The VICE Channels

The History of Franzia

Sep 8 2015 3:00 PM
The History of Franzia

Image by Kat Aileen

What your Sunset Blush lacks in tannins, it makes up for in a century of family feuds, mob ties, and murder.

Sunset Blush. Chillable Red. Crisp White. They fuel power hours the world over, make book clubs passably tolerable, and are, according to their maker, "The world's most popular" wines. The looping slosh that appears on the side of a Franzia box is the universally recognizable Nike swoosh of the alcoholic beverage world, telegraphing an irresistible down-market joie de vivre to those who prefer not to sully their drinking experience with corks or tannins.

Proudly easy-drinking and readily available—even the wine snobs at your local Walgreens sell it—Franzia did $325 million worth of business in the US in the last year, and in 2012, the Wine Group, the privately-held maker of Franzia, saw sales of $1 billion. The wine has solidified its place in the culture by playing muse to more than one wildly popular drinking game. Slap Bag—denude the wine pouch of its box, slap it, then chug from the famous Franzia wine nozzle for as long as possible—is played by everyone from GoPro-wearing tailgaters at the Cotton Bowl to smoke shop employees vacationing at Bonnaroo. Tour de Franzia—players attempt to chug boxes of wine while competing in physical challenges tangentially related to the Tour de France—earned quite a reputation when it was implicated as the real culprit in the infamous University of Tennessee butt-chugging affair, and a couple of years ago, the normally down-for-whatever powers that be at Wesleyan got uncharacteristically narc-y in their efforts to curb student participation in the game.

But although the boxed wine finds itself at an elevated place in our society, few of its drinkers know the story of arranged marriages, mob ties, and murder that links Franzia and other top-selling, cheap wines together in a realpolitik rendition of the American Dream. European viticulturists spin histories of ancient terroir and of happy monks tasting and bottling the stars, but American wine has more of a down-and-dirty legacy.

Read More: The History of Lesbian Bars

At the center are the Franzia and Gallo families, responsible for many of the county's most popular wine brands: Barefoot, André "champagne," Carlo Rossi, Cupcake, Flipflop, Charles Shaw (Trader Joe's "Two Buck Chuck"), and, of course, "the world's most popular wine." Although these reds, whites, and rosés are ubiquitous in both dorm rooms and family rooms, America has one woman in particular to thank for its Solo cup and straight-from-the-jug consumption.

Prohibition, Al Capone, and "Dago Red"

When Teresa Carrara was 21, she accepted a marriage proposal intended for another woman. It was a bold move by any standard, but this one also involved a transatlantic boat trip.

Newly-minted Californian Giuseppe Franzia, 29, had written home to his village just outside Genoa, Italy. It was 1900, he'd saved some money working as a vegetable seller, he was ready to get hitched, and he had just the woman in mind.

Unfortunately, the woman in mind felt she had been lowballed in the betrothal offer—$100 to pay for her passage to San Francisco. But the whole thing sounded alright to 21-year-old Teresa, who was from the same village. From the beginning, she knew a good deal when she saw one. Teresa wrote back to Giuseppe to tell him that she would come instead.

Carrara arrived in California on July 4, 1900, and three days later became Mrs. Giuseppe Franzia—though the pair had to bribe a priest to let them skip the three-week period typically required for a Catholic wedding announcement to be publicized. After the nuptials, they headed straight for the fields of California's Central Valley.

In the first decade of the 20th century, over two million Italians came to the US, and while a preponderance of them stayed on the East Coast, quite a few ventured west, many ending up in tight-knit California agricultural communities. In 1906, Teresa and Giuseppe bought a ranch in Ripon, a little over an hour's drive east of San Francisco, and they grew grapes, as many Italian families did. Teresa, who stood only about 4'10'', was by all accounts a force of nature. She worked in the fields, helped lay bricks for what would become the Franzia winery facilities, and had eight children. According to family lore, she gave birth to one of them while in the fields, then went right back to work; because the Franzias were too hard up to buy a crib, the babies slept in dresser drawers lined with blankets.

Ernest married me for my family's winery. When he couldn't get that, he put them out of business.

