Pioneer brought wine to the masses

Special to The Times

Ernest Gallo, who with his brother Julio created a post-Prohibition wine business that became one of the most dominant in the world and changed the American palate, has died. He was 97.

Gallo died Tuesday at his home in Modesto, E. & J. Gallo Winery announced. A cause of death was not given.

Ernest was the older of the Gallos who, in 1933, launched the low-end winery in Modesto -- far from the state’s premier wine-producing areas to the north.


In 2006, E. & J. Gallo shipped an estimated 70 million cases of California wine, and estimates are that Gallo has been producing about a quarter of all wine and wine-related products sold in the United States.

In all, Gallo owns thousands of acres of vineyards from Modesto to Napa and Sonoma counties and a network of wineries, anchored by the world’s largest in Livingston, south of Modesto.

“No one worked harder to build the base of American wine drinkers that we have today,” Joseph Ciatti, owner of the nation’s largest grape and bulk wine broker, said Tuesday. “Ernest made quality wine for the masses at a good price.”

Starting with such everyday wines as Hearty Burgundy and Carlo Rossi and specialty and fortified beverages such as Night Train Express, Thunderbird and Ripple, Gallo evolved into a worldwide purveyor of fine wine. Its current brands include Louis M. Martini, Mirassou, Rancho Zabaco, MacMurray Ranch and Gallo Family Vineyards.

In more recent years, the company has expanded its dominance by striking agreements with wine producers in France, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.

Gallo “put California on the wine map of the United States and then, through exporting, put California on the wine map of the world,” said Nat DiBuduo, president of Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers, the state’s largest wine-grape-growing cooperative.

Ernest, who was the power behind the company, handled the marketing and business end, while Julio, who was sometimes called the farmer at Gallo, oversaw winemaking.

When the Gallo brothers started the business, the joke was that Ernest’s goal was to sell more wine than Julio could make, and Julio’s was to make more wine than Ernest could sell.

With that philosophy and hard-nosed business practices, the Gallo brothers over the years created a company -- now one of the largest privately owned businesses in the country -- that made them and their progeny immensely wealthy. In September, Ernest Gallo and family ranked No. 297 on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, worth $1.3 billion.

The company has grown to more than 4,600 employees, with products sold throughout the United States and in more than 90 other countries. Ernest turned over day-to-day operations years ago, and his son Joseph now serves as chief executive.

Julio Gallo, who was a year younger than Ernest, died in a 1993 car accident. Their younger brother, Joseph, died last month at 87.

From the beginning, Ernest Gallo’s idea was to use technology and modern manufacturing methods to increase the production, quality and distribution of wine. The company initially sold its wine in bulk to bottlers to be sold under their own labels.

The firm built massive concrete storage tanks and used assembly-line methods to get the wine into bottles, which eventually took on the Gallo brand name. Gallo also acquired a bottle-making plant and a trucking company and made its own labels, becoming a “vertical” company dependent almost solely upon itself.

“We do not like to answer to anyone for our mistakes,” Ernest Gallo once explained.

A compact man with large brown eyes, he had a reputation within the company for being difficult and demanding. But Walter Bregman, vice president of marketing for Gallo from 1974 to 1979, said Ernest was tough because “his name was on the door.”

While it was true that Gallo “suffered fools badly and didn’t much care for lackeys, toadies and lickspittles,” Bregman said, he was also a straightforward businessman who didn’t play political games and whose goal was simple: “to sell the most wine at the best quality.”

Gallo put a tremendous amount of time into the business and demanded the same from others, said winemaker Richard Peterson, who worked as a biochemist for the company from 1958 to 1968.

“He would have the marketing people out on a trip visiting accounts and stores, and then he would tell them he expected to see them the next morning at 8 a.m., even if that meant working on a Sunday,” Peterson said.

“But you just can’t overstate Gallo’s importance to wine in America. This was in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the industry wasn’t doing much of anything,” he said. “But Ernest was very focused and really grew the business.”

The brothers sought ways to make wine more inviting to American consumers, eschewing its elitist image.

The brothers thought the industry was trumped by beer when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. While breweries marketed their products as everyday beverages, the reestablished California wine industry sold its drink for special occasions.

The quest to make good, inexpensive wines led the brothers to try new approaches. The Gallos were innovators of such methods as blending grapes from the Napa, Sonoma and San Joaquin valleys to ensure consistency; using paddles instead of presses to get the juice from the fruit; aging wines in huge stainless-steel vats instead of wooden or concrete casks; and putting screw tops instead of corks on their bottles. All but Gallo’s jug wines are now closed with corks.

As the marketing expert of Gallo, Ernest figured out ways to display the wines more prominently in stores, providing metal wine racks and other devices to help retailers. He gave retailers attractive Gallo posters to display. He even developed some of the company’s slogans, such as “By Golly, Buy Gallo” and “Something to Crow About.”

He was one of the first to use TV advertising to sell wine.

According to Ellen Hawkes, author of “Blood and Wine: The Unauthorized Story of the Gallo Wine Empire” (1993), early Gallo salesmen also were taught the “three Rs” for selling Gallo products: rigorousness, relentlessness and ruthlessness.

“If you turn your back on a Gallo salesman, he’ll turn the place into a Gallo outlet,” one liquor store manager told Time magazine in 1986.

By the early 1950s, Gallo was one of the biggest wine producers in the country. But it still fell behind its chief rivals, including Italian Swiss Colony.

Then came Thunderbird.

The fortified wine emerged in the mid-'50s after a sales manager in San Francisco noticed that liquor store patrons in poor neighborhoods were buying Gallo’s white port wine only to cut its sweetness with lemon juice.

Gallo vintners experimented with the idea of creating a product that would do the mixing of port and lemon juice for their customers. To suit the tastes of their customers, they also pushed the alcohol level up to 21%, almost twice that of most ordinary table wines.

Thunderbird, as the product was eventually named, went on the national market with one of the more famous wine promotions ever: “What’s the word?” “Thunderbird!” “What’s the price?” “A dollar twice.”

The product’s success did push Gallo’s business past those of Italian Swiss Colony and others, but under Ernest Gallo’s guidance, the company developed a new strategy. It eventually started producing better -- and profitable -- varietals, first with mid-price wines such as Turning Leaf and Gossamer Bay, and later with even better wines that sell for more than $30.

Marking another move in this direction, in September 2002 Gallo bought the Louis M. Martini winery in Napa Valley, one of the oldest such family-owned operations in the state. The move “gives the company its first wholly owned winery in California’s premier winemaking region,” Wine Spectator magazine said.

About the same time, Gallo bought the well-known Mirassou brand and inventory, although not its winery or vineyards.

“The moves are an example of Gallo’s eagerness to establish itself among the state’s most respected winemakers and shed lingering associations with the low-end wines largely responsible for the company’s success,” wine industry writer Rod