makers of ultra-premium, award winning champagne, table wines, sherries and port”).

Wine Spectator today features both more advertisements and very different ones. Wine ads dominate, but you will also find those bought by non-wine companies that seek to promote their lifestyle products to the affluent readership base.

Back to the Future

A lot has changed since Wine Spectator #1 and Harvey Steiman’s essay sums it up very well. Back in the day when Steiman first discovered his interest in wine the world was much simpler. Baby boomers understood that Old World trumped New World and pretty much nothing could beat France (Bordeaux for reds, Steiman writes, and Burgundy for whites).

The boomers’ challenge has been to broaden their understanding of wine (more countries and regions) and to deepen it, too, learning about more varieties and styles. We have come a long way, but Steiman thinks there is still a long way to go for us to fully appreciate,  embrace and enjoy the wonder and diversity that wine promises.

Talking About Generations

He is optimistic about the future, pinning his hopes in part on the Millennials, who are undisciplined in good ways and more open to new places, faces, and experiences. Starting from 2016 instead of 1976 and with Millennial attitudes, the sky could be the limit. Fingers crossed.

I think Steiman is right about this, but it is important to appreciate (as I am sure he does) that the generational shift is not the whole story. Generational categories sometimes hide as much as they reveal. We think of baby boomers as driving the wine boom in the U.S., for example, but don’t forget that most boomers don’t drink wine and a great many of them consume no alcohol at all. Sometimes the changing patterns within and across generational groups are as important as the differences between them.

It is important to put wine in context. The world of wine in 1976, as represented by that first issue, was pretty closed. If you look at recent Wine Spectator issues, on the other hand, you can see that it is not just wine that has changed but our idea of wine and how we relate to it, which I believe reflects changing social patterns generally, and not just about wine. For readers of Wine Spectator, wine is not just a drink but part of a sophisticated lifestyle, which is why food and travel are featured so prominently in the magazine and celebrities make frequent appearances, too.

Congratulations on Your (and Our) Success

Wine has been a success in the United States because it has become more and more relevant to the way that consumers live their lives now. As the cultural context continues to change, wine will need to find its meaning and its place. The fact, which Steiman highlights, that wine is not one thing but a great many, gives us confidence that the best days are still to come.

Congratulations to everyone at Wine Spectator for a great 40 years of telling wine’s tale. Looking forward to the next chapter in your (and our) story.

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Everything you always wanted to know about Chianti Classico (and lots more!)

nestoBill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savino, Chianti Classico: The Search for Tuscany’s Noblest Wine. University of California Press, 2016.

I didn’t know much about Sicily and its wine industry until I read Bill Nesto and Frances Di Savino’s 2013 book The World of Sicilian Wine  and it really opened my eyes. I enjoyed the detailed analysis of the regions, the wineries and the wines and I especially appreciated the  economic history of the wine region and its complicated relationship with international markets. What an interest place!

I approached their new book on Chianti Classico from a different perspective. While I am no expert on Chianti and its wines, I am way more familiar with this region that Sicily. (A section in my 1990 book Mountains of Debt analyzed the fiscal history of Renaissance Florence, including their wine tax scheme.)

Would Nesto and Di Savino be able to open my eyes to this relatively familiar place in the same way as the earlier book? Yes! What an interesting book.

Eye-Opening (Literally)

One chapter literally made me rub my eyes. It was the chapter on viticulture, which is complicated in Chianti Classico as elsewhere with competing theories about the best way to train and treat the vines to get the best quality or maximize quantity.

This is not a new discussion and as evidence of this the authors cite one of the most famous works of Italian Renaissance art — the 1338-39 Lorenzetti  frescoes of the allegory of good and bad government that are found in Siena’s town hall. I have seen these images several times (the distinguished economist Robert Mundell, who taught some years before me at the Johns Hopkins Bologna Center, first drew them to my attention), but I never appreciated the full story they told.

There, within a part of the image on the effect of good government, are three different vine systems! One features narrow rows of densely planted vines. A second has rows widely spaced with interstitial crop plantings. And a third is planted in the Etruscan style with trees for the vines to climb. Fascinating.

1338-1340-lorenzetti-good-government-country.

What is Chianti?

The over-arching question this book addresses is “what is Chianti?” Newcomer wine consumers are often confused about whether Chianti is a grape or a region, but that’s not what we are talking about here. Rather the issue, which is thoroughly examined over the course of eleven chapters, is how should the Chianti region be defined and what wines should therefore receive the Chianti designation.

Once upon a time Chianti meant the area that we now call Chianti Classico, but at several critical points the borders of the appellation were expanded to include zones called “External Chianti,” which vastly increased the volume of Chianti wine available.

