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Bronco Winery head steps down to settle wine fraud case

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The head of a major California winery agreed Thursday to resign, while he and his company will pay a $3 million for misrepresenting the quality of its products.

Federal prosecutors said Thursday that Bronco Wine Co. and its president, Fred Franzia, used lower quality grapes to produce 1 million gallons of premium wines between 1987 and 1992.

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Investigators said the San Joaquin Valley company, the fifth largest winery in the United States, used the less expensive grapes to produce its premium wines, such as white Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.

At the time, the price of both Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grew dramatically with increased demand for the products, and agents said Franzia orchestrated the scheme to obtain higher prices for his products.

Prosecutors announced a federal grand jury indictment against Franzia, 50, and his firm and a plea agreement, with Franzia pleading guilty to defrauding the wine industry and the public and agreeing to resign. He is also barred from holding any post at the winery for five years, must pay a $500,000 fine and perform 500 hours of community service.

Bronco Winery agreed to plea no contest to the charges and pay a $2.5 million fine. It was placed on probation for five years.

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Investigators said Franzia ordered his employees to falsify and destroy documents to cover up the long-running scheme.

At times, Franzia would toss Zinfandel leaves in with non-Zinfandel grapes in a practice he called 'blessing the loads.'

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