On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the recent passing of Fred Franzia, founder of Bronco Wine Company, and famous for bringing “Two Buck Chuck” to the masses. In light of his death, the trio talk about the challenges the wine industry has with the notion of “gateway wines,” and whether those who dismiss their importance are not reflective of most people’s wine journeys.
On this Friday’s tasting, your three hosts try their own gateway wines from Red Diamond, Marques de Caceres, and Cabot. Tune in for more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: It’s the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” And today we’re going to talk about an article that really pissed Zach off.
Z: What? That is not what we are here to do. I was not really pissed off by it.
A: I thought it was a good intro.
Z: This podcast was going way better when Adam was having technical difficulties.
A: You have thoughts?
Z: I have thoughts.
A: I do too.
Z: Do I ever not? Why am I on this podcast?
J: We all have thoughts on this one.
A: So, Zach, you want to set us up on what we talked about on Friday?
Z: Sure. Well, I think what we’re talking about is a relatively recent passing in the world of wine of Fred Franzia, who was in a name that you recognize, even though it’s not the same Franzia family.
A: I always thought that it was though, always.
J: Yeah, it makes sense.
Z: For sure.
A: Well, I don’t even know if you’ve seen, but the person whose article you wrote about, I went into the comments on Instagram, and all people were like, “I only know him for slap the bag,” blah, blah blah. Not the same dude.
Z: Yeah. Fred has family connections to the Gallo family. It’s obviously really big, that broader kind of clan has had a huge influence on the American wine industry. Fred is the founder of Bronco Wine Company, which is most famous for purchasing and rebranding Charles Shaw into the Two Buck Chuck that everyone knows, and some of us love it as. And he passed away a couple of weeks ago at 79, and prompted a lot of reflecting in the world of wine about him, about Two Buck Chuck in particular, as this avatar of both this hard-to-define concept that I think we’re going to talk a little bit about of the “gateway wine,” but also a wine, and a person, that got a lot of pushback/vitriol directed at him for probably some good reasons, maybe some less good reasons, or at least reasons that I don’t share. And to address the elephant in the room, Adam is referring to an aricle by multiple-time podcast guest, Eric Asimov, that attempted to tackle some of this, and I think got at some of the things that I think are relevant here, but also I think maybe missed to me an important point in discussing the legacy. And in part, Eric was pretty dismissive of the notion that Two Buck Chuck served as a gateway wine for anyone or for very many people. A point that I think was undercut by, he didn’t actually secure a bottle and try it, which, whatever, you can talk about a thing without drinking it, but I do think that there’s an unfortunate… I think it did the piece a disservice in my opinion, but I’m not his editor. None of us are.
J: I don’t think Eric drinking it would’ve changed his opinion, I would say that.
Z: Yeah, no.
A: I think he would’ve found a way to probably even like it less.
J: Oh, that’s a good point.
A: But I think the biggest issue that I have with that article, or this idea at all, is there is this resistance in certain corners of the wine world that there is no such thing as gateway wine. And there’s this forgetfulness amongst a lot of people in wine, I think, when they get to a certain level where they’re drinking, whether it is high end Sassicaia, first-growth Bordeaux, incredible Roagna Barolo, etc., or they’re even drinking, I don’t know, Frank Cornelissen, the killer Gravner, or sh*t on the natural front that’s impossible to get. That they ever drank wines that weren’t this, and then the only way they got into wine was through other high- quality wines. And look, that may be true for someone who’s made their life as first a dining critic, and then a wine columnist at the New York Times. That could be very true. And that could also be very true for someone who gets into restaurants very early in their life. I do know people in wine, but actually, a lot of my friends who started working in restaurants at 16, 17, 18, also drank very cheap wines.
Z: That was me.
