NYT: Asimov on Fred Franzia

Two-Buck Chuck: Wine of the People or Cultural Wedge? https://nyti.ms/3dGImkW

Some strong opinions by Asimov. Appears to be one of the most commented-on columns of his.


Two-Buck Chuck did not damage American wine culture. But Mr. Franzia relentlessly told American wine drinkers that no wine could possibly be worth more than $10. “Elites,” he argued, were trying to brainwash people with all their talk about terroir and nuances.

His message not only promoted his own company’s products, it also destroyed the notion that any wine could be better.

One might accept Mr. Franzia as a jovial huckster, promoting a message so obviously exaggerated that nobody would take him seriously. But many people believed him.

Mr. Franzia liked to say that Two-Buck Chuck was the People’s Wine, but in his hand it was a crowbar, used to divide wine drinkers.

At least, by keeping the “group” out fine wine, he’s relieved demand-based upward price pressure on the wines we love.

Seriously, it seems to me that the biggest divider between “them” and “us” is the fetishization of wine, which keeps a lot of people on the sidelines

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I don’t think Franzia created any divide. He just took advantage by basing his marketing on a message that a lot of people wanted to hear.

As far as his argument about starter bottles, at one point when I was an impoverished graduate student I was buying wine in a box, 4L for $3.99 or something (probably Bronco). After a few boxes, I realized that I liked having wine around but I was pretty sure I could do better and I moved on.


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Franzia, to me, simply took advantage f\of a flaw in the wine industry and carved out his niche. Big deal. Did his over-the-top wailing about ‘elitism’, etc. deeply impact the industry? Doubtful to me.

I somewhat disagree with the article’ stance on starter wine. I understand his point, but I think the wine industry is served well anytime people become regular wine drinkers. Some of these folks will continue to be wine drinkers for life and some of them will invariably move up the wine chain, even if it is only to the $10-20 range. And some of them will continue upwards from there. How can this be bad for the industry?

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Remind me not to have Eric pen my epitaph!


I disagree with Asimov’s take on this one.
Franzia helped introduce a lot of folks to wine, and he offered them a relatively drinkable wine in nice packaging. In his final years, Charles Shaw introduced a line of organic wines.
How did he wield a crowbar that divided drinkers?
I couldn’t follow the reasoning this time.
Personally, I consider Franzia a folk hero of sorts. Gonna be tough to disabuse me of this notion.
I mean, shall we say the same about Bill Harlan? Is he dividing consumers by only making wines for the upper classes?

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So far, nobody has mentioned that Fred Franzia was a convicted criminal,

Although I could make the case that it was a victimless crime.

Dan Kravitz

Yeah, was wondering if someone would bring that up. Hardly victimless. His company mislabeled 5,000 tons of Grenache and Colombard as higher-priced zinfandel. That’s unfair competition against other winemakers, even if it was white zin.

Both the LA Times and WE write up’s touched on it. Perhaps Asimov was alluding to it with his “huckster” label.

Thanks to Jeff Hood for correcting me. It was not a victimless crime. Even if consumers were not victimized, competing growers and producers were.

Dan Kravitz

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But, unless the fraud was caught before it was instigated, the consumers were victims. The victim of a fraud is the person who is defrauded. Mislabeling a wine as something other and more costly than it is is no different than selling a false diamond as a real one (though, of course, much less money is involved). Even if the person who buys the paste never learns the truth, he or she has been defrauded and thus is a victim. This would be equally true of labeling Columbard and Grenache as higher priced zinfandel (even if no one could tell the difference, and, even if, as is the case to my mind, Grenache makes better wine than zinfandel, and certainly than white zinfandel).

If one adds up all the costs associated with two buck chuck it seems clear that more is spent on packaging and transport than on grapes…by a considerable margin. Speaking of the word margin, what were the profit margins on the wine? For Trader Joe’s it was more of a loss leader designed to pull people into the store. Originally FF had wines that sold for between $5 and $10, much more profitable.

What FF did was to put what used to go into jugs into a cork finished 750 ml bottle. Geezers like me remember Red Mountain ($1.99 a gallon for a product that did not have the word wine on the label) and Hearty Burgundy, which was kinda fancy…around $3 for a half gallon.

It could be said that Two Buck Chuck showed how many could not tell the difference between cheap wine and the finer stuff.

I keep thinking of the billion empty bottles, most now unrecycled and in a dump somewhere.

I think Red Mountain does have the word wine on it now, but my memory of the 60s says it did not back then.
Then again, as the saying goes, people who can remember the '60s weren’t there.

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Given the quantities I see people buy of 2BC, that would seem like a good candidate for ‘Wine in a Bag’ packaging, no?



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It’s interesting to think about “hucksterism” in wine. Yes, indeed, misidentifying grape varieties is misleading. A number of producers in CA who bought Mourvedre only to find out later that it was Graciano, took a long time to re-label it properly on their labels. Some still haven’t.

And then consider some of the high end, purist Pinot producers who are making low alcohol Cali Pinots for top dollar, never informing their customers that they’re chaptalizing their wines (which is also illegal in the US, never mind misleading). The irony is especially rich here, since these are the same guys who talk a big talk about wines of terroir (even though they appear to be afraid of the Cali sunshine) and purity, minimal intervention, blah, blah, blah. They play their customers for fools.

And the many folks who claim to farm sustainably but fall on conventional means when they need to protect their vineyard. They talk a big talk about sustainability.

If we’re going to address hucksterism in wine, it can’t all be directed at Fred Franzia for heaven’s sake.

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Are you defrauded if you are sold a product that is mislabeled as something that would be cheaper but that is of higher quality?

This may be more of a philosophical than legal question. Please feel free to give different answers based on either philosophy or law.

Dan Kravitz

I think we can agree that when it comes to wine, there is very little agreement when it comes to perception of taste, quality, and value. You’re only promised what’s on the label: grape, vintage, ~ABV, AVA/DOGC, and so on. This is why labeling laws exist.

So yes, if you knowingly sell something that goes against what’s on the label, it’s fraud.

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I don’t see that this is relevant here. If giving false information on a label did not provide an illegal economic benefit, Franzia wouldn’t have engaged in the practice. I suppose that to defraud, you must have the intention of making illegal gain. Thus selliing a diamond necklace for a tenth of its worth by claiming it was paste would be an odd thing to do (maybe the jeweler found the customer a heart throb?), but I don’t know how actionable it would be. Again, that has nothing to do with calling Franzia’s crime victimless.

I’m sorry, but this is classic you tooism. Franzia was caught engaging in fraud of a fairly large magnitude. If any petty theft excuses all theft, we should stop prosecuting bank robbers.