Two Buck Chuck's time to shine

San Francisco ChronicleMay 27, 2009 

Silly me, suggesting to Fred Franzia -- lord of Two Buck Chuck -- that his wines are low-priced.

"Who says we're lower-priced? We're the best price. The others, I think, are overpriced," he says. "Maybe we're the ones who are right and everyone else is wrong because they're overcharging."

(In North Carolina, as opposed to Califorina, Charles Shaw wines cost $3 at Trader Joe's stores and therefore are called Three Buck Chuck.)

At a moment when expensive wines are fully in the doldrums, when high-priced Cabernets gather dust in warehouses, Franzia is sounding pretty logical.

After all, wine drinkers are trading down.

Two Buck Chuck might have resonated in a sound economy, but these should be salad days for Franzia's Bronco Wine Co. of Ceres in Stanislaus County, which produces not only Charles Shaw but also Crane Lake, Napa Ridge and dozens more inexpensive (surely that term would fly) labels.

They are. Bronco's sales by volume are as much as 25 percent higher than last year. Charles Shaw is running about 6 million cases annually and no less a publication than The New Yorker profiled Franzia recently about his quest to reach 100 million cases a year.

Franzia says markets such as China want to take Chuck global; next month he plans to unveil an Australian Chardonnay, Down Under, at half the price of the Yellow Tail brand.

Franzia's only worry seems to be that he might run out of wine, even though he controls reportedly 40,000 acres and buys far more in bulk. "We'll probably have to allocate," he said. "Imagine that."

After his endless battles with the wine elite -- notably his unsuccessful court fight with the Napa Valley Vintners -- irony drips off those words when Franzia says them.

This is the year, after all, when cult-wine allocations are being busted, when retailers can cherry-pick the finest wines. And yet many wineries still won't flinch on pricing.

Suddenly, Franzia's crusade against high prices -- he still thinks no wine should cost more than 10 bucks -- has an eerie resonance.

Granted, the wisdom should be considered in context. Franzia still despises talk of terroir and insists appellations smaller than plain old California are "the worst thing to happen to this industry." He shrugs off concerns about water supplies to his San Joaquin Valley grapes. He's also still facing blowback after a pregnant 17-year-old worker died last year while working a vineyard controlled by a company tied to Bronco.

But at a time when logic is a precious commodity in the wine industry, Franzia is working smart -- reducing weights of most bottles by about 4 ounces. When you're Bronco, with an estimated 20 million cases per year, that's a lot less weight to be hauling around.

He's not the only one ready to capitalize on a down market. A handful of high-end labels are starting to trim prices. Chappellet lowered the price of its 2006 Signature Cabernet from $51 to $42. But the pain felt around Napa Valley -- Franzia's longtime foil -- seems to fill him with glee.

Two Buck Chuck taps into a fundamental, inconvenient fact: At some point, most people want basic, drinkable and cheap. Yet it should feel respectable, which is why Franzia won't switch to plastic from the corks he uses in Charles Shaw (more an assemblage of small cork bits than a single piece of bark), despite an estimated $3 million savings. Chuck looks like a real bottle of wine.

And California's wine market bolsters Franzia's stance.

Bulk wine -- either a winery's excess or juice that didn't make the cut -- is the engine of those cheap labels. (Bronco has mastered the art of blending endless lots into something drinkable.)

Despite two slight vintages in 2007 and 2008, Napa and Sonoma wines face falling prices on the bulk market, while buyers increasingly seek cheaper Central Valley fruit.

Chris Welch, a partner in the Ciatti Co. wine brokerage, is suddenly hearing from "higher-end guys" wanting to make under-$10 wines for the first time. In other words, to tangle in Franzia's world.

So Franzia is waiting for August, when top producers with wine still in tanks are forced to sell cheap before the 2009 vintage. If that wine ends up in Bronco's bottles, well, that's how Two Buck Chuck got started. "There's plenty of prestige, in my opinion, in being able to afford consumers wine at a price they can drink every day," he concludes.

A sage bit of advice for gentleman farmers out there tending fields of attempted glory.

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