Ironically, the family's business would flourish during Prohibition, when Americans—particularly Italian Americans—were thirsty for wine. The constitutional ban on selling, making, importing, and transporting alcohol from 1920 to 1933 wasn't total, however; individuals could legally produce up to 200 gallons for private consumption. California vineyards shipped vast quantities of grapes back east, where they were ostensibly sold for the purpose of homemade wine, and an estimated 90 million gallons of noncommercial wine were produced from California grapes each year during the period between 1927 and 1929. A 1951 survey from the University of California Press estimated that during the Prohibition era, per capita consumption of wine in the US actually went up.

Chicago, ever a commodities market darling, was the center of this cross-continental grape trade—the city was also the fiefdom of Al Capone. Grape sellers were inevitably forced to deal with the gangster, whose bootlegging operation was vast and lucrative (he's estimated to have been worth $100 million in 1927). Capone would often place large orders from the expected California crop and, upon their arrival in the city, would intimidate growers into lowering their prices. Grapes being a perishable good, the California businessmen found themselves backed into a corner.

Scarface's grapes went to a network of home winemakers who produced large quantities of product—known as "Dago Red," after the ethnic slur for people of Italian descent—for distribution. The wine fermented and bottled in tenement homes was syrupy and sweet, made from grapes with a thicker skin that traveled better but produced a less-than-nuanced flavor. Capone himself was said to always have a bottle of Dago Red on hand, which he served to his guests alongside top-shelf liquor smuggled in from Canada.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Betting the Farm and Marrying for Money

When Prohibition ended in 1933, Teresa sensed the need for a big change. While her husband was away on a trip to Italy, she mortgaged their ranch for $10,000 and started the Franzia Brothers Winery. Around the same time, she made another decision that would have lasting effects on the world of American wine—Teresa decided to give $5,000 to her son-in-law, Ernest Gallo, so that he too could start his own winery.

"She provided the seed money for Gallo, which probably does 40 percent of the wine business in the US; for our company, which does about 15 percent of the wine business in the US; and then her grandsons—yes, grandsons: Fred and Joe and John—started the Bronco Winery, which probably does another five percent of the business in the US," Arthur Ciocca, former CEO of the Wine Group, remarked in a 1999 oral history project on the California wine industry for the University of California at Berkeley. "[She's responsible for] more than half of the wine business [in the US]."

Around 1930, Ernest Gallo, a young and ambitious grape grower and distributor, had taken an interest in one of the Franzia children, Amelia. In his 2010 book Gallo Be Thy Name, Jerome Tuccille intimates that the young man's interest might have been more than just romantic. The Italian grape-growing community was a small one, and Ernest, who had a stormy relationship with his father Joe, was incensed that as he came of age, he had not been made a full partner in the family business as the Franzia brothers had. "Ernest suddenly took an interest in 19-year-old Amelia Franzia...in an effort to gain a foothold into her father's winery," Tuccille writes. Ellen Hawkes, in her comprehensive (unauthorized) 1993 history of the Gallo family's wine empire, Blood and Wine, describes Amelia as an unremarkable-looking girl who "couldn't be called pretty" but who was "good-natured and loyal." Giuseppe Franzia himself was skeptical of Gallo's intentions, but regardless, the couple was married on August 23, 1931. Photographs from the day show Ernest posing with his brothers Julio and Joe Jr., in matching suits and white fedoras, their chests puffed out, unsmiling, the perfect mimics of Chicago toughs.

It seems that Amelia might have been onto her new husband's motives. Years later, Hawkes recounts, Amelia would remark, "Ernest married me for my family's winery. When he couldn't get that, he put them out of business."

To us in the East Bay, Mike Gallo was as notorious and powerful as Al Capone in Chicago.

The Bad Boys of the East Bay

Later, once he had grown wildly wealthy, Ernest would be referred to as a tyrant, but even at a young age, he had a reputation for his Machiavellian instincts, born in part from his hardscrabble, unhappy childhood—the Gallos were trouble personified.

Ernest's father, Giuseppe Gallo—later called Joe—came to the US by way of Venezuela from northwest Italy around the turn of the century. He and his brother Mike settled in California, where they soon realized there was a market for buying sweet homemade wine in bulk and selling it to saloons that catered to the Italian immigrant population. As Hawkes recounts, Mike had gotten a little cash from a scam that he ran with a girlfriend—she would lure men to her hotel room and he would rob them—so there was money to start a business. By 1906, the Gallo Wine Company was established in Oakland.