A: Yeah, and I think it’s this narrative that’s such bullsh*t. It denies the work that these other wines do for so many people. That doesn’t have to mean that you have to love those wines later in life. That doesn’t mean that you can’t say, “I won’t drink them anymore,” and we also have to admit that there are two groups of people. There are people who drink these gateway wines and never move on from them. And that’s also fine. They are going to be a drinker of these kinds of wines for the rest of their life. Maybe it’s because of the price point, maybe it’s because they like it. As we talk about often, it’s their alcohol delivery system, they’re not looking for more. But there are other people who, even in the gateway wine, discover something about wine that is special to them, that is interesting, that unlocks something and they want to know more about wine. And that was me. We’re going to talk about our gateway wines that we brought on this podcast today, but the one I didn’t bring, because I honestly just didn’t want to say not nice things because I’m sure I don’t like it anymore, was Yellowtail. But when I was in college, we drank some Yellowtail and we thought we were really fancy.
A: It was a gateway wine. I learned about Shiraz. They did educate me. I don’t appreciate that this is always the narrative, and then you go to Instagram and people posting the article and it’s the typical people you would always see posting the article about, “Oh, Two Buck Chuck is so gross,” and blah, blah blah. And yeah, we can all agree it probably wasn’t a very good wine for those of us who are now… We have more advanced palates because we’ve drank more. But I do think it was a gateway wine for a lot of people. And that doesn’t mean that you can’t be critical of probably their farming practices, and all the things that I think he got right.
J: Yeah. But I also think that’s kind of my issue with it, which is that he’s blaming the fact that maybe all of these questions, these wines are made without regard for the environment and the workers, blah blah blah. But that’s not only just cheap wines, that’s plenty of wine, across all wine, and to criticize… I think it seems like he has more of an issue with Franzia’s approach, which seemed pretty-
J: Sure, that’s a good word.
A: Lots of bravado, right?
J: Yeah, but to pinpoint this end and use that as the reason felt a little unfair to me.
Z: Yeah, and I think you’re right very much that the good parts of that piece and the very fair things to criticize are that a lot of the methodology and production approach to Charles Shaw and other wines in the Bronco Wine portfolio is not something that a lot of people would choose to support in agriculture if they thought about it a lot. And wine, because the process of getting from grape to bottle is a little bit opaque, and people don’t think about it a lot, there’s a lot of people who shop and buy these wines who would maybe not buy non-organic grapes, say, and that’s a fair contradiction to point out. I think that the problem that I have — and it’s one that you both have talked about some, but I want to add another piece to it — is that Fred Franzia was very upfront about believing that there should be wine made in America that every American could afford to drink. And I think there’s actually a lot of nobility in that. Now, look, again, some of the long-term cost of that is unfortunate, and I think we can have a conversation about whether that is an actual valid pursuit, and how to do it, especially from a modern lens. But at a time when the company was started in the 1970s, the idea that you could have the equivalent of table wine in Europe here in the United States, that someone could make a real point to have wine available across the country that was very inexpensive, and at a price point that, again, virtually everyone could afford. Most people could afford to have wine every night if they wanted to; that I think is something that a lot of the people who criticize the company, criticize Fred, and criticize similar wines are really missing. Which is that yes, some significant portion of those drinkers will never move on from, whether it’s Charles Shaw, Franzia in a box, other inexpensive wines that are grocery store wines or whatever. And that’s maybe something to be saddened about. Maybe it would be nice if those people would consider looking at more distinctive wines, maybe spending a little more money. But some people can’t or don’t want to, and that’s okay. But again, to Adam’s point, I think it’s silly to say that for a lot of people, the experience, the practice of drinking very inexpensive wine regularly when you’re young absolutely transitions into drinking more interesting, nicer, more distinctive wine as you get older, because at some point, you either want to try something new or you have the opportunity to taste things. Maybe you make friends who are more interested in wine, or you go on a trip and you try wine somewhere else, or you go to a restaurant and you try a wine outside of your comfort zone, you realize, “Oh, I actually like this too,” and getting people into the practice of drinking wine regularly, of demystifying wine, and taking it out of this place where it’s only something that has to be accompanied with a lot of ceremony, and snobbery, and putting it in a place where people can enjoy it in the way that they want to and with regularity, I think absolutely does help create a more vibrant wine market that over time has shown tremendous benefits. Americans drink more wine and more varied wine than they ever used to. I don’t think you can credit Two Buck Chuck for that in any significant way, but certainly played some kind of role.
