We live in a time of turmoil, times that incite retrospection about the world we thought we lived in.
Now comes Frank Bergon with his story about growing up in the Old West and seeing its transition to the New West, full of regulations and strictures that inhibit the spontaneous entrepreneuring defined in the values of the Old West by past generations of immigrants.
He’ll launch the new book with a talk at the West Tisbury library on Monday, April 29, at 7 pm.
Bergon writes about the San Joaquin Valley in central California, a 60-mile-wide and 450-mile-long stretch that produces an eighth of our country’s agricultural products. The valley was settled in the 19th century by a cornucopia of ethnicities with strong Basque, Italian, Dust Bowl Okie, and Latino influences.
Bergon, of Basque descent, has produced 11 books, fiction and nonfiction, on the West. He was on the Island last summer as a panelist at the Islanders Write conference, sponsored by this newspaper. He writes clearly and simply about a culture of which we urban Easterners have little comprehension.
Bergon was born in 1943 in Ely, Nev., and was raised in Madera County in the valley. His family story is similar to those of many of his friends and acquaintances, people who showed up with nothing, worked the fields and the ranches, sharecropped, then bought a “small” 40-acre starter spread of their own. As I read that number, I thought that 40 acres in the East would suffice for a 60- to 80-home luxury community.
Now the title “Two-Buck Chuck and the Marlboro Man” is sexy and has appeal for those of us who don’t know a Concord grape from a Chardonnay, and those two characters serve as a window into understanding the Old West values. Bergon also uses them to puncture myths around them and the Old West. As you read on, the values come to be the point of the book, sociology to us and personal for Bergon.
Old Westerners valued work, the value of your word — fortunes were made on a handshake — family, freedom, and not talking a lot. Bergon found those values intact, though the New West world they live in has changed.
Two-Buck Chuck is the nickname for Charles Shaw wine brand, made by Bergon’s boyhood pal Fred Franzia, and sold only through Trader Joe’s stores, initially for $1.99 a bottle. Franzia’s product beat 3,500 other wines at a California tasting competition. He and many of his winemaking friends thought the mystical status of oenology was a hoot. (Think of a drunken
Paul Giamatti drinking from the spit bucket at a chichi wine tasting in “Sideways.”)
Franzia’s grandmother began the company in 1906 to support her family. At its peak, Franzia had 45,000 acres. That kind of success wasn’t his alone. His grandma’s daughter married a man named Gallo. Grandma lent him the money to get started in the wine business. Good investment. The common thread was that all of these people worked the fields, crushed the grapes, and hands-on operated their wineries.
Bergon spends time researching the racial climate of the Old West. Most of his sources remembered no discrimination, because there were too many different skin colors and ethnicities to make discrimination part of a pecking order. The pecking order was based on character, hard work, and keeping your word.
In many ways, Darrell Winfield represented those values in our popular culture in the 1970s and 1980s. Winfield was the one true Marlboro Man. His work in Marlboro advertising took the brand from an also-ran to the world’s most popular cigarette, based on our sense of his Old West
And we were right about him. A real cowboy, a real rancher and wrangler, Winfield insisted on authenticity. He scouted the advertising shooting locations, picked the men and the horses to be used, and wrangled the horses himself on location. He made $165,000 a year in peak years, and supplemented his income playing poker and training colts.
Winfield, contrary to recurring press reports at the time, did not die as often as we said he did. He died only once, and not from lung cancer. He worked daily into his 80s before succumbing to stroke complications. He did not use tobacco products later in life, finally putting down snuff, his nicotine delivery system of choice.
Bergon has done us a service. Though we may not know a pinto from a roan, Americans do know the importance of character in our culture.
“Two-Buck Chuck and the Marlboro Man: The New Old West,” by Frank Bergon. University of Nevada Press, $24.95. On Monday, April 29, at 7 pm, the West Tisbury library presents its Vineyard book launch. Bergon will talk, read, and show photos. Books will be available for purchase and signing, and refreshments will be served.