The brothers soon took a liking the Bianco sisters—Susie and Celia—whose parents owned a winery. As his son would later see a business opportunity in marrying Amelia Franzia, so did Joe cotton on to the idea of a life with Susie Bianco. Her father, who was wary of the Gallo brothers' shady reputation, did not approve when the couple married in 1908. Surely Papa Bianco's heart broke all the more when Mike married Celia the following year.

He was right to be skeptical—Joe Gallo was a brutal husband. Soon after the wedding, he began beating Susie, who was pregnant with their first child, Ernest, born March 18, 1909. According to divorce papers filed by Susie in 1910, Joe called the farm girl a "bitch" and a "whore" and "beat her with his fists until her arms and breasts were black and blue." Sometimes he used a club. But the divorce idea didn't stick, and on March 21, 1910, Susie gave birth to another son, Julio Gallo. A third, Joseph, would be born in 1919.

The looming threat of Prohibition led Joe to sell the wine distribution business in 1918 and move the Gallo family out to a farm in Antioch, California, where they attempted to grow grapes. Things did not go well—Joe wasn't much of a farmer, though he did have a knack for task mastery. Ernest and Julio worked the fields from a young age and were beaten by Joe with a leather strap if he was displeased with their efforts.

During Prohibition, Joe Gallo was also bootlegging with his brother Mike, a livelihood many California grape growers turned to at the time. There was a still for making brandy that the little boys tended, and sometimes Ernest and Julio went on delivery runs with their father. The operation was raided once by authorities in 1922, but Mike had connections in the police department—he'd served time in San Quentin for larceny but snitched on dozens of dirty cops he had been bribing—and made the charges disappear.

"To us in the East Bay, Mike Gallo was as notorious and powerful as Al Capone in Chicago," the son of a saloon owner recalled later. After the raid, the family moved to a new farm in Escalon, where "Joe soon had a reputation for producing good reliable wine," Hawkes writes. Ernest and Julio Gallo would later deny that their father had made any illegal wines, but their younger brother Joe—the older two brothers would go on to sue him for trademark infringement—recalled otherwise.

As an older teenager, Ernest took time off from school to go to Chicago to sell the family grapes—he once delivered an order directly to Al Capone's haunt at the Lexington Hotel. He was an integral part of the business operation and wanted recognition; at around this time, his relationship with his father soured irrevocably. Sometime in the spring of 1930, Ernest, Julio, and their father got into an argument about the business that took a terrifying turn, one that would foreshadow more tragedy ahead.

A friend who witnessed the exchange would later recount that Susie, hearing the fight between her husband and sons, called for calm. Joe, who had been shooting rabbits in the fields and was holding a shotgun, turned it on her and screamed, "Not another word or I'll kill you," walking towards his wife with the loaded weapon. She ran, and soon Joe was in hot pursuit, wheeling the weapon around on Ernest and Julio when they tried to stop him. The boys left home after that, while their mother and younger brother stayed on the farm.

She Died Feeding the Hogs

Towards the end of Prohibition, California winemakers began to advocate for certain changes in regulation that would drastically alter their business structure and possibly put their lives at risk—they wanted to ship juice.

In 1929 they got their wish when the federal government overrode stipulations in the Volstead Act—the era's defining policy—that outlawed selling grape juice concentrate. This was good news for California farmers, but bad news for the Chicago mob. One key ingredient to bootlegged wine was the syrupy juice derived from grapes—grapes that Capone's network had, until the law was overturned, controlled.

The gangster was enraged and issued death threats again certain growers and shippers. The problem was big enough that the FBI decided to investigate, and Joe Gallo was on a list of grape shippers to be interviewed by authorities.

Over the next couple of years the Gallos would have problems: Mike's large-scale bootlegging operation was raided and he faced charges, while Joe seemed increasingly worried about the direction of his business. In March of 1932, he suddenly bought a ranch in Fresno, California, and moved there from the Modesto area with Susie but left their elementary school-age son in the care of the older brothers, Ernest and Julio. It was almost as if, Hawkes writes, "they were going underground," especially since the new house was essentially a shack compared to their well-appointed home of many years—despite setbacks, the Gallos had certainly come up in the world.

