Aris Janigian admiringly reviews a new book profiling two iconic figures from his own part of the Golden State.
DECEMBER 2, 2019
I WAS BORN AND RAISED a farmerâ€™s son in Fresno and currently live here, working seasonally in the wine industry. But Los Angeles was home for most of my life, and whenever I learned that friends were heading to San Francisco, Iâ€™d suggest they take Highway 99 through the San Joaquin Valley instead of Interstate 5, which skirts the valley to the west. The 99 is a little longer route but so much more colorful (which isnâ€™t necessarily to say â€œscenicâ€).
No one ever took me up on my suggestion, and they didnâ€™t have to explain why not. After all, their impression of the middle of the state, de rigueur for Angelenos, is that gun-owning, pro-Trump types live there in dusty, beat-up towns with ugly names â€” Arvin, Alpaugh, Delano â€” that reek of cow dung. The valleyâ€™s fields are green but also monotonously endless, and none of its vineyards are rolling and soft on the eyes. Sure, itâ€™s part of California, but not really â€œof it.â€ These scoffers know, in the abstract, that this is where the huge majority of Californians, and a good portion of the entire country, gets its food, but arenâ€™t all those mega-farmers in the middle of the state also stealing precious water from salmon and smelts? The scoffers would much rather chat about their local farmersâ€™ market, urban garden, or at least Whole Foods.
In fact, those mega-farmers are, for the most part, simply proprietors of small farms that, over a generation or two, have grown big. And, true, weâ€™re talking about thousands of tons of tomatoes or almonds, and wells several hundred feet deep, and chemicals siphoned out of 250-gallon totes to keep mold and an array of devastating and exceedingly perseverant insects down; but if it werenâ€™t for the sheer scale and efficiency of farming in the San Joaquin Valley, only the rich in this state could afford a melon or a peach.
Neither, for an office party, would we have the option of picking up a case of Charles Shaw wine â€” which is precisely where Frank Bergonâ€™s storytelling begins in his new book, Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man. As it turns out, Fred Franzia, founder of said winery (a.k.a. â€œTwo-Buck Chuck,â€), went to school with Bergon in Madera, a city about 20 miles north of Fresno. Now, decades later, theyâ€™re at a coffee shop, itâ€™s midmorning, and the writer is trying to tease out of the winemaker the explanation for his mind-boggling success.
But before the interview commences, Fred wants a drink. At that hour the bar is closed, so he asks the waitress for tomato juice and Tabasco, so that he can at least put together a virgin Bloody Mary. Fred has a winemaking pedigree â€” Ernest Gallo was his uncle, and Franzia of box-wine fame was his familyâ€™s operation â€” but after the latter was sold to Coca-Cola, Fred was left out in the cold. So, along with his brother and cousin, he started Bronco Winery in 1973.
Their focus was buying and selling bulk juice and wine, which they custom-crushed and bottled for other wineries for nearly 30 years before launching their own brand. Plenty of time for Fred to firm up his conviction that all that fancy talk about wine â€” the soil and wind and slope of vineyards, the delicate rays of light, the $30 tastings, the lengthy descriptions by sommeliers groomed at whatever institute â€” was mostly bullshit.
Although more wine grapes are grown in the San Joaquin Valley than anywhere else in the state, it is nearly axiomatic among vintners that nothing good can come of those grapes â€” where you get more like $400 a ton for Cabernet versus $4,000 in Napa â€” other than what they call â€œjug wine.â€ Fred set out to prove them wrong, and by putting Charles Shaw wines to the test in blind competitions, he did it fair and square. He won one prize after another (Bergon cites the surprisingly large number of them). But still, even if Franzia got the last laugh on taste, at $1.99 per bottle, when the bottle itself and the cork probably added up to a buck, was he really laughing all the way to the bank?
Franzia is loath to give up his trade secrets. Virgin Bloody Mary in hand, he bobs and weaves around the question, but eventually an answer takes shape: squeezing pennies out of wine boxes, in-sourcing bottle production, growing the grapes, bypassing distributors â€” all that helped turn Bronco Winery into one of the most profitable winemaking ventures in American history, an operation that grew so vast and fast that, before long, Franzia had become the largest vineyard owner in the United States.
Bergon, who lived on a farm near Madera, knows this terrain well â€” although he left it more or less as soon as he could, heading east to Boston College, then to Harvard for a PhD, before landing at Vassar in New York, where he taught English literature for most of his career. In other words, he spent most of his life away from home and these homespun characters, but they never quite left him.