J: Yeah, I agree. And isn’t it nice that people can continue to drink this while also having so many other options? You don’t have to drink Two Buck Chuck anymore. There’s so much else available to you, but you can if you want to, and I think for a lot of people, yes, it was the entry point for drinking wine because it was affordable and not awful.
A: My mind is so jumbled by this idea that the snobs in wine continue to put out that… We have to talk about what is actually gateway wine. And to me, gateway wine is wine that causes you to want to explore and continue to drink. It’s a wine you probably drink a few times at least to get to know, even if you like wine in the first place. I think what they define gateway wine as is, it’s the first time I drank Chateau Montelena. That’s great. I’m glad that you got to do that at a young age. Most people don’t. And also, if you only drank it once, it wasn’t your gateway wine. It’s a bottle you’ll never forget for sure. But it’s not like your gateway. That’s not what we’re talking about here. So, the only people for whom bottles of, I don’t know, Dujac, or whatever were like that they drank on the reg were their gateways are people that were born motherf*cking rich. I’m sorry. You have a silver spoon, and your parents had a cellar, you got to drink incredible bottles of wine, and that’s great. There are people who also grow up in money, and have a really bad handbag addiction, or watch addiction, or things like that very early on in life as well because they’re accustomed to the finer things much younger, but most people don’t. And so I think to say this doesn’t exist, I think that’s more of what I have an issue with. It’s not just that they’re angry that they think Franzia was a kind of annoying dude, and that Two Buck Chuck is crap. I actually don’t care. If we’re just going to say Two Buck Chuck is crap, we can have that argument all day, of what its positives and the negatives are as a wine. Part of what is said is that the reason they won’t defend it, they won’t give it any credence is because there is no such thing as gateway wines, or that these wines are not gateway wines. And that is just not true. The largest wine company in the world would not have as their tagline that their mission is to win new friends to wine if they didn’t have the data to support that their brands bring more people into the category than any other brands. You know what I’m saying? It’s just ridiculous that we can’t just all admit that it’s a positive for the entire industry to get people to drink more wine. And if we can’t admit that, then that is why wine will ultimately lose out to other alcoholic beverages.
Z: Well, and I think you make a really good point, which is that I think you don’t see the same infighting in other drinks categories. To some extent you do, but I think you even see a lot of, say, brewers, right, craft brewers or whatever, who look at macro-lagers and say, “Okay, maybe that’s not what we want to drink,” although some of them do drink it from time to time, and even maybe celebrate it. But they also recognize that a person who’s a beer drinker is a person who they can convert to craft beer. It’s not that hard to convince someone who likes to drink beer that, in fact, actually what they should do is trade in that can of Bud Light for a lager made at their local craft brewery, or get them something that a macro brewery is generally not producing these days, like an IPA or something. And similarly, I think with spirits, if you’re a high-end whiskey producer, you’re not going to necessarily sh*t-talk Jack Daniels because you recognize that if that gets someone to drink whiskey, then all you have to do is put them side by side and say, “Look, we think ours is better. Do you agree?”, and if people agree, and they have the means to, and they care to, they might well make your bourbon their new go-to. Or they might pick up a bottle too, and sometimes on a special occasion they’re going to want to drink that bourbon instead of the bourbon they drink regularly. And yet, wine seems convinced that it cannot win that head-to-head comparison. And I actually think that’s because in some ways the challenge that some segments of the fine wine — or however you want to describe it — category has is they are selling something that is very hard to define, and sometimes almost impossible to define. And it’s a virtue in, let’s say, we’ll be generous and call it, “Subtlety.” And look, listeners know I have worked as a wine professional for a long time. I drank a lot of wine. I’ve had a lot of very nice bottles of wine, some of which I’ve paid for, some of which have been given to me, or poured for me, or whatever. And it’s certainly true that some of the most exciting and memorable experiences of wine I’ve had have been expensive wines, but not all of them. Some of the best and most memorable bottles of wine I’ve had have been shockingly affordable. But what is the hard part for wine is that it in some ways is trying to make this kind of argument against the widely available mass-produced wines is trying to convince people that they need to switch categories even when they’re not switching categories.