The summer of 1933 changed everything.

A farm hand would later describe coming upon the pool of blood on the morning of June 21—Susie lay facedown in it, dead. A bullet had ripped through the straw sunhat she was wearing and into the back of her head; the papers would all note that she had died feeding the hogs. Joe's body was later found sprawled out in the dining room, a Smith & Wesson revolver on the floor nearby. Joe was 50 at the time of his death; Susie was 46.

Read More: Kicking the Bros Out of Brewing

News of the murder spread quickly; the evening edition of the June 21 Fresno Bee led with a striking above-the-fold headline: "Fresno Farmer and Wife Victims of Murder and Suicide: Joseph Gallo Believed to Have Taken Own Life After Slaying Wife As She Fed Pigs; No Motive for Act Found By Officers."

No suicide note was ever found, though details of the crime scene filled the papers. While the official determination would be that Joe had killed both his wife and himself, the circumstances of the deaths were the subject of much speculation for many in the area. Reports had noted an odd detail, that the Gallos had placed a $60 check to the tax collector in the mail that morning—why would a man who was in such a state of suicidal duress have thought to follow through on such a mundane task? Then there were the death threats from Chicago that had hovered heavily in the Valley air. Hawkes also notes that one of the investigating officers on the Gallo case would remark for years afterward on his doubts about the official cause of death. He was trained in the fingerprint forensics of the time and "asked why the print on the grip of the gun was only a portion of a palm, too smudged to be identified, while Joe Gallo's fingerprints were found on its barrel."

Local residents would later suggest that the police had done a less-than-thorough job in their investigation. For Gallo Be Thy Name, Tuccille interviewed Gene Brengetto, a neighbor boy of the Gallos whose father, Peter, had also come upon the bodies that morning. The elder Brengetto discovered that the family dogs had been shot, which was not mentioned in the official police report. "My father always wondered why he was never called to give his own testimony," Brengetto told Tuccille. "And he also wondered why Joe Gallo would have shot his own dogs before he murdered his wife and committed suicide." Could the dogs have been killed by someone who wanted to come to the farm unannounced? Tuccille goes on, giving voice to the various conspiracy theories swirling in Central Valley:

The only explanation that made any sense was that Joe and Susie were hiding out in Fresno because they were afraid. Perhaps it had something to do with Mike's mob connections, about money Joe owed to the wrong people. Was Joe targeted by his brother's confederate because he knew as much as Mike about their joint bootlegging operations? Were mobsters worried that Joe would also be called into questioning and cop a plea by implicating them to save his own skin?

No satisfactory answers to these questions would ever be given. Twelve-year-old Joe Gallo Jr. was sent to live with his older brothers and their wives (including Amelia Franzia), and the family never spoke much of the deaths until the 1980s, when their secrets would be dragged into the public eye.

Like Campbell's Soup, but Alcoholic

Joe Gallo's sons Ernest and Julio went on to form the E.&J. Gallo Winery, a beverage behemoth that grew fat on its sales of déclassé vintages. Ernest was the brains of the operation, and his genius was in making wines that appealed to plebs rather than patricians. As a young man he had attended meetings with his father where the grand Pooh-Bahs of the Central Valley grape-growing world would gather to talk business. To his Gallo winery employees, Ernest noted later that the men, mostly Italians and Yugoslavs, wouldn't touch the expensive wine that was poured for them. "It became obvious to me that none of them really liked the fancy stuff," Hawkes quotes Ernest as having said. "What they preferred was something that tasted more like their homemade wine. And that's when I realized that for a winery to be really successful, it had to make the kind of wine that people wanted to drink, not the high-style, expensive stuff." One of Ernest's favorite lines was that he wanted E.&J. Gallo to become "the Campbell Soup company of the wine industry."

After World War II the Gallos perfected methods that removed the tannic taste from their blends—what your local wine store guy now raves about as he attempts an upsell—and they were on the forefront of the screw-top wine movement. They also did away with barrels to store their wine, replacing them with steel tanks, since they had determined that the average consumer didn't appreciate a woody aftertaste. The American taste for "pop wines" was being perfected.

The Gallos went on a marketing blitz to gain attention for their products. A spread on the winery featuring Modesto's comeliest residents appeared in the October 8, 1945 issue of LIFE magazine under the headline, "Life Goes to a Grape Crush: A California vineyard revives a bacchanalian harvest custom and bathes a queen in new wine."