Changing the borders of any appellation creates conflict (hey Mr. Champagne, I’m talking about you!). Chianti has in fact been the focus of at least several wars including a real war in the middle ages between the city-states of Florence and Siena and an economic and political war between the interests of Chianti Classico and those of External Chianti.

Nesto and Di Savino take sides in the Chianti wars, especially over the geographical boundaries and cite a previously obscure edict issued by by Medici grand duke Cosimo III in 1716 defining Chianti narrowly as Chianti Classico. They argue for a return to Cosimo’s borders, making the case that the appellations in External Chianti are now strong enough to compete without the Chianti designation. This is bound to stir up further controversy. Stay tuned.

Full of Surprisesrooster

Chianti Classico is packed with information and insights — something for all wine lovers. The early chapters introduce us to the controversies and how they (and Chianti) evolved over several centuries. Great depth and detail here. Then several chapters examine the geography, grape varieties, viticulture, wine-making and winemakers. Finally, each subzone is explored with profiles of the major wine producers that double as a wine touring guide. Cosimo’s 1716 edict appears at the end in the form of a Da Vinci Code-style mystery story.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that my favorite part of the book is the set of chapters on the economic history of Chianti, Chianti Classico and the Chianti Wars. Economic forces were unusually important in shaping this wine region over the years and Nesto and Di Savino do a masterful job turning what is obviously pain-staking research into a lively and informative narrative.

There were many surprises. I had no idea that international trade was such an important force in Chianti in the earliest years. I had no idea that Chianti was such a valuable “brand” long ago, either, or that the story of the straw covered flask bottled would be so complicated and interesting.

And I did not realize that Chianti Classico almost ceased to exist at one point in the post-WWII era when high cost producers found themselves undercut by cheap bulk Chianti wines that drove prices down to, for them, economically unsustainable prices. The story of how this happened and how the Chianti Classico producers rallied to revive their industry makes great reading.

Does Chianti Classico live up to my high expectations for it? Yes! A great book for anyone who loves Chianti or Tuscany or … wine!

(Republic of) Georgia on my mind: Wine tourism’s future in the “Cradle of Wine”

In a few days Sue and I will be jetting off to the Republic of Georgia for the first United Nations World Tourism Organization Global Conference on Wine Tourism.We have been trying to learn all we can about Georgia and its wine and wine tourism industries in preparation for the trip. I thought you might be interested in three of the resources we have found especially useful.

Taber’s Final Frontier

George Taber spent the best part of a year circling the globe collecting wine tourism experiences that he chronicled in an entertaining 2009 book called In Search of Bacchus.  Most of the places Taber visited would be on any globetrotter’s wine tourism map — Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and so on — and his reporting and first person accounts are very interesting. Taber waited until the final chapter to veer off the conventional road map to visit Georgia, which he calls wine’s “final frontier.”

Taber had a great time in Georgia, the “Cradle of Wine,” 8000 vintages and counting. He loved the people and culture and was fascinated by the wine, reporting on the traditional wine-making process using big clay jars called Qvervi (which are buried in the earth as shown below) to ferment and store the wine until ready to drink.

Taber comments on consumption patterns as do most who write about Georgian wine. A rule of thumb, he notes, is to allow for two or three liters of wine per person at a supra banquet or celebration, where tradition requires that guests drain their glasses after each toast.

When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Georgia (see video above) he also cited high alcohol consumption and complained of frequent hangovers, although this might be Bourdain being Bourdain as much as Georgian tradition. I will let you know what I find out.

Wine Tourism as Economic Developmentqvevri1

My wine economics colleague Kym Anderson visited Georgia a few years after Taber to analyze the wine industry’s potential as an engine of economic development. His 2012 report, Georgia, Cradle of Wine: the next “new” wine exporting country? (pdf), makes good reading.

Anderson found the wine market quite segmented. Most of the large domestic demand was satisfied by basic traditional wines, a surprisingly large proportion being home-produced. Industrial production of wine for export to former Soviet countries made up a second market segment. Rising quantities of wine are made for export to other markets (including US, Canada, UK, etc), where quality expectations are different than the Russian market and production adjustments necessary.

A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.

Anderson clearly sees potential for Georgian wine exports if industrial and agricultural upgrading continues, but he is especially interested in wine tourism, which he sees having potentially greater  impact on rural incomes and employment. Georgia’s decision to host the UNWTO program is consistent with this priority. International tourism is an important income source for Georgia and wine tourism has growth potential.

