Tony Terlato, a Giant in the U.S. Wine Industry, Dies at 86

From working in his dad's retail store to building a leading wine distribution and import firm to producing wines in four countries, Terlato focused on giving consumers quality

Tony Terlato, a Giant in the U.S. Wine Industry, Dies at 86
Tony Terlato built his company on a belief that Americans would become wine lovers if exposed to better wines. (Shannon Sturgis)
Jun 29, 2020

Anthony "Tony" Terlato, who devoted his life to bringing great wines to American consumers as a retailer, distributor, importer and winery owner, died early this morning. He was 86.

"My brother John and I learned everything we know from our father. He taught us so much," said Bill Terlato, CEO and president of Terlato Wine Group, the company his father established. "We were fortunate to have him for 86 years. We only wish it could have been more."

As founder and chairman of the Chicago-based Terlato Wine Group, an importer that markets top producers including Gaja, M. Chapoutier, Piper-Heidsieck and Nino Franco, Tony introduced Americans to high-quality wine for decades, particularly Italian wines. He almost single-handedly put Pinot Grigio on the map in the United States.

In the 1990s, Terlato's company became a wine producer as well, purchasing California wineries such as Rutherford Hill, Chimney Rock and Sanford, establishing brands like the Federalist and Seven Daughters, and partnering with Michel Chapoutier on wineries in France and Australia. In 2004, he was awarded Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award for his philanthropy and the incredible mark he made on wine.

"Tony Terlato did so much for the wine world," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator. "He knew every aspect of the business, and everything he touched he made better. Tony and I met more than 40 years ago and he, and his family, became important people in my life. He led by example, and will be greatly missed."

Squarely built, with fiery eyes that radiated energy and intelligence, Terlato was always working hard, striving to innovate and grow his company. He was also passionate about food and wine, often cooking for clients. He was a supporter of philanthropy, serving on the board of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. And he was a family man, who passed increasing responsibility to his children and grandchildren in recent years.

Discussing the philosophy that drives him and his company in a 2004 interview with Wine Spectator, Terlato said, "There's no glut of Gaja. There's no glut of wines like Pétrus or Mouton[-Rothschild], no glut of Roederer Cristal. No matter what you're doing, if you're not making decisions for quality reasons, you're going backwards. Quality is the only thing that endures."

JoJo and Tony Terlato
Josephine "JoJo" Terlato and Tony were married for more than six decades. (Photo by Deepix Studio)

Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Terlato was 21 when his family moved to Chicago in 1955 and his father Salvatore opened a wine and spirits store. It was a time when wines like Bolla, Lancers, Blue Nun and Mateus dominated the industry in the United States, but Terlato's interests lay elsewhere: the quality wines of Bordeaux his father stocked from leading châteaus.

In 1956 Terlato married JoJo Paterno, and within a few years he joined his father-in-law Anthony's business, a large Chicago bottling company. California producers shipped wine in bulk to be bottled and sold regionally by Paterno. But that business was fading, and Terlato convinced Paterno that the company's future was in wine wholesale.

From the beginning, Terlato was an innovator. In those days, Chicago restaurant wine lists were mostly limited to four or five wines from the same producer, printed on the back of the menu. "If you were willing to pay for the cost of printing the food menu, you could get your wines on the back," said Terlato. He began supplying restaurants with leather-bound lists and didn't require that all the wines come through his distributorship. Restaurants embraced the new lists and stocked plenty of Terlato's wines.

By the early 1960s, Terlato's company was doing business with industry pioneers such as Alexis Lichine in Bordeaux and importer Frank Schoonmaker, who specialized in Burgundy and Germany. There were value-priced wines, but Terlato moved increasingly to artisanal wines. He traveled to Italy extensively, looking for quality wines at a time when Italian wine meant cheap to most Americans.

In 1979, Terlato was eating alone at a restaurant in Portogruaro in the Alto Adige region of Italy. Charmed by the local white, Pinot Grigio, he decided to taste as many as he could. He ordered all 18 bottles on the restaurant's list. One wine—Santa Margherita—stood out. Terlato visited the winery and signed a deal to import the wine. Neither the producer nor the grape were well-known in the States at the time. By the time the two companies parted ways in 2016, Terlato was selling more than 600,000 cases of Santa Margherita in the U.S. each year.

Tony Terlato
Terlato loved to cook and constructed a kitchen in his offices so he could feed clients. (Photo by Grant Kessler)

In 2002, Terlato sold the distribution division of the company to focus on marketing, importing and production. Today, his company owns seven wineries in California and is partners in four wineries in Australia, Italy, France and the U.S.

In 1996, the company bought Merlot specialist Rutherford Hill in Napa Valley, and has slowly rebuilt the brand, investing more than $7 million in expanding the winery, finding new grape sources and adding a 6-acre Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard. He has made similar improvements at the other wineries, like Chimney Rock in Napa and Sanford in Santa Barbara. The company also launched new mass-market brands like the Federalist and Seven Daughters. Terlato has said his goal in building a portfolio of wineries is much like writing the wine lists he used to give to restaurants: Offer a diverse array of wines to customers.

Terlato's ambition was rooted in his optimism. "We're only on the threshold of people enjoying wine," Terlato said back in 2004. "I look back and think this is where I was in 1955 and this is where we were in 1967 and now today."

"When my father had the store, we were able to influence the drinking habits of people within 1 mile of each side of the store. When we became a distributor, we were able to influence the drinking habits of people perhaps 20 miles each side. When we became a national importer, I was able to influence the drinking habits from California to New York and from Detroit to New Orleans," Terlato said. "As a winery owner, I can influence the world."

He is survived by Jo, his wife of 65 years, their sons Bill and John, six grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

—with reporting by Tim Fish

Terlato's heirs
Tony Terlato II, Bill Terlato, Jo Terlato Giannoulias and John Terlato, left to right, represent the third and fourth generations of Terlato Wine Group. (Photo by Bob Stefko)
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