J: Yeah. It’s an identity thing and a morality thing.
Z: Yeah, and that piece of it, the morality piece, I think Joanna, is so crucial because if a winemaker or even advocates within the industry said, “Okay, our job is to convince people who like to drink wine that what they should drink is these other wines, and let’s do it by telling them that these wines taste better,” not moralizing at them, not guilting them into it. Those can be effective tools for some people, but it just feeds into the notion of wine and wine enthusiasts and wine professionals as snobs, as frankly, holier than thou, to approach it solely from that angle. And instead of saying, “I believe that if we put these two things side by side, ours is better, and I can tell you why,” and that is a challenge that beer takes up, that craft spirits takes up. Again, we can disagree on how effectively they do that, but they generally are more than willing to stack their product up against the market leader. And wine? I don’t know if that’s quite the same thing that a lot of winemakers are willing to do.
A: No, they’re not.
J: Yeah, there’s chastising and there’s shame associated with it too, I think.
A: Yeah, and I think it’s that exact attitude that causes, I think, a lot of people who choose these quote unquote, gateway wines, to never trade up because they’re like, “Well, I don’t want to be a part of this attitude. I don’t want to be made to feel like-”
J: Well, it feels like you can’t be a part. You can’t.
A: Or when I tell the person, “Well, what wines do you drink?” “Well, I really enjoy drinking, I don’t know, Cabot.”
Z: “I like drinking Charles Shaw.”
Z: Let’s just say what it is.
A: Right, that all of a sudden like, “Oh, I don’t think we have anything for you here.” No, you can. And I think that that’s what says, “Okay, fine, then I just like this,” and I do think that Two Buck Chuck, and probably the Trader Joe’s Wine Shop as a whole, has probably done more for bringing new people into the wine category than a lot of other people, including the person who wrote that article.
J: And I’m sorry, also a younger generation of people, which we know is a problem area for wine.
A: It is.
Z: Yeah, I think this is a good point too, and I think we should get to what we’re tasting. But I think there’s also a lot of dismissiveness towards the price point. And look, again, like I said, to come back to this question about the ethics and whatever of making wine so inexpensively that you can sell it for $2 or $3 or $4 a bottle. Those are valid comments, and I think there’s something to be said there. But I think there is this sort of attitude that I don’t love of people in the wine industry who are like, “But for only $20,” and for some people to jump between $4 for a bottle of wine and $20 for a bottle of wine isn’t insignificant. Now, I think all three of us are fortunate that that is not the case for us at this point in our lives, but for a lot of people, it may be that case forever. And for a lot of young people, it’s that case early in their drinking life. And what they might say that a $20 bottle of wine, that’s a luxury for them. That’s something they might indulge in from time to time, but if they want to be a regular wine drinker, they want to drink wine, maybe not every single day, although maybe they do, but maybe they want to drink wine three, four, five nights a week, the only way they’re going to be able to do that is with wine that is $4, $5, $6 a bottle. And if we say to those people, “Well, f*ck you. You suck. There’s no wine for you,” or, “You’re not a real wine drinker because you won’t pony up $20 a bottle or more,” we’re just, again, those people are going to move on to something else. They already are fast enough. The wine industry does not need to encourage them to leave wine alone.