Anderson makes a number of specific recommendations for upgrading hospitality and winery facilities to make them more appealing to wine tourists. We will be interested to see what progress has been made in this regard in the short time since Anderson’s report.

Back to the Future of Winefeiring

Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring seems to have found her “tribe” in Georgia. Her 2016 book For the Love of Wine is an entertaining, informative and deeply personal account of her encounters with Georgia wine and wine-makers.

Feiring is taken by the naturalness of the Qvervi wine-making process and the dedication of those who kept this tradition alive during the long Soviet wine winter. Whereas Anderson’s concern is economic development, Feiring worries more about the soul. She sees Georgia’s past as a path to a better, more soulful future.

But she worries these traditional wines are threatened by a new foe — those US, UK, and EU markets that seem to demand “me too” wines made in an international style with lots of additives and manipulation. For Feiring, Russian communism and international capitalism are “twins separated at birth” in the sense that each destroys the essence of wine in its own way.

Feiring’s mission is to support those who seek to make high quality traditional wines. But there are problems. The Georgian domestic market for such wines with their necessarily higher price compared with home production is not large enough to support the craft industry, which means that buyers must be found in other countries.

Feiring’s tribe needs to grow to support the wines she treasures. The natural wine movement is growing in part due to her determined efforts. Perhaps wine tourism will convert visitors to natural wine (and Georgian wine) ambassadors.

That is a sip of what I’m learning and a hint of the sorts of questions we hope to explore. Georgia is definitely on my mind!

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We appreciate everyone who helped us prepare for this trip including the officials and staff at the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Administration plus Mariam Anderson, Prof. Kym Anderson, Nino Turashvili, Viktoria Koberidze, Irakli Cholobargia, George Akhalkatsi,  and Hermes Navarro del Valle.

July 4th Flashback: How the U.S. & Canada Almost Destroyed Wine

patriotic_pourIt is Independence Day here in the United States and that is all the excuse I need for this special Flashback column, which takes us back to 2015 to tell the story of how, in very different ways, the U.S. and Canadian governments almost destroyed their respective wine industries.

My friends always tell me to have a fifth for the Fourth, and I assume they are recommending a bottle of American wine with the required holiday menu of hot dogs, hamburgers and salads. Cheers and Happy Independence Day.

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At one point in Kym Anderson’s new book about the Australian wine industry he reflects on what can be done to shorten that country’s current wine slump and to get things sailing again on an even keel. One of his suggestions caught my eye:

“Governments need to keep out of grape and wine markets and confine their activities to generating public goods and overcoming market failures such as the free rider problem of collecting levies for generic promotion and R&D.”

This is more than the simple Adam Smith “laissez-faire” idea. Anderson’s book clearly demonstrates the law of unintended consequences — how well-meaning government policies sometimes have had unexpectedly negative side-effects. No wonder he recommends a cautious approach to wine and grape policy.

I was reminded of this when I was researching the history of the Canadian wine industry for a recent speaking engagement in Ontario. I was struck by Canada’s experience with Prohibition in the 20th century, how it differed from the U.S. experiment, and how both ended up crippling their wine industries but in very different ways. Here’s what I learned.

How U.S. Prohibition Crippled the Wine Industry

The great experiment in Prohibition in the United States started in 1920 and lasted until 1933. The 18th Amendment outlawed the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating beverages, including wine. Most people assume that the wine industry collapsed as legal wine sales and consumption fell and this is partly true but not the complete story. Commercial wine production almost disappeared, but wine consumption actually boomed.

How is this possible? There were three loopholes in the wine regulations outlined in the Volstead Act. Wine could still be produced and sold for medical purposes (prescription wine?) and also for use in religious services (sacramental wine). This kept a few wineries in business but does not account for the consumption boom, which is due to the third loophole: households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for “non-intoxicating” family consumption.

Demand for wine grapes exploded as home winemaking increased (but not always for strictly non-intoxicating purposes). Total U.S. vineyard area just about doubled between 1919 and 1926! But the new plantings were not delicate varieties that commercial producers might have chosen but rather grapes chosen for their high yields,  strong alcohol potential and ability to survive shipping to eastern markets.

Thus did Prohibition increase wine consumption in the U.S. but it also corrupted the product by turning over wine-making from trained professionals to enthusiastic  amateurs working in often unsanitary conditions. The home-produced wine sometimes had little in common with pre-Prohibition commercial products except its alcoholic content.

