A few years ago, when I had relatives living in Modesto, Calif., I had a most unusual Thanksgiving Day brunch with Ernest Gallo at his home in that San Joaquin Valley city.
He and I had been talking about wine matters one day and he asked me when I would next be in Modesto. I told him Thanksgiving, which was a couple of weeks away.
For years I’d tried to get an interview with either of the Gallos, Ernest or Julio, or, preferably, both. Every year I’d call their PR man Dan Solomon and ask when I might come to visit the brothers for an interview. And every year he’d offer the same reply: "The line forms to the right."
I finally met both the brothers in the early 1990s when they were in their 80s, at about the time they were set to release their new high-end Gallo wines from northern Sonoma. They appeared on the cover of Wine Spectator in 1993, the year their Northern Sonoma wines debuted.
Both men were shy. Some said reclusive. I found them to be a little of both. But underneath their image and reputations, which were all most people knew about them, they were basic, down-to-earth types, with no pretensions; they had lived most of their lives in Modesto. That is, Julio was a farmer at heart and he loved growing things, with an unusual passion, knowledge and dedication for wine grapes. I enjoyed visiting with him, as he had amazing knowledge and insight into California vineyards, appellations and wine. Ernest, older by a year, was a master marketer and by all accounts a shrewd, hard-nosed businessman. At the time the Gallos owned the world’s largest winery, hands down.
Thanksgiving Day arrived and I drove to Modesto, dropped off my family at our relatives’ home and drove to Ernest’s house for our 11 a.m. brunch. He had an armed security detail outside, carrying what I thought were UZIs, which made me nervous because I’m afraid of guns—any guns. (Mr. Gallo had been on a list of potential kidnap targets for years, which is why his home was guarded, I was later told.) Yet you could pick up a phone and call him; his name had always been listed in the Modesto phone book.
Ernest greeted me at the door and led me on a tour of his home. He lived alone, his wife having died a few years earlier. He showed me some of his photos from big-game fishing trips in tropical climates and then led me on an outside stroll through his property. A large swimming pool had been converted into a koi pond.
As we sat down for brunch I knew how the conversation would go. Mr. Gallo was always the inquisitor, peppering guests or rivals with questions. He’d ask the questions, grill me on my thoughts and I’d answer them. We tasted most of the new Gallo wines. He was curious about what I thought about Merlot, for instance (he took dim view of the grape), but I made a point of trying to push him on inside information or insights into Gallo’s next moves. He wasn’t easy; he was quick to turn my questions around and had a poker-faced stare when talking business. He would have a gleam in his eye when he found something humorous.
It ended up being a fun event for me and I think for him as well. As I got to know the brothers I came to believe that for all their tenacity in business and desires for privacy, they really liked people and because they had rarely given interviews or met with media types until they were into their 80s, I always felt like they would have enjoyed that interaction had it occurred earlier.
One of the areas Ernest probed me on was the future of certain wine types. At the time, Cabernet and Chardonnay were the big-name sellers, and the brothers had a passion for Zinfandel. Ernest wanted to know what I though about Pinot Noir and Syrah and I thought then that Pinot had a bright future once the right places were found to grow the grape. I was less certain about Syrah. But its popularity was a shadow of what it is today.
Ernest didn’t seem excited about either grape and said Gallo would never pursue those wines. But no sooner had he said that than his chef poured two red wines from shiners, or unlabeled bottles. One was a Pinot Noir. The other a Syrah. He wanted me to taste the wines with him and talk about what it was that people liked about these wines. He was hardly a Francophile and had little interest in classic French wines.
By the time we finished brunch at 3 p.m. with a cup of coffee, I had learned that Mr. Gallo had an unexpectedly sly sense of humor and was a good storyteller with a sharp mind for details.
I was also sure that day that Gallo would never make a commercial Pinot or Syrah, and that seemed important at the time.
I don’t remember how long it was after that that I noticed both a Gallo Pinot Noir and Syrah in wine stores. The shiners he had poured were probably the wines headed for the market. But true to his form and reputation for secrecy, he didn’t let on, and perhaps tried to lead me off the track.
It had been a memorable visit and exercise, dining with Mr. Gallo at his home and being schooled by him on Thanksgiving Day.