A: Yeah, and I think, look, this idea of this magic price that exists around $20 is true to an extent, but there’s a lot of also bad wine at $20. And people have to get there. They have to get there, and then be willing to… If you’re trying to get someone there immediately, even for someone who might have the means, that’s a decent risk to take multiple times a week if you like to drink wine, as opposed to anything else, until you really feel comfortable experimenting and talking to your wine merchant, and going to a place that sells great wine, and talking to the somm. All those things come with getting more comfortable with wine, and that’s not something that people are easily going to do, and just easily take that risk every single week until it’s been proven to them that it is better. It’s not going to take us just writing about it in an article over and over and over again. You also have to go out there and experience it. And so, some of these other wines that are more affordable, and the wines we’re going to talk about that were gateway wines for us, are really helpful in doing that.
A: And with that, let’s drink something. So, each of us brought a gateway wine. So, wine that we drank really early in our lives, when we were of legal drinking age, that helped us recognize that we really enjoyed wine. And then, we grew from there. Come on now, now we’re at VinePair. Whoa. But I’m curious, Zach, what is your gateway wine?
Z: So, I went and got a bottle of Red Diamond Merlot, which is a Washington Merlot made under the auspices of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the largest wine company here in the state. And I drank a lot of this wine when I was 22. I moved back to Seattle, and my roommate at the time was a big fan of this wine too, and we went through plenty of bottles of it. And I am actually really interested to taste it again because I have not drank it probably in a decade. So, here we go. What do you guys have?
A: Basically freshman, not freshman year, first year out of college, but senior year of college, I graduated from the Yellowtail I was talking about to the $8 Marques de Caceres Rioja Crianza. And it was basically because Josh, who was my roommate and my co-founder of VinePair, had studied abroad in Spain, and he had gotten into Rioja, and this was a really affordable one we found, and it was the first one that I was like, “Oh, this is really fine wine. This is a lot better than the Two Buck Chuck we were drinking and the Yellowtail. This is fine wine,” and it was $8. And so, it was really easy for me to feel like I was drinking something fancier and higher-end than, I don’t know, something with a kangaroo on the label. And yeah, then I got the bug from there of wanting to try other wines. But this one was a great one and I’m curious to see if I still love it. I haven’t had it for a really long time. Joanna?
J: Well, speaking of Cabot, I have Cabot Pinot Grigio. Growing up, we always had table wine. My grandparents always had that. My parents too. So really, my first foray into wine was having spritzers, or yeah, wine spritzers, I guess. They would let me drink that when I was little. We called it a grandma’s cocktail. And then as I got older, this was the wine that was always at my parents’ house. Honestly, it still is. It’s just a very basic Pinot Grigio. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s very bad, but it’s definitely not-
A: It’s very solid.
J: It’s not very complex. It’s not going to challenge your palate, but it was something that… I would have wine often enough and it made me curious about wine to go and explore on my own as I was out.
Z: And that’s what good gateway wines do, right? They both make drinking wine something that seems regular and familiar, and they give you just enough to make you interested to see what else is out there.
A: Yeah, this, I’m smelling it right now. There’s some herbs here. There’s definitely some bright red fruit. It’s sort of plush. Look, the term I would’ve used for it when I was just learning to drink wine, I’d say this was very smooth. But it has acidity, right? It’s not overly oaked, and it’s just really flavorful. And I think that’s what I had to have to really get into what made wine special and then want to try other wines. And that’s a gateway wine.
Z: Exactly. All right, I’m going to try mine. Let’s see. Here it is. It is, as I remember, it’s very… Speaking of smooth. It is very smooth. A lot of ripe fruit, some chocolaty vanilla notes. Unlike yours, it definitely has some oak quality to it, or at least the flavors that I would associate with oak. But yeah, just very smooth. A lot of richness. Not much tannin, not much acidity. I can see why 22-year-old me really liked this wine. It was like what I envisioned red wine tasted like, and drinking red wine seemed like a very grown-up thing to do, which is why I liked doing it.
A: Yeah. I feel you. Well, this was really fun. We’d love to know what your gateway wines were. So, hit us up at [email protected]. Let us know if you agree or disagree with the idea of gateway wines, and if you agree, let us know what they were. We’d love to hear from you. And Zach and Joanna, I’ll see you back here on Monday, cool?
J: Have a great weekend.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.