Ernest Gallo's death yesterday brought back lots of memories. Everyone who's been in the wine business for any length of time knows what a great contribution he made to wine, and one thought that made me smile was the first time I sat down with him and his brother for a formal interview in 1993.
It had taken me years to get that audience with Ernest and Julio (who died shortly thereafter). They were shy, introspective and reclusive by nature, in their 80s then, and face-to-face public relations schmoozing simply didn’t exist in their playbook.
But when they finally agreed to an interview on the eve of the release of their new Northern Sonoma wines, the meeting went just like people who knew them predicted—except for one thing: Ernest had a dry, wry, witty sense of humor that was playful and amusing. And I was a bit surprised to discover that if I pushed for answers, sometimes he’d acquiesce.
The interview, well, it was classic Gallo. Ernest in particular was known to turn the tables on interviewers, which meant that while you were there to ask him and Julio questions, Ernest dictated the terms, pace and duration of the discussion and steered it wherever he wanted it to go.
He’d give you tidbits of information, and Julio liked talking about grapegrowing and wine. But Ernest always played his cards close to his vest and gleaned more from the interviewer than he gave up himself.
Of course I was nervous and excited at that first meeting, which took place at E. & J. Gallo’s Modesto office. The Gallos were very professional and businesslike in their demeanor, and I had been invited there to taste their new high-end wines and talk about how they came about.
Once there, though, it quickly became apparent that while they intended to “taste me” on the wines (the trade expression for showing someone a wine), I would first be the interviewee. And it wasn’t just Ernest and Julio. They had their sales and marketing staff present, too. As I recall, there were four or five of them seated across the table from me, firing off one question after another. It felt like I was being questioned by authorities investigating my whereabouts while a bank had been robbed—a sort of Watergateish, “What did I know and when did I know it.”
After we talked, Julio poured the wines—a 1991 Chardonnay, which was made in a Burgundian style, with full malolactic and aged in French oak, and a 1990 Cabernet, from the brothers’ Dry Creek Valley vineyards. The price points were stratospheric for Gallo wines—$30 and $60 respectively.
But instead of them talking about the wines—they weren’t big on chitchat—Ernest looked me in the eye and simply said, “What do you think?” I felt several sets of eyes hone in on me, awaiting my response.
I told them I liked them, and later, in a formal blind tasting, they were just as impressive, scoring 92 and 93 points, respectively—unheard of for Gallo wines at that time, and proof that they could succeed in challenging California’s best.
Then we went to lunch, in Ernest’s private dining room, where he proceeded to pepper me with questions about me, my career, Wine Spectator, Marvin, the state of the wine industry, critics, ratings—you name it. When he was done with the queries, lunch and the interview were over.
I had met Ernest Gallo, and not only survived but felt we had connected on several levels. He impressed me with his knowledge and curiosity (a trait that is essential to a good reporter), and I must have intrigued him (or at least he liked interviewing me, too), because we met many more times in the years before his death.
I have a few more stories about Ernest that I’ll pass along sometime.
I’m sure many of you do, too. I invite you to post some of your memories about Ernest Gallo (as responses to this blog) as a way of remembering this complex and influential giant.
Paige Poulos — March 7, 2007 6:59pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — March 7, 2007 7:18pm ET
Jason Thompson — Foster City, CA — March 7, 2007 8:45pm ET
Paul Anderson — Longview, TX — March 7, 2007 10:43pm ET
Dave Fortna — Sacramento, CA, USA — March 7, 2007 11:22pm ET
Lisa Andrews — CHATTANOOGA,TN 37402 — March 8, 2007 7:58pm ET
Fred Guarnieri — Haddon Township, NJ — March 9, 2007 12:21pm ET
Robert Fodrocy — Muskegon,Michigan — April 16, 2007 10:11pm ET
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