The Franzia Wine Family
To enrich the alcohol content of their fortified wines, the Franzias installed a distillery in their
By 1931 Giuseppe, aged sixty, owned several farms and had saved a lot of money. He announced to his
As did most Italian immigrants who were successful, Giuseppe was proud of his accomplishments and dropped pieces of information to let others know how successful he was. To some he gave the impression of being a braggart. It appears as if he did unwisely discuss his finances too openly with others. On March 10, 1933, Giuseppe embarked on his long, last visit to Italy. A photo taken on the ship just before departing shows two other men in the photo. They may have accompanied him on the journey. One may have been his cousin, Johnny Piuma. Giuseppe remained in Italy more than a year during an eventful time in wine-grape history.
A movement was underway to repeal the 18th Amendment, the Prohibition law. Giuseppe was preparing for his big trip when, on February 20, 1933, the U.S.
Congress voted to repeal the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act and proposed the 21st Amendment, which would repeal the 18th Amendment. It was required that three fourths of the states ratify the proposed repeal. Despite the Repeal Act by Congress, the “Wets” were restive; they did not want to wait for repeal. To appease those demanding the right to drink beer immediately, Congress passed a law ending the enforcement of the manufacture and sale of beer. The very week that Giuseppe left for Italy an article appeared in the Modesto News Herald, on March 16 on page 2 headlined with “Court Expected to Support Beer Act of Congress.” The article stated that the actual wording of the Eighteenth Amendment left it up to Congress and the states to enforce the general guidelines of the amendment.
Franklin Roosevelt had just taken office and would preside over the death rattle of Prohibition. All through 1933, one by one, states were passing the proposed repeal amendment. It was not until December 5 that the needed three fourths of the states had voted to pass the 21st Amendment. Prohibition was officially repealed on that date.
Meanwhile, with changes happening quickly, Teresa convened her five sons for a meeting under a walnut tree near the building that housed the nut huller behind her home. The impending repeal was discussed, and she asked her sons what they wanted to do. The strong-willed matriarch had in mind restarting the winery. The five sons unanimously consented to their mother’s wishes. With no one enforcing the dying alcohol prohibition, they needed to press their upcoming vintage—surely enough states would have voted for repeal by the time the wine was ready to sell. Enforcement of the moribund Prohibition law was virtually stopped. Franzia Brothers Wine Company was created. The five Franzia sons: Frank, John, Louie, Sal, and Joseph J. Franzia created a partnership.
Teresa co-signed for a loan of $60,000 to start the winery and to build a new brick building. This original building was completed by October of 1933. Ernest Gallo wanted to become a partner with his brothers-in-law, but, in those depressed times, splitting an expected weak profit with yet another partner did not appeal to the brothers—and likely not to their mother either. As a result, Ernest and his brother Julio, decided to start a winery of their own. But Teresa wanted to help her daughter Amelia in some way, so she helped Ernest and Julio get started.
Whereas Ernest depicted his father-in-law as somewhat of a rustic in Our Story [above], his depiction of Teresa, his mother-in-law, on page 52 was entirely different:
With the Depression, it was the worst of times to be asking anyone, even close relatives, for money. But I did so, convinced that we [he and Julio] could make a go of the wine business.
My wife, Amelia, volunteered to ask her own family for help. She planned to speak to her mother, who everyone considered a softer touch than her father.
I had the highest regard for my mother-in-law. I knew her to be loving and supporting. I also knew her amazing story. Teresa and Giuseppe Franzia had not known each other in Italy. After Franzia ended up in California around the turn of the century and saved some money, he wrote to a girl he had known back home in Savona, near Genoa, sending her one hundred dollars to pay for her trip to America so she could marry him. The woman was insulted [perhaps not, maybe just another negative depiction of Giuseppe by his son-in-law], and word spread around the local area about the rather unusual offer. A young woman from the neighboring town of Vado Ligure stepped forward and said she would be happy to go. When Teresa got off the train in California, Franzia was there to meet her. He was very disappointed because she was small—about five feet tall. He wondered how in the world she was going to work in the fields and shoulder all the other burdens of farm life. Before long, Franzia’s reservations were dispelled. Besides bearing eight children and handling the family’s business, Teresa Franzia worked the fields as hard as any man.
