Before voting ends for the Vintners Hall of Fame on Friday, I'd like to put on my hat as Chairman of the Electoral College to address an issue some have asked about.
Fred Franzia is on this year's ballot because, in my opinion, he has done more this decade to put wine on the dinner table of low-income people than anyone else. Plenty of teachers and social workers and NGO employees who might have had Pabst Blue Ribbon with dinner, or maybe water, instead enjoyed a civilized glass or two of Two Buck Chuck.
By selling Charles Shaw wines at $2 a bottle ($3 outside California), Franzia has taken over his uncle Ernest Gallo's mantle as the guy who reaches out to non-wine drinkers to convert them. And Two Buck Chuck is a gateway drug -- today's 23-year-old Charles Shaw drinker might be the next decade's single-vineyard Mourvedre enthusiast.
But Franzia has an obvious black mark on his candidacy. In 1994 he pled guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to defraud. Prosecutors said Franzia and his Bronco Wine Co. labeled cheap grapes worth $100 to $200 per ton as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, sprinkling a few Zin leaves on top to make the loads look more authentic. Bronco pleaded no contest to misrepresenting 5,000 tons of grapes and 1 million gallons of wine. Bronco paid a $2.5 million fine; Franzia personally paid a $500,000 fine. He didn't do any jail time, in part because prosecutors believed Bronco might go out of business without him, costing innocent employees their jobs.
Franzia also conducted a 6-year legal battle with Napa Valley Vintners and the state of California over the misleading use of place names. He bought three defunct brand names -- Napa Creek, Napa Ridge and Rutherford Vintners -- and bottled wines from elsewhere in the state using those names. He finally lost, and I'm glad he lost. He was attempting to make Central Valley wines more appealing to consumers by confusing them with the Napa and Rutherford names, and that's both dishonest and not good for wine.
So how should we weigh his positives and negatives? Franzia is the biggest populist in the wine industry. He frequently complains that the wine establishment charges too much for its products, and with his own pricing he backs up this belief. He has sold more than 400 million bottles of Charles Shaw. If it sold for $2.50 instead of $2, and he got an extra 10 cents on each bottle, that would be $40 million more for Bronco. But he has held the line on the price -- instead leaving an extra $200 million in the pockets of his customers.
And yet, his federal conviction strikes at the heart of what wine lovers believe. We can't tell from looking at a bottle whether the contents are really Zinfandel; in many cases we can't really tell after tasting it, as many wine experts have discovered in blind tastings. We have to trust the winery and trust the label. I'm glad the feds caught him and punished him, because that helps maintain that trust.
But still -- was that a knockout offense for the Vintners Hall of Fame? He's on this year's ballot, so obviously the Nominating Committee doesn't think so.
I want to know what you think. Post it in the comments.