For many wine aficionados, the mystique and romance of winemaking is irresistible. Each step in the process -- from the soil in which the grapes grow to the barrels in which they age -- adds a layer of flavor to the final product so that no two bottles of wine are ever truly alike. Or so they say. One man, Fred Franzia, is trying to deflate these highbrow notions, and just so happens to be making a fortune in the process. Never mind the romance associated with wine. What Franzia sees in his vineyards is much more tangible: Money.
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Tellingly, Franzia's operation is headquartered far away from the winemaking establishment in Napa Valley and Sonoma County, which he dismissively calls "the Disneyland for wine." He's set up shop hundreds of miles away in the crop bowl of California known as the Central Valley.
Here, land is cheaper -- $8,000 an acre versus hundreds of thousands of dollars per acre in wine country -- and, according to Franzia, every bit as good.
Franzia's Bronco Wine Company operates 60 to 70 square miles of vineyards -- that's 40,000 acres of grapes which he says is key to making economical wines. Franzia doesn't like the word "cheap." He prefers "value" or "super-value," which is what he calls his best-known brand, the wine known as Charles Shaw, or by its fans as "Two Buck Chuck."
He dismisses the idea that the soil in Northern California's wine country is superior to that of the Central (or San Joaquin) Valley, and that when consumers pay more, they're just paying for flashy marketing, not quality.
"The only thing they have in Napa that's different from here is they have 400 public relations people telling you that story and wanting you to believe it so they can justify their monuments they built for themselves, and pay the prices and pay the premiums of their debt. There's no wine worth $50 a bottle."
You won't find him describing wine the way many aficionados do, using terms like "bouquet" or "mouthfeel," and his prices are equally down-to-earth. For better or for worse, Franzia makes wines for the masses.
His vast acreage allows Franzia to grow not just a massive amount of grapes -- 400,000 tons each year -- but also a staggering variety, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel and Shiraz among others. Almost all of Bronco's wines sell for $10 or less per bottle.
Between his Central Valley vineyards and a few parcels of land in Napa, Franzia produces 20 million cases of wine a year, under 35 different labels.
The most famous of these is Charles Shaw which sells for $2 to $3 a bottle at Trader Joe's stores across the country. When asked how he sells wine for virtually the same price as a bottle of water, Franzia is characteristically frank.
"They're overcharging for the water. Don't you get it?" he said.
Still, at $1.99 a bottle, how does Franzia make any money?
"We make money," Franzia insisted. "And Trader Joe's, who's our partner with the Charles Shaw label, does all right, also."
Franzia says he generates a profit through economies of scale: The massive size of his operation means that overhead cost per bottle is significantly lower than that of his competition.