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Know the West

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