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Fred Franzia largely got it right



I’m largely in agreement with Fred Franzia when he defends the Central Valley and “California”-appellated wine, as he did the other day when he presented the keynote address at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.

Fred’s affection for the Central Valley comes naturally: he runs Bronco Wine Co., whose scores of brands, including Two Buck Chuck, are based on Central Valley fruit. Fred’s point, if I understand it correctly, seems premised on two things, one explicit, the other implicit.

The explicit point is that wine production in the Central Valley could be greatly increased, offering consumers greater opportunities to buy inexpensive wine, as well as for restaurants to sell bottles for $10 each. This latter point is something Fred’s long called for.

As a diner myself, I wouldn’t mind $10 bottles of wine in restaurants, where a bottle can frequently exceed the cost of the food itself. Indeed, everyone I know who isn’t rich—and that’s most people I know—sees expensive wine as the single biggest hassle of eating out. So I’m all onboard the Fred Franzia train on this one.

Fred’s implicit point, or so it seems to me knowing the man a little and reading between the lines, is that there long has existed a certain disrespect and dismissiveness towards California-appellated wine on the part of the establishment: sommeliers, high-end restaurateurs, certain wine critics and, through trickle-down, some consumers. According to this crowd—and I think Fred is sensitive to their attitudes—if the grapes come from the Central Valley then they wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

Actually, the way I see the Central Valley is as California’s Midi. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Midi is the vast, sprawling region of southern France that produces oceans of vin de pays wine that is inexpensive and quaffable. These are the kinds of wines I personally drank and immensely enjoyed in the 1980s, when I was a broke grad student living in San Francisco. And such wines can be, as Hugh Johnson reminds us, “charming trinkets.”

I’ve long given Fred and Bronco immense credit for allowing Americans the opportunity to drink affordable wines on an everyday basis. I, personally, never turned up my critic’s nose at his brands, to which I gave dozens of “Best Buys” over my years at Wine Enthusiast. So I think Fred has the right to feel a bit of righteous indignation at what he perceives are the snubs and slams he sometimes endures.

I do differ, though, with his statement, reported in the Modesto Bee, that “’California’ should be the one and only appellation for our home-grown, best-quality wines.” That’s stretching things a bit. The best table wines in California come from the coast, where weather conditions are more compatible with the nobler varieties of vitis vinifera. Winemakers back to the Greeks and Romans understood the importance of proper terroir, and so too did the Holy Roman Emperors and the monks who planted the great vineyards of Europe. When Charlemagne noticed the snow melting early on a certain slope in Corton and ordered grapes to be planted there, he acknowledged how vital mini-terroir conditions were for wine quality. When the Duke of Burgundy banished the “very evil and very disloyal” Gamay grape from growing in his kingdom of Burgundy, he too testified to aspirations for a higher union of grape variety and local terroir. And when Andre Tchelistcheff turned to the Carneros, not Napa Valley, to grow Pinot Noir, it was because The Maestro understood that Pinot Noir had to be planted in what he called “my North Pole,” Carneros, “because it’s cooler” (a realization Louis Martini also experienced).

I just think that not all wines are created equal, and that the Central Valley does not produce wines of the quality of the coast. But I recognize that reasonable people can disagree. Still, the fact is that Fred Franzia has a knack for saying things that drive the elitists crazy, and I like him for that. The Modesto Bee article reported that, at the conclusion of his keynote, The speech drew a standing ovation…”. I suspect that was because, no matter what you say or think about Fred Franzia, the industry understands he’s been good for it. Very good.

  1. If only the Central Valley would focus more on planting the varieties that match their climate. Instead of growing Cabernet and Chardonnay in Kern County, how about studying which varieties hold their acidity and ripen slowly in a warm climate. Verdelho, Vermentino, Aglianico, Tempranillo? I don’t know the answers, but there are so many varieties grown in the warmer regions of Europe that surely there are matches. When I’ve traveled in Europe I’ve been blown away by the quality of inexpensive wines. We could do it here too!

  2. I’ve long said that Two Buck Chuck is fine as long as I don’t compare it to anything else side-by-side. (I’m being slightly kind in that, but only slightly.)

    And I still use Trader Joe’s as a standard of where most people can buy wine they will like at a good price. Same for BevMo’s nickel sale. (And hey, I recently found a half case of Edna Valley’s 2011 Paragon Vineyard Chard at the local BevMo – which I thought was long gone, so it must have been buried in the back. At $10, I don’t know a better wine value, at almost 5 years old it’s in lovely shape, and I grieve Edna’s decision to stop using that vineyard to make this chard).

    And (since somebody has to say it), economy wines are especially suitable for food.

    None of this is our day-to-day wine, though, not because we’re snobs but because the centerpiece of our dinner most nights is a wine that we find fascinating and delicious – every meal an exploration. It’s meal planning. (Last night the question was how to find something that matched Marion’s chicken tarna AND my beef shish kabob. We finally decided to “match the sauce,” which was the lightly spiced hummus and mutabal, and went with a favorite $20 dry Riesling from SLO. We love this sort of nightly adventure and discovery, and you can’t do that with any Riesling or Gewurz I’ve ever seen at Trader Joe’s.)

    So… yeah, there’s a place for all of this wine, and we probably wouldn’t have had anything resembling today’s wine market and wine culture if Mondavi and Gallo hadn’t made stuff “way back when” that they could get into the grocery stores and sell for a few bucks. Bless’em, one and all!

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