Americans drank more wine during Prohibition, but it was an inferior product. No wonder they dropped wine like a hot stone when Prohibition ended. That’s when the real wine bust occurred and it took decades to fully recover. Do you see the unintended consequence in this story? But wait, there’s more …

How Canadian Prohibition Crippled Its Wine Industry

Prohibition started earlier (1916) and ended earlier (1927) in Canada and took a different fundamental form. With support from temperance groups, consumption of beer and spirits (Canada’s first choice alcoholic drinks) was banned as part of war policy with the stated intent of preserving grain supplies for vital military uses. Consumption was forbidden, but production of beer and spirits was still allowed for export, which accounts for the boom in bootleg Canadian whiskey in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Neither production nor consumption of wine was included in Canada’s ban on alcohol, although wine sales were limited to the cellar door. What made wine different? Maybe grapes were not as vital to the war effort as grains, although John Schreiner cites the political influence of the United Farmer’s Party in his account of this period in The Wines of Canada. Wine became the legal alcoholic beverage of choice for Canadian consumers and production boomed. By the end of Canadian Prohibition there were 57 licensed wineries in Ontario (up from just 12) to serve the big Toronto market.

Wine sales increased 100-fold, according to Schreiner, but “It would be charitable to describe the quality of the wines being made in Ontario during this period as variable,” he writes. The market wanted alcohol and set a low standard of quality, which many producers pragmatically stooped to satisfy. No wonder wine production collapsed at the end of Prohibition as consumers went back to spirits and beer.

Unintended Consequences

Thus did government policy in both Canada and the United States create wine booms during their respective Prohibition eras, but the worst kind of booms: bad wine booms. Quality suffered as quantity surged. It is no surprise that consumers turned away from wine once other beverages were available. It took decades for these industries to recover.

Both the Canadian and U.S. wine industries are vibrant and growing today, having recovered from the crippling effects of poor quality wine. But they both are still hampered by other policies — especially regarding distribution and sales — that date back to the end of Prohibition. Economic policies can obviously have unintended effects and the shadows they cast can be long indeed.

No wonder Kym Anderson is skeptical about government interference in the Australian industry. Prohibition is an extreme case, to be sure, but such cases clearly show the unintended consequence potential that exists even with other seemingly harmless proposals. A cautious approach makes sense.

The Past Meets the Future at Alentejo’s Historic José de Sousa Winery

P1110385The dynamic intersection of old and new was a theme of our recent visit to Portugal’s Alentejo wine region and there cannot be a better example of it that the work that winemaker Domingos Soares Franco is doing at at José Maria da Fonseca‘s José de Sousa winery. Here is a brief report.

Past & Present

Domingos Soares Franco’s roots in Portuguese wine run very deep. He is the sixth generation of his family to make wine. He is a quiet man, I would say, having met him just once, but also proud of all that he and his family have accomplished at José Maria da Fonseca. And rightly so (see video below).

Domingos is known for the innovations that he has introduced in winemaking here, which reflects the new. His technical training was in California at UC Davis (he was the first Portuguese Davis graduate), so it is no surprise that he brings the modern and experimental to his work here.

But we did not meet him in a high tech facility as you might imagine. Instead he took us into a deep cellar at the José de Sousa winery where we confronted Alentejo’s past and perhaps also its future.

Going Back in TimeP1110389

The Romans made wine in this region two millenia ago using huge clay jars not unlike the ones shown in the photo above and video below. Incredibly the ancient practice remained alive here over the centuries before fading away in the 20th century as the local wine industry suffered from adverse economic incentives (the Portuguese government promoted grain production over wine).

The reemergence of wine in this region is an important story and as we saw at Adega de Borba, modern technology and innovation have been key to that success. But many of those old 1000 liter clay jars still survive from a century ago and we saw them at several wineries that are experimenting with them to see if the past can provide insights for the future. I am not sure anyone has gone as far as Domingos, however.

We inspected the basement with the largest collection of jars that I saw on this trip and peered into a jar full with wine that Domingos was making based upon an ancient recipe. A layer of olive oil protected the wine from oxygen. It was like a look back into the past!

A Memorable BlendP1110401

Then we tasted and that was very interesting, too. Experimenting with both the past and the future, Domingos makes one wine using modern techniques and then another, using identical grapes, in the clay jars. You could sense the family resemblance, but there was a lot that is different, especially aroma and mouthfeel.

We tasted one and then the other and then improvised the blend that Domingos favors: half past, half future. Memorable. Not just a wine but an experience.

If you look closely at the photo you can see the shimmer of olive oil floating on the surface of the clay jar wine. That will be gone when the finished wine is made, Domingos said, but the sense of history will certainly remain.

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This video gives you a sense of the old and new that we experienced in Portugal.

Legendary Fred Franzia to Speak at Unified Symposium Luncheon

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.P1100664

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.P1100655

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.

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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.