Valley winemaker loses pardon bid

WASHINGTON -- Ceres winemaker Fred T. Franzia sought a presidential pardon in hopes of wiping the slate clean from an old grape fraud case for which he paid a $500,000 fine and served five years on probation.

Franzia failed. The Justice Department rejected his pardon application on Dec. 23, according to information obtained by McClatchy Newspapers through the Freedom of Information Act.

While ultimately unsuccessful, however, Franzia's aggressive clemency campaign offers a case study in how some try to navigate the pardon process.

The owner of the Bronco Wine Co. of Ceres rallied congressional support for his pardon bid. He hired one of the nation's most experienced clemency attorneys. One of his champions called President George W. Bush's top lawyer to press the case.

"He'd like to clear his name," explained Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, who tried to help Franzia.

Franzia, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the pardon application and its resolution.

Franzia is most recently known as the progenitor of "Two Buck Chuck," an inexpensive wine sold at Trader Joe's stores under the Charles Shaw label. Bronco is the nation's fourth-largest wine company, offering generally low-cost wines under multiple labels such as Forest Glen.

The 65-year-old Franzia has also been one of the most colorful, and at times controversial, figures in the U.S. wine industry.

In December 1993, capping a long investigation, Franzia pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to defraud. As part of the same case, Bronco as a corporation pleaded no contest and paid a $2.5 million fine.

Five other individuals caught up in the same scheme went to prison.

The conspiracy involved selling cheap grapes while calling them zinfandel.

The indictment said Franzia had directed employees to sprinkle zinfandel grapes on top of a load of cheaper non-zinfandel grapes.

Franzia, according to the indictment, called this "blessing the loads."

It helped turn a profit. Genuine zinfandel grapes were selling for between $800 and $1,200 a ton. The cheaper grapes were selling for between $100 and $200 a ton.

Franzia had to temporarily step down as Bronco Wine president, though he remained as the company's finance chief.

He's long since returned to head Bronco, but the grape fraud case remains a topic of conversation among Napa Valley winemakers, with whom Franzia periodically feuds.

"In 10 years you'll be astounded how few wineries will still be profitable and be in business," Franzia said in 2006. "Bet on me. I'll pound these guys."

In search of his presidential pardon, according to information obtained through an FOIA request, Franzia hired Washington-based attorney Margaret Colgate Love.

The highly regarded Love served as the U.S. pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997. This is the Justice Department attorney who screens all clemency applications.

The high-level assistance can sometimes help, for what can be a long-shot bid. From 2006 to 2008, 1,143 pardon applications were received by the Justice Department; only 99 pardons were granted.

Love didn't return calls or e-mails seeking comment.

Several months ago, Radanovich said, Franzia requested a letter of recommendation. Radanovich provided one.

Radanovich said he also called White House Counsel Fred Fielding on behalf of Franzia, whom he's known for many years.

"He broke the law; he knows he did," Radanovich said. "But he's paid the price, and he has remorse."