From the Bundys to cheap burgundy: How myths shape the West

Novelist Frank Bergon meanders through a changing West and traces old stories refreshed.

 

Novelist Frank Bergon was born in Nevada in 1943 but grew up in Californias San Joaquin Valley, where his family, of Basque ancestry, owned a ranch. Bergon headed east to earn degrees at Boston College and Harvard University. He taught literature for many years at Vassar College in New York, but his heart and imagination never left the West, the setting of most of his books. In his new essay collection, Two-Buck Chuck & The Marlboro Man: The New Old West, Bergon displays an acute awareness of what has changed and what has endured in the West in the past 70 years, especially when it comes to how the region’s myths influence its popular perception and the behavior of its inhabitants.

Bergon juxtaposes the idea of the Marlboro Man — the cigarette companys most famous model was a rancher Bergon knew well, Darrell Winfield — with the 2014 Bundy standoff over grazing rights in Nevada. The men who instigated that conflict, Bergon writes, were inspired in part by the tobacco company’s promotion of an ideal: the independent, assertive, heroic Westerner of yore. Throughout these essays, Bergon highlights the feedback loop between how myth, movies and advertisements style the West, and how Westerners actually live in it today.

Rancher Darrell Winfield in a Marlboro advertisement.
Phillip Morris Co. 1987

One of Bergons friends urges him to write a book about their high school classmate, Fred Franzia, the wine businessman behind Trader Joes famed Charles Shaw wine label, more commonly known as Two-Buck Chuck. Hes brought wine into the homes of more people than Gallo or Mondavi or any other winemaker, Bergons friend says. In Napa his name is anathema. They don't like good wine at two dollars.

Bergon portrays Franzia as the sort of independent firebrand the West is known for in a colorful essay that details the origins and underbelly of the California wine industry. Franzia had expected to inherit his familys wine business, but when his father and uncles sold it to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, the Franzia name became off-limits to him for business purposes. Scarred by its loss, the scrappy Fred established the Bronco Wine Company, the largest vineyard owner in the United States. Franzia styled himself as an iconoclast, battling, for example, with the Napa Valley Vintners Association, which urged the passage of a law forbidding wines made with non-Napa grapes from using the word Napa on the label. In response, Franzia immediately produced a wine with Napa grapes called Napa Creek, that retailed for just $3.99. Though critics scoff at Franzias inexpensive wines, they have won awards at blind-judged competitions.

Of Fred Franzia and his famous "Two Buck Chuck," Bergon says "in Napa his name is anathema. They don't like good wine at two dollars."

Bergon tells his stories in a roundabout manner rather than chronologically, shifting from a present-day incident to an anecdote from the recent past, then detouring into something even further back. His essays have the rhythms of reminiscence, moving casually from one idea, image or memory to the next. At times, this meandering style can be confusing, but the casual structure underscores Bergons larger point that all these Western stories are connected, and that the practices and people we associate with the Old West survive in the New West today, in surprisingly different but still-recognizable forms.

For example, modern-day California has a reputation for diversity. Bergon reminds us that this is nothing new; throughout history, the state has been home to a wide variety of people. Nearly two out of three people currently in the San Joaquin valley are minorities, Bergon writes, and more than two out of five minorities are foreign born, almost like the frontier West once again, when the states with the largest percentage of foreign born were all in the West.

Bergon recalls growing up in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1950s, where his classmates were often, like his own family, either Basque or Italian immigrants whose families established the California wine industry. In Valley Tolerance, Bergon interviews Dr. Albert Wilburn, an African American college football star turned medical doctor. Wilburn remembers hearing about the Birmingham church bombing and lunch-counter sit-ins in the South during his childhood in the 1960s, and yet he notes that, personally, I hadn't dealt with any kind of racial prejudice in Madera, the town north of Fresno where he and Bergon attended high school. Bergon interviews Southern Californians with a variety of different ethnic backgrounds, and most of them echo the idea that, whoever they were, they felt welcome and at home in the Central Valley.

The West, with its iconic landscapes, has long served as a scenic backdrop — for photos, paintings, movies, myths and dreams. Bergon’s essays turn the focus on the West's people, and on California's enduring appeal for newcomers. His subjects share a certain tenacity and a gift for adaptation and reinvention, traits that prove just as useful for the businesspeople and high-tech ranchers of today as they were for the cowboys and Dust Bowl migrants of his youth.

Jenny Shanks novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Awards. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Membership Director Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Classification: Full-time exempt Location: Boise, ID Job Overview Winter Wildlands Alliance is seeking a...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors LOCATION: Ashland, OR POSTING CLOSES: March...
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    ABOUT US: "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes." - Billings Gazette At Northern Plains, we believe that true...
  • ST. LAWRENCE UNIVERSITY - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR IN THE OUTDOOR PROGRAM
    To view the complete position description please visit: http://employment.stlawu.edu. St. Lawrence University is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
  • TRAIL CREW & ASSISTANT TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL WORK LEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National...
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.