Amelia went to see her mother, who agreed to loan me five thousand dollars. A while later, she also co-signed a surety bond.
As it turned out, I am very glad that I did not take my father-in-law’s advice on one point. On Amelia’s and my wedding day, her father had taken me aside. “Once a man gets married,” he told me, “the farther away he takes his wife from her mother, the better off he is.”
Like I said, good thing I didn’t listen.
The wooden vats from the pre-Prohibition era were brought out, cleaned, and readied for the 1933 vintage. The brothers applied for a corporate bonded license and were assigned Bonded Winery #3654. The parents had no share in the winery business but did own the several farms and the vineyard, which the sons worked. Teresa was always in command; the sons heeded their mother’s wishes. She loved to go to the winery and help with the casing of the bottled wine and other chores. The tiny woman would lift a gallon of wine in each hand and carefully place it in the box she was readying for shipment. Gallon after gallon she cased. That first year, the Franzias bottled 100,000 gallons of wine. They used only their own vintage.
When Giuseppe returned home in 1934 and found a new brick building under construction, the first thing he said was, “Where did you get the money?” He was upset that his family had mortgaged his lands, but Teresa and her sons prevailed. Giuseppe complained to a neighbor, Mr. Azevedo, “I’m sixty-three years old, and I owe $60,000 to the bank!” He soon got over his pique.
The driveway to the family home and the winery, running south from Highway 120, separated the winery, to the east, from the Franzia home, to the west. To the south of the home was the tankhouse, connected on the south by a three-car garage. On the southern end of the garage was a gas pump. On the west side of the tank house was the windmill used to pump water in the early days. Just to the west of the home and tankhouse was Giuseppe’s two-acre vegetable garden. Yet further west was the home of Louie Franzia’s family, facing Murphy Road. To the east of the winery were the truck barn, the shop, and the still. Later Charmat champagne tanks would be built south of the winery. All these sites were on the farm of Giuseppe and Teresa. Across Highway 120, north of the winery, lived Frank Franzia’s family in a home built for them by Giuseppe and Teresa.
Progress with the winery was slow because people didn’t have much money to spare to buy wine. The brothers survived by farming their parents’ land, most of which was not in vineyard. The usual crops were tomatoes, beans, sugar beets, barley, and wheat. The brothers owned a horse-pulled Harris harvester and worked harvesting the grain crops of neighboring farmers as well as their own. In time they purchased a Caterpillar tractor, which replaced the horse in pulling the harvester. Louie Franzia was in charge of the harvesting operation, though his brother John helped also. The harvester was later donated to the University of California at Davis for their museum of farm machinery. Working in the family’s harvesting crew was a colorful character, Mr. Sharp, who had come from the Midwest during the dustbowl years. He was a very capable tractor driver, but he stubbornly refused to drive any other tractor than the yellow Caterpillar tractor. Apparently the brothers had more than one tractor.
About this time, Joe Franzia, the youngest brother, was selected as president of Franzia Brothers Wine Company; his brother John Franzia was secretary-treasurer. Frank, Lou, and Sal were vice presidents. That would be the arrangement for the duration of the brothers’ partnership. Joe was the “money man,” a combination of C.E.O. and C.F.O. He likely had the most formal education of the brothers.
One of the earliest chemists hired to assist in the wine-making process was Mark Morris, who had earlier worked for the Clorox Company in Oakland and would later work at the University of California at Davis. For awhile in the 1940’s, Sal Franzia did the wine-making, but it became increasingly clear that a professional chemist or enologist was needed.
Whether working in the winery or in the vineyard, Teresa always cooked three meals a day for her sons and husband. Her married sons’ families always came to her house for the holidays; even the Gallos spent their holidays at Teresa and Giuseppe’s home.
On pages 77-78 of Our Story, by Ernest and Julio Gallo, Ernest states that in 1935,
…It occurred to me that we might want to merge with the Franzia brothers. We had run out of room, while they had a winery in their vineyard. We were competing with them for bulk sales, though we were selling wine faster than they were. I spoke to Amelia’s brothers. They thought that a merger sounded pretty good, but when they discussed it with their father, he reportedly hollered, “Hell, no! What do we need with their junk?
Perhaps Giuseppe was referring to the dilapidated building which housed the Gallo offices at the time. Ernest discusses the poor state of the building later in his book.