What Would Julio Gallo Think About All This?

May 25, 2006

Too bad Julio Gallo is no longer with us.

I’d love to know his thoughts on two pressing industry issues -- closures and vintage dates.

The late, great winemaker, who with his brother Ernest built E. & J. Gallo winery into the world’s largest wine producer, was considered a legend in his time. He died tragically in 1993, on the eve of the release of Gallo’s then-new Northern Sonoma flagship wines, a $60 Cabernet and $30 Chardonnay.

The new wines were a radical departure for Gallo. For decades, the winery sold mostly inexpensive wines and resisted cork closures, bottling most of its wines with twist-off tops. The Gallos resisted varietal labeling for years, too, and didn't use vintage dates until 1978, when they released a Sonoma-grown Cabernet.

What would Julio Gallo think about the state of closures today?

I think he knew that twist-offs were secure and ideal for most wines, knowing that most wines are made for immediate consumption. Twisties are also less expensive. I’m also sure he would take a dim view of the problems associated with cork taint.

However, he would probably stick with the current company line and support corks. One obstacle Gallo faced when it set up its winery in Sonoma had to do with its image as a company that sold cheap wines. Corks are associated with upscale packaging. But Julio was a winemaker, not a wine marketer. Ernest took care of that side of the business.

One of Julio's legacies as a winemaker was the amazing success of Gallo Hearty Burgundy. While it appeared to be little more than an ordinary red table wine, it was much more than that.

The wine was indeed a blend of vintages; however, in some years nearly 40 percent of the grapes came from Napa and Sonoma (including some excellent Cabernet, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel), anchoring the cuvée. Of course, the whole point was to make the wine taste the same every year, giving consumers a consistent, predictable bottle of wine with a risk-free seal.

Recent changes in vintage-date laws now allow for more blending in wines bearing state and county appellations, such as California or Napa County (but not specific American Viticultural Areas, such as Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley).

For years a winery could only add 5 percent of a wine from a different vintage. Many wineries, for instance, would freshen a wine about to be bottled by adding a dollop of a younger vintage (adding a splash of 2004 to a 2003 cuvée, for instance). That would allow a vintner the opportunity to add some riper, richer fruit to a vintage that might be thinner, more acidic or tannic.

Now the law allows for state and county wines to add up to 15 percent of a different vintage and still keep the vintage date.

I'm sure Julio would have smiled with amusement at this new twist. After all, he set the standard for this concept decades ago, with Hearty Burgundy.

Talk about being ahead of your time.

Closures Legal and Legislative Issues Labeling Regulations




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