This generous-hearted book, without a whiff of cynicism, is, ultimately, a clear and quietly crafted meditation on how much has been lost of the Old West, even in the two generations since Bergon was a kid. But it also captures what of the Old West has been preserved down to this day, in the likes of rancher Mitch Lasgoity; or David Mas Masumoto, who grows some of the best-tasting peaches on the planet; or the cattlemen Clay and Dusty Daulton; or Bergonâ€™s old high school friend, winemaker Marko Zaninovich. Notice the surnames: Basque, Japanese, Okie, and Croatian, respectively. Over the course of this book, Bergon will also introduce us to Italians, a black ranch girl, a Native American, and even a Korean woman whom Bergon first meets on a plane. Their idioms, slang, twang, and pauses that drift into self-effacing chuckles (â€œThose [from the Valley] subjected to laughter are expected to laugh at themselves,â€ Bergon observes) are music to Bergonâ€™s ear, which is perfectly tuned to them in a way that only a native (who also happens to be a first-class writer) can be.
But thereâ€™s a surprising theme developing here, and at one point, Sal Arriola â€” an undocumented farm laborerâ€™s kid who now runs Franziaâ€™s 40,000 acres â€” comes out with it: â€œBlack, brown, blue, it didnâ€™t matter,â€ Arriola says. â€œWe had a mixed bag: I had Latino â€” Mexican â€” friends, like Omar Galina who went on to Yale and JesÃºs RodrÃguez who went to Stanford and is now a doctor in Fresno. The race card was never there.â€
Not every country has a tech, finance, or moviemaking sector, but every country â€” and most of the United States, in fact â€” has farming at one scale or another. So migrants and immigrants alike who want to farm naturally come to the San Joaquin Valley to take advantage of a nearly impossible combination of factors that make it the most fertile and productive agricultural expanse in human history. And whether those farmers are Hmong, Sikh, or Swede, the vagaries of almighty nature and the even more almighty market will eventually level the playing field, humble, and occasionally render each and every one of them dumb. Hail in mid-May can wipe your crop out â€” or, for a recent example, Lodi Zinfandel that went for $700 a ton in 2016 brought $100 this year, not even worth the picking costs.
And then thereâ€™s the drought, which Bergon covers in this book with admirable balance and finesse. Though technically over, itâ€™s only a matter of time before the next nasty stretch of dryness hits. Thirsty cities, regulators, environmentalists, and, of course, farmers themselves, who unwittingly drained the aquifer for decades, are all putting into question the survivability of this great American project.
This would be a gain to some, and an apocalyptic loss to others. Not only because weâ€™d lose the source of fresh fruits and vegetables and nuts (the San Joaquin Valley is one of the only places in the world where pistachios and almonds grow), but also, for Bergon, because weâ€™d be losing a distinct way of life: a fearlessness in the face of hard work; an acceptance of natureâ€™s indifference, combined with attempts to outflank it; a skepticism toward abstract solutions and sudden demands for change; a high tolerance for risk; and a temperament to endure setbacks without complaint, with irony and laughter to ease the pain.
Itâ€™s a way of being thatâ€™s epitomized by Darrell Winfield, the â€œMarlboro Manâ€ and lifelong friend of Bergon, whose story ends the book. A Maderan cattleman whose operation went bust in 1964, Winfield moved to Wyoming, where he worked on the Quarter Circle 5 Ranch. An ad agency looking for footage for â€œMarlboro Countryâ€ spotted him; they took some pictures and, before long, wanted him to fly out to Texas for a shoot. But he told them he was â€œpretty busy shipping cows,â€ so â€œif you boys want to take my picture, you better come out here.â€ Intense, handsome, relaxed, he was soon the â€œfaceâ€ of Marlboro cigarettes, and by the time heâ€™d retired from the gig, he was, according to some accounts, the most photographed man in history â€” so iconic a figure that photographer Richard Prince would â€œappropriateâ€ his image for a show at the Guggenheim.
Barely any of this bounty would redound to Winfieldâ€™s benefit. Though he was paid well, it was a pittance compared to what others similarly well-photographed earned. Maybe it didnâ€™t matter to Winfield because, straight through the shoots, he remained a ranch cowboy, and later an independent rancher.
Confession: I agree personally with the wine philosophy of the British Upper Class condemned by Auberon Waugh: Drink the cheapest possible palatable wine.
If you live anywhere near a Trader Joe’s (not in Pennsylvania, alas! a state afflicted with State Stores as part of a medieval alcohol regime), that will almost certainly be Charles Shaw’s Shiraz.
I’ve consumed personally dozens of cases over the years. Only one was bad. It had been cooked in storage or transport. The wine from the latest case I’ve got, fetched from Trader Joe’s in Cleveland by a friend, tastes distinctly of violets. You can’t beat it for the price.