Franzese was known as the ‘yuppie don’ in the 1980s after rising to the rank of caporegime in the Colombo crime family.
Fortune Magazine placed him at No. 18 on its 50 Biggest Mafia Bosses list, and he gained a reputation as one of the mob’s biggest earners since Al Capone. He was portrayed by Joseph Bono in Goodfellas.
Franzese became a born-again Christian during a lengthy prison sentence for racketeering, and he managed to walk away from the mafia without going into protective custody.
He is now a motivational speaker and author, living in California with his wife and seven children. He runs a mentorship site called The Inner Circle, and one of his mentees approached him with a plan to create a wine brand.
Franzese Wine was born. There are currently three wines in the range – a Malbec, a white made from the indigenous Kangoun grape and a fortified, port-style wine – but another five varieties will soon be rolled out.
The team has already secured a US distribution deal with Sysco Foods covering 41 states. Now Franzese is in London to kickstart an international expansion.
Decanter caught up with the former ‘prince of the mafia’ to learn more about his journey from racketeering to winemaking.
Wine plays a key role at sit-downs
Franzese’s grandfather emigrated from Naples to New York in 1902. He made his own wines, which would feature at family occasions.
His father, Sonny, was an underboss of the Colombo crime family, but he was sentenced to 50 years in prison for bank robbery in 1967. Franzese responded by dropping out of college to help his family earn money – and he proved to be remarkably successful. He claimed that at the height of his career, he was generating up to $8 million per week from various criminal activities.
‘There was always wine at every dinner, every banquet,’ says Franzese. ‘Every time we went out there was always a bottle of wine or two. We all indulged in it. I didn’t really acquire the taste for it as much as I did in later life, but we always enjoyed it and we didn’t have dinner without a bottle of wine ever. It was very customary.
‘Just about every meeting that we had, which could have been a critical meeting at some point in time, there was always a bottle of wine to calm things down in case tempers started to flare and things started to get out of control. We’d always say, “have a glass of wine, let’s calm things down a little bit, everything is ok”.’
Wine also played a more subtle role in Colombo family sit-downs. ‘Whenever we had a meeting with people we didn’t know, or people we were unsure of, there was always a bottle of wine – or two or three – on the table, and if there was somebody questionable at that meeting that we as a group didn’t want to talk in front of, we’d pour the wine the right way, and when we got to that person, we’d do it in a different way, and everybody would be observant of that.
‘We would know that we needed to stop talking in front of that person, and the whole conversation would change. It was always with a bottle of wine, so wine has played a significant role in my former life in some very critical meetings.’
From New York to Armenia
Italy would have been the obvious choice when Franzese decided to get into the wine business, but he was inspired by Armenia’s history.
‘I’m a Christian and pretty strong in my faith. I just love the story behind the wine. According to scripture, Noah’s Ark landed at the foot of Mount Ararat. When the flood subsided, the first vineyards in the new civilisation were planted there – in Turkey and Armenia.’
Armenia is certainly one of the world’s oldest wine regions. Archaeologists have discovered a wine press and fermentation jars dating back 6,000 years in Armenian caves.
Franzese’s partner has been producing wine there for 25 years, so there is a mature operation behind the brand.
It was a young member of the Armenian family, who Franzese mentors, that convinced him to lend his name to the brand.
‘This young man has been following me since he was 10. He’s now 23. When he approached me about this, I was so attracted to his integrity and work ethic that I said if I’m going to go into business with somebody, this is the young man I should be with. We went through the whole process of tasting the wine, researching his family history, and it all came up roses, so I decided to allow him to take my brand to market.’
His wife, Camille Garcia, is passionate about wine – Franzese describes her as ‘almost a sommelier’ thanks to her in-depth knowledge. ‘We get involved in the wine tasting. I leave that mostly to my wife and my daughters, who have a better taste than I do in fine wine.
‘We’ve had several people taste them, and we’re happy with it. I’ve been making connections with distributors, speaking to various restaurants and putting my partner in touch with contacts.
‘We are now expanding into the UK, and we are working on some other relationships around the world. Everyone that has tasted the wine so far has enjoyed it, and there’s no better way to sell it than to let them try it.
‘We are very confident with how it has been received so far, and we keep pushing ahead. I think the wine has appeal in restaurants and retail stores. Direct to consumer has been very strong for us. I have a big reach, and a lot of people want the wine on the table and to tell the story behind the wine.’
Franzese says they can scale up quickly to meet demand. ‘We’ve assured Sysco Foods that we can provide 40,000-50,000 bottles a month for them. We’re exploring getting into Costco, and if we do that, we’ll really have to scale up, as the orders are huge.
‘This is a 25-year-old operation, and they’re very excited in Armenia about what we’re doing in the States and around the world.’
When asked how meeting with the wine trade compares to dealing with mobsters, a wry smile breaks out on his face. ‘It’s a lot easier speaking to people in the wine industry than the guys on the street.
‘For the past 25 years, I’ve been sharing my story all over the world in person. I’ve been to Singapore, the United Kingdom, Bulgaria, Australia, everywhere, and I’ve got a huge YouTube channel. People are taken in by the story, they love the genre, and the fact that this was reality for me. I was at a pretty high level in that life. People are intrigued by it, and it’s very easy to speak with them. I’m a people person. I’ve always been that way.
‘One of my strongest points was being able to relate with people, whether they’re in the boardroom or in prison garments, it doesn’t matter to me, so I just enjoy it and people enjoy the conversations, so we get in the door and from that point on they gotta love the product.’
Will any of his former associates be drinking Franzese Wines at future sit-downs? ‘I’ve had some guys calling me on it, and of course they want free samples. Yeah, they’re going to drink it.’