About 100 wine writers about the country are getting ballots to elect the 2011 inductees of the Vintners Hall of Fame at the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America, and two of the 22 nominees are sure to provoke debate beyond the voters. They are Fred Franzia and Cesar Chavez.
Franzia, if the name doesn't ring a bell, is the irascible California vintner who in 2002 introduced the Charles Shaw line of wines, quick to become better known as "Two Buck Chuck" for its $1.99 price at Trader Joe's grocery stores. On the strength of the Charles Shaw and similar wines readily accessible by both palate and pocketbook, Franzia built the Bronco Wine Co. of Ceres into the 4th largest wine producer in the nation, with annual revenues of more than $500 million. Along the way he paid a $500,000 fine and Bronco paid an additional $2.5 million in penalties after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud by misrepresenting grapes selling for $100 to $200 a ton as varieties commanding $500 to $1,000 a ton. These days, according to a profile of Franzia in the New Yorker magazine 18 months ago, he's funding an association of farm-labor contractors aimed at making sure field hands are provided the water, shade and safety measures to which they are entitled. This puts Franzia in league with the late Cesar Chavez, who in 1962 co-founded the United Farm Workers and subsequently led several non-violent protests, boycotts and strikes aimed at compelling grape growers to stop using certain pesticides and to stop employing illegal immigrants, among other measures to improve the recognition, rights and pay of vineyard and winery workers. California's wine history is long, twisted and colorful, in large part for people like Fred Franzia and Cesar Chavez, both of whom belong in the Vintners Hall of Fame.
Of the remaining 20 persons on the ballot, I'm still pondering who to vote for. The field is impressive, a reminder of just how diverse the country's wine culture is. They include Napa Valley winemaker Randy Dunn, who for three decades has been making exceptionally elegant cabernet sauvignon on his Howell Mountain estate; Madera County winemaker Andy Quady, who has been making port-style wines for 35 years; wine chemist Vernon Singleton of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, who before retiring in 1991 published more than 220 academic papers and four books; California wine historian Charles Sullivan; August Sebastiani, who at the time of his death in 1980 had built his eponymous Sonoma County winery into the sixth largest in the country; and Robert M. Parker Jr., widely recognized as the nation's most influential wine critic since starting his newsletter The Wine Advocate in 1978.
The deadline to return ballots is Sept. 17, with induction of the newly elected to take place next spring.
Point of disclosure: I'm a member of the nominating committee for the Vintners Hall of Fame.