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Bronco Winery’s iconoclast Franzia dies at 79
Fred Franzia
This photo taken June 24, 2009 shows winemaker Fred Franzia talking about his newest wine from Australia during an interview in his office in Napa (AP Photo/Eric Risberg).

Fred Franzia, the Central California vintner who gained notoriety as the creator of “Two Buck Chuck” wine, died Tuesday at his home in Denair. He was 79.

Nearly 50 years ago, in 1973, then 30-year-old Franzia, along with his brother Joseph and cousin John, founded Bronco Wine Company outside of Ceres — named for the mascot of his alma mater, Santa Clara University — and built it into a powerhouse that featured vineyards, production facilities and bottling plants throughout the state.

According to Impact Databank, Bronco Wine Co. is the 13th largest wine marketer in the nation, with 2021 volume of 3.4 million cases sold.

The company released this statement Tuesday: “Bronco wine company is truly saddened by the passing of its founder and CEO Fred T. Franzia. The family asks that you respect their privacy in their time of mourning and advises that there will be a more formal announcement forthcoming.”

As first reported by Wine Industry Insight, an email was sent out to employees Tuesday morning, notifying them of the founder’s passing. In it, Franzia’s daughter Renata shared a quote from her father: “We are fighting a good fight and at the end, we all have an expiration date.”

Fred Thomas Franzia was born on May 24, 1943, in Stanislaus County, and was a member of winemaking’s first family. He was a nephew by marriage of Ernest Gallo, one of the founders of E.&J. Gallo Winery, the largest wine company on earth.

After he graduated San Jose’s Bellarmine Prep in 1961, he attended Santa Clara University. From there, he went to work for the family business, Franzia Brothers Winery.

The same year he co-founded Bronco Winery, his family sold Franzia Brothers Winery to Coca-Cola (later to be acquired by the Wine Group). He was not affiliated with Franzia Wines.

Many wines were distributed under Franzia’s flag, but the most famous was Charles Shaw, known colloquially as “Two Buck Chuck,” because of its $1.99 price point.

Franzia purchased the label in the 1990s for $27,000 after Shaw, a Stanford MBA, went bankrupt. Franzia famously told CNN Money: “We buy wineries from guys from Stanford who go bankrupt. Some real dumb - - - - s from there.”

A lifelong antagonist of the wine elite, he told the New Yorker magazine, after sales of sales of Two Buck Chuck hit 400 million bottles: “Take that and shove it, Napa.”

Franzia’s business ventures were not without controversy.

In 1994, Franzia pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud by falsely labeling grapes. Bronco Wine Company paid a $2.5 million fine, according to reports, while Franzia personally had to pay $500,000, resign his seat on the board of directors, and step down as president the company for five years. He became the chief financial officer instead.

“It didn’t matter,” he told the New Yorker. “The chairs didn’t move.”

Franzia is survived by his children, Renata, Roma, Joseph, Joe, Carlo and Giovanna, siblings Joseph, Joellen and Catherine and 14 grandchildren.

Fred Franzia 2
Fred Franzia, second from right, as a member of the Santa Clara University finance club during the 1963-64 school year.