Ernest Gallo Dies at 97

Industry titan teamed with brother Julio to build world's largest winery

Mar 6, 2007

Ernest Gallo, who built a small winery into a global empire in a career that spanned eight decades, died today at his home in Modesto, the city where it all began. He was 97.

Gallo was one of the undisputed titans of the California wine industry. Many of his peers considered him the father of the modern California wine industry, helping lead its recovery from Prohibition. The company he built became the world's largest wine producer and marketer in the 1980s.

"Ernest Gallo was an extraordinary man of vision who left an indelible imprint on the history of California wine," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator.

Robert Mondavi, who knew Gallo since the 1930s, recalled their efforts to develop a wine business as America struggled through the Depression and two world wars.

"I remember the earliest days, when Ernest and I traveled up and down the country trying to sell California wine," Mondavi said. "He was a little more successful than I, but we both worked our legs off."

"The truth is we both had different visions and were able to realize those different dreams."

Ernest Gallo and his brother Julio, younger by a year, were the E. & J. initials on the Gallo label, and they were the driving force behind this family-owned winery. Both men were shy and reclusive, but they had a deep knowledge of their industry and were responsible for many innovations in winemaking and marketing.

Julio died in 1993 in a freak off-road vehicle accident at age 83. Julio's death came just as he had made Gallo's finest wines from a new vineyard planted in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. Those vineyards and a winery in Dry Creek became the base for their fine wine operations under the name Gallo of Sonoma. The brothers were given Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award in 1983.

The sons of Italian immigrants, the Gallos came from humble origins. Ernest was born in Jackson, Calif., on March 18, 1909, and he and Julio grew up making homemade wine with their father, stomping grapes with their feet. During Prohibition--which outlawed the commercial production of wine--they sold grapes to home winemakers in the Midwest and East Coast. Those contacts would become useful in later years as Ernest traveled the country to sell wines.

They opened their winery in Modesto, Calif., in 1933 after the repeal of Prohibition legalized winemaking. But the Gallos knew little about the chemistry of winemaking, so they borrowed pamphlets on winemaking from the Modesto City Library.

"This was the beginning of our knowledge about making commercial wine, such as how to have a sound, clean fermentation and how to clarify the wine," Ernest said in interviews with Wine Spectator. "These old pamphlets probably saved us from going out of business our very first year--as did those new wineries that produced undrinkable wine."

Then, with $900 in savings and a loan for $5,000, they rented for $60 a month a small cement warehouse in their hometown where they made their first wines. They later built a giant winery that spanned more than 400 acres in size, with the capacity to make 1 million gallons of wine. From the air, the sprawling facility, with its scores of stainless steel tanks, looked like an oil refinery.

Early on, the Gallo winery was little more than Ernest and Julio and their wives, Amelia and Aileen, respectively, but their confidence was "unbounded," Ernest said. As their business grew, they divided the responsibilities. Julio, who liked farming, oversaw winemaking, while Ernest focused on the business of sales and marketing. The two brothers were close and worked side by side until Julio's death. One axiom held that Julio tried to make more wine than Ernest could sell, and that Ernest tried to sell more wine than Julio could make.

Through hard work and sheer determination, the winery grew and prospered, selling wide variety of wines, ranging from sweet, fortified wines, to generic table wines to brandies, vermouth, ports, sherries and wine coolers. Many of their brands were household names, including Thunderbird, Ripple, Spanada, Gypsy Rose, Andre, Carlo Rossi, Boone's Farm and Bartles & Jaymes, and mirrored American's changing tastes for wine.

Despite their popularity, wines such as Ripple and Thunderbird contributed to the Gallos' image of purveyors of ordinary jug wines, an impression they sought to overcome in later years.

As early as the 1930s and 1940s, the Gallos were not only major grape buyers in the Central Valley, but they purchased a large portion of the grapes, and some wines, grown in Napa and Sonoma counties, which they used in their table wines, such as the famous Gallo Hearty Burgundy and Chablis Blanc. In 1937, Ernest recalled in an interview with Wine Spectator, he and Julio bought 400,000 gallons of wine, most of the inventory, from Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley, for eight cents per gallon.

Ernest had a keen sense of marketing and was known for his detailed, hands-on research. He routinely visited cities and retail outlets where his wines were sold to make sure they were given the best possible placement.

Though stern and demanding, he also had a dry, witty sense of humor, which came through in an interview where he described his education and success.

"My first-grade teacher told me I was the dumbest student she ever had," he said, adding, "She did me a favor. If she had told me I was very smart, I wouldn't have tried to improve. Anyway, I'd rather be lucky than smart." While he rarely gave interviews, he had a knack for simple, one or two word answers. And he routinely tried to pry information out of the interviewer, rather than divulge anything about his company or its plans.

A stickler by nature, Ernest was never satisfied with his wines and was always looking for ways to improve them. "We got where we did, wherever it is, because we always sought perfection," he said. "We never achieve it, but we keep trying."

By the 1970s, the Gallos had become the dominant wine company in the U.S., and in 1978 Julio made their first Sonoma County Cabernet, laying the groundwork for what would be a major push by the Gallos into the fine wine market in the 1990s. "It's the last mountain to climb," Ernest said of Gallo of Sonoma and its line of varietal wines.

The Gallos could have owned land wherever they wanted. But they had strong ties with old-time Italian growers and maintained that Sonoma County, with is diverse appellations, had the best land and climate for the kinds of wines they wanted to make. They purchased large tracts of land that were developed into vineyard. Along with Gallo of Sonoma, they produce Sonoma-grown wine under the Frei Bros., MacMurray Ranch and Rancho Zabaco labels, as well as Turning Leaf.

The company also began an import business, focusing on affordable wines from Italy, under the Ecco Domani label, and from southern France, under the Red Bicylette brand. Gallo also introduced a Napa Valley Cabernet under the Marcelina label. It further expanded its interests in Napa with the acquisition of Louis M. Martini Winery.

With Gallo of Sonoma established, Ernest considered most of his work completed and was confident that the next generation--including family members in key decision-making jobs--would fulfill his dream.

But in true Ernest Gallo fashion, he was still not satisfied. "What bothers me is that our industry has not achieved the status that it really deserves."

Ernest was predeceased by his wife of 62 years, Amelia, along with a son, David, and brother Julio. He is survived by his son Joseph, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private. In lieu of flowers, the Gallo family has requested that contributions be made to the Ernest and Julio Gallo Scholarship Fund at Modesto Junior College.

United States California News obituaries

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