Girls removed their stockings, lifted their skirts and squealed delightedly as they sloshed knee-deep in tubs of freshly picked grapes. Pursued by ardent young men, girls were caught and kissed beneath grape arbors in accordance with immemorial custom.

But what really made the family rich was something a far cry from the wholesome image of frolicking grape-crushers—it was a drink called Thunderbird. In the late 1950s, a salesman for the company had noted that liquor stores in inner-city black communities sold lemon juice or packets of lemon Kool-Aid next to bottles of white port—customers were apparently mixing the two to cut the too-sweet taste of the port. Gallo decided to develop a lemon-flavored wine blend, one that was 21 percent alcohol. The product was a hit; by 1957, Gallo was making 32 million gallons of Thunderbird. The wine got a catchy jingle—"What's the word? Thunderbird! What's the price? Three bits twice"—and a television spot featuring the mustachioed actor James Mason wearing a cravat and extolling the virtues of Thunderbird's "unusual flavor all its own."

Some of the company's marketing strategies were less than savory. Hawkes quotes Gallo sales team members who would arrange "street-sampling and Thunderbird parties in colored bars wherever we could" and throw empty bottles of the wine into the gutters of areas frequented by the homeless to increase brand awareness.

It became obvious to me that none of them really liked the fancy stuff.

Thunderbird became notorious, alongside "bum wines" like Wild Irish Rose and Night Train. By 1989, there were calls to limit the sales of such products in an effort to curtail street drinking by the most destitute. E.&J. Gallo Winery took Thunderbird out of stores in certain areas, but it had little desired effect and the company was always uneasy talking publicly to its core constituency of drinkers. A New York Times story about the corrosive effects of the wines conveyed this discomfort: "A Gallo spokesman, Dan Solomon, said most Thunderbird is drunk not by street alcoholics but by older people scrimping on pensions."

A Cheesy Epilogue

By this time, the Gallo name had been sullied in ways beyond what many would argue were the misbegotten Thunderbird riches, gathered out of the dual misery of poverty and alcoholism—in 1986, Ernest and Julio decided to sue their younger brother, Joe, for trademark infringement.

Joe, who had overseen the progress of Gallo vineyards for most of his life, was selling a cheese under the brand name "Joseph Gallo Cheese." His brothers, fiercely protective of the family's name, had sued other "Gallo" businesses before, but the aspect of clannish feuding to this lawsuit could not be ignored, especially when Joe counter-sued, claiming that his brothers had defrauded him of his equal-share inheritance in the winery.

Joe argued that Ernest and Julio had taken advantage of their legal guardianship of him after the deaths of their parents, and that a will written by their mother directed that each brother was due an equal share in the family business. Ernest and Julio would say that E.&J. Gallo winery had been their own enterprise, not one built off of their father's business—they would argue that he had only been a grape grower, never a bootlegger.

The Gallo case went all the way to the US Court of Appeals, Joe lost, and the Gallo wine empire soldiered on, family ties be damned.

When Ernest died in 2007 at the age of 97, the last of the Gallo and Franzia family old guard, he was worth an estimated $1.2 billion. The younger generations of the twin dynasties have fared well for themselves, too. Fred Franzia—Teresa Carrara's grandson—owns Bronco, the behemoth wine producer of "Two Buck Chuck," a wine that retails for under $5 and aids college boyfriends looking to class up their dorm room seductions. Typical of the families' dynamics, the move to found Bronco had its roots in some inter-generational hostility: He started the winery only after older members of the clan sold the Franzia Family Winery brand to Coca-Cola in 1973 (the Wine Group purchased the winery later). "My dad, he was not a fighter," Fred Franzia told The New Yorker in 2009. "He just folded. And he and I went through a period of no communication, I think for five years. I just was pissed."

That the next generation of cheapo wine produced by this singular American family of fortune would be forged out of animosity seems only fitting. By 2012, Trader Joe's reported having sold 600 million bottles of Two Buck Chuck, affirming that Gallo and Franzia grandchildren continue to run the family wineries in the spirit of their forefathers.

''We don't want most of the business," Ernest was known to say. "We want it all.''

More from VICE

The Latest