Business 2.0 Magazine
September 7, 2007
Fred Franzia, the man behind America's favorite bargain vino, has a big mouth and an even bigger winemaking empire - one that's scaring the bejeezus out of his elitist rivals.
Fred Franzia: taking a bite out of Napa.
There's a war on bluster, and Fred Franzia is losing. Sure, the CEO of Bronco Wine, the nation's fourth-largest wine company, tells me repeatedly that only a sucker would pay more than $10 for a bottle of wine - including his own $35 Domaine Napa. And that Napa's and Bordeaux's claims about their special soils are bogus: "We can grow on asphalt. Terroir don't mean sh*t." After relieving himself by the side of his Jeep, Franzia recounts a trip to Burgundy where, after an elaborate tasting, he told the winemaker at Château Haut-Brion, "You can bottle gasoline if you can sell that."
Franzia, who rose to fame several years ago when he started selling a $2 bottle called Charles Shaw, calls winemakers "bozos in a glass." He really goes off on wine critic Robert Parker, who, he says, likes tannic wines that make people gag. He mocks my college ("We buy wineries from guys from Stanford who go bankrupt. Some real dumb-asses from there"), my religion ("A Jew who eats ribs? You impress me"), and my job ("Business 2.0? Hell no, I've never heard of it").
When I ask him about the community service he did after pleading guilty in 1993 to conspiracy to defraud (he sold 5,000 tons of cheap grapes by mislabeling them and sprinkling zinfandel leaves on top), he says of the mentoring of single mothers he was ordered to do: "I picked up on young girls."
But Franzia gets soft real quick. As he drives his Jeep around the vineyards at Bronco's headquarters in Ceres, Calif., a tiny Central Valley town outside Modesto, Franzia admits he'd much rather buy out of bankruptcy court than directly from my hurting fellow alumni, since "it's less emotional."
He keeps stopping the car to look at grape plants like a puttering gardener. He shows me the land where he plans to build his house, complete with a bowling alley for his granddaughter. Looking up at a hawk flying high over his fields, he wonders whether it doesn't have a better life than we do. He tells me he has trouble sleeping. I find, on the passenger side of his Jeep, an Enya CD, which he claims one of his many girlfriends left there. I deeply consider giving him a hug.