How One Man Changed the Way We Drink Wine

·3 min read
Photo:  DJSinop (Shutterstock)
Photo: DJSinop (Shutterstock)

Pour out some of your cheap wine in remembrance of a true icon today, because Fred Franzia has died at the age of 79. Founder and CEO of Bronco Wine Company, Franzia was the man who once said, “Take that and shove it, Napa,” according to CNN, and Wine Spectator once dubbed him “The Bad Boy of California Wine.” For Franzia, it was the quality and not the price of the wine that made it good. A statement about Franzia’s passing on the Bronco Wine Company website reads:

Core to his vision was a belief that wine should be enjoyed and consumed on every American Table. When asked how Bronco Wine Company can sell wine less expensive than a bottle of water, Fred T. Franzia famously countered, “They’re overcharging for the water—don’t you get it?”

This ethos was behind Franzia’s push to popularize Charles Shaw wine and keep it affordable for years at just $1.99, earning it the nickname Two Buck Chuck.

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The origins and influence of Two Buck Chuck wine

Now Two Buck Chuck is more like Three Buck Chuck, with prices differing based on your state’s taxes, but that’s still not a bad deal for a bottle of wine when the price of everything else at the grocery store is going up. These bottles weren’t always so affordable. According to an incredible deep dive from Thrillist with Charles Shaw himself, the winery was charging $13.50 per bottle back in 1983, which many at the time considered to be high-end pricing. It soon became a multimillion-dollar brand.

But in the 1990s, everything went downhill. A production mishap caused 1,400 barrels of wine to be unsellable. Shaw tried to push burgundies when all people wanted were merlots and cabernets. Root aphids destroyed a 50-acre vineyard that needed to be replaced. In 1992, Charles Shaw filed for bankruptcy.

Enter Fred Franzia, who came from somewhat of a legacy family of affordable wines: According to Wine Spectator, his family sold their Franzia wine brand, now synonymous with boxed wine, to Coca-Cola in the 1970s, and he was the nephew-in-law of Ernest Gallo, co-founder of the E & J Gallo Winery. In the midst of Charles Shaw’s bankruptcy, Franzia bought the name for $27,000, a deal in itself.

In 2002, a deal was made that the new Charles Shaw wine, priced at $1.99 a pop, would sell exclusively at Trader Joe’s. Somewhere along the line (there are no real records of who first said it when), the bottles were dubbed “Two Buck Chuck,” making them a novelty and a popular option for those sticking to a tight budget. Then the wine started winning awards—NPR reported that the 2002 Charles Shaw Shiraz beat out 2,300 wines to win a double gold medal at the 28th Annual International Eastern Wine Competition. And all the while, Franzia kept the price at $1.99.

Customers started realizing that in many cases, this cheap wine was just as good as the more expensive stuff. Trader Joe’s continued to find award-winning value wines to add to its shelves, and other grocery stores were forced to follow suit to keep up with competitive pricing. By the late 2000s when I was starting on my own wine journey, every grocery store had its own version of a perfectly drinkable $5 wine (or even less than that).

Aldi has Winking Owl. Whole Foods has Three Wishes. Target has California Roots. While the price of all these brands is right, there is still not one that has the instant recognition and cultural staying power of Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck. And with a legacy like that, Fred Franzia will live on forever.