Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"Tell him to get f--ked"

If the article in the May, 2006 issue of Inc. magazine that Mamacita sent me a link to is any indication, that phrase is a favorite of Fred Franzia's, particularly when he's upset or irritated ("The Scourge of Napa Valley" by Kermit Pattison). And it appears that Franzia is upset or irritated a lot. He's the chairman and CEO of Bronco Wine, one of the largest and fastest-growing wine companies in California and one that you're probably never heard of. But you probably have heard of some of the brands that they make, bottle, and market, including Napa Ridge, Forest Glen, and Charles Shaw. That last one is usually referred to by its nickname, though -- it's Two Buck Chuck. Bronco produces it for Trader Joe's, and although it's not two dollars a bottle outside of California anymore, it's still unbelievably cheap for something that isn't box wine or Night Train. It actually holds its own in blind tastings against much more expensive wine. Two Buck Chuck is an extreme example of what Bronco does with all of its wines: they own some of the most extensive winegrowing acreage in the world, they have huge wine storage and aging facilities, and they have the financial resources to buy up excess wine from whomever is in distress whenever they want to. That means that they have a tremendous stock of wine to choose from to blend the wines for their various brands to different (and good) flavor profiles, and they have the scale to be able to do it cheaply. Read the whole article -- Franzia is an interesting character, and the story of his business is a good one.

What I find the most interesting about the article, though, are Franzia's comments about the wine industry. Consider this, for example:
He believes that the wine industry has become intoxicated by elitism, inflated prices, and its own PR about terroir--the idea that a wine is uniquely a product of the place it comes from, and by extension that some places are better than others. "Why complicate it?" asks Franzia, voice rising. "Does anybody complicate Cheerios by saying the wheat has to be grown on the side of a mountain and the terroir in North Dakota is better than Kansas and all this horse s---? You put something in your mouth and enjoy it. If you spend $100 to buy a bottle of wine, how the hell are you going to enjoy it? It's a joke. There's no wine worth that kind of money."

And this:
There's nothing unusual in this [Bronco's production techniques], but it's bold to insist that these blended wines are every bit as good as Napa wines that cost several times as much, which of course Franzia does. "I defy anyone that charges more money to let me conduct a blind tasting," he says. "He'll look like a fool with his own wine."

And this:
"California wine shouldn't be divided up into these little oligopoly appellations," he says. "They try to create a myth to keep the consumer from buying other people's wine."

A big part of me sympathizes with Franzia's argument. The fact of the matter is that the wine industry actively encourages snobbery, elitism, and consumer confusion. To a very large extent, it markets wine as a luxury item to label-obsessed yuppies. Wine shouldn't be mystifying. It is a food item, and it should be like any other food item: enjoyed for the quality of its flavors, aromas, and other properties, not for the prestige it brings the buyer. But at the same time, it's just ridiculous to say, as Franzia does, that a grape is a grape is a grape, no matter where it is grown. I'm more than willing to believe that it is possible to grow decent grapes outside of the "prestige" areas in California and that the prestige of Napa County and other big-name AVAs allows growers of crappy grapes to get paid premium prices. But grapes (and indeed, all living things) taste different depending on th environment they were raised in and the kinds of nutrients they ingested. Grass-fed beef tastes different from corn-fed beef, doesn't it? Why shouldn't grapes grown on the side of a hill in gravelly, limestone-rich soil taste different from grapes grown in a river bottom? Rejection of snobbery doesn't have to entail abandoning one's common sense.

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