Fred Franzia was born into a winemaking family, related by marriage to the Gallos, and a lifelong friend to the Mondavis. He probably could have had his choice of jobs in an industry that lionizes producers of small-distribution, high-priced “cult” wines. Instead, he started Bronco Wine Company and promptly made a mint buying decent-quality surplus wine from producers and then selling it under his own label for cheap. The patron saint of Wineaux everywhere, Franzia has publicly denounced high-end wine retailers as “greedy bastards.”
In some ways, his story hinges on the story of Chardonnay. The 1980s were the varietal’s Golden Age — a time when the heavily oaked California version became a must-drink symbol of urban sophistication. But that led to widespread overplanting, and Bronco’s chief took advantage of the glut. Fast-forward two decades, to when the 2005 vintage of Bronco’s $2 Charles Shaw was judged best Chardonnay in the state at the California State Fair, besting many cult wines Franzia would likely disparage.
To bring “Two-Buck Chuck” back to its populist roots, we thought we’d put it to the test against a wine named Franzia. That’d be Franzia Vintner Select Chardonnay ($9.98 for five liters), a boxed wine to which Franzia has no connection due to the sale of his family’s business in the ’70s. Two other boxed wines nicely rounded out our blind tasting.
In a big upset, the winner was Peter Vella Family Reserve nonvintage Chardonnay ($11.99 for a five-liter box, equivalent to about $1.80 a bottle). This was the favorite of our Token Winemaker, who found it classically Chardlike, full and citrusy. Indie Editor liked it too, calling it drinkable and smooth. Another returning taster, Conscious Nonbeliever, imagined it with fish or spicy fowl.
Coming in a distant second was my favorite, the 2005 Trove California Chardonnay ($15.99 for three liters, or roughly $4 a bottle). I loved the mix of butter, caramel, and lemon in the aroma and taste, as well as its pleasantly bitter aftertaste, and imagined drinking it on its own or with grilled fish. Not everyone was a fan — one taster called it “the PBR of white wine.”
A notch behind the Trove was the 2006 Charles Shaw ($1.99). I found the Chuck totally lacking in aroma, with no discernible flaws but nothing to recommend it either. Indie Editor called it a “stereotypical cheap Cali Chardonnay,” and only Arkie Editor said she would buy it again.
Still, we saved the real venom for the Franzia Vintner Select Chardonnay. “Wine-flavored water,” groused our gracious host. He was seconded by our Token Winemaker and Conscious Nonbeliever, who chimed in with “acid lemon water” and “pee.”
Overall, not a great day to be named Franzia — but an even worse one to be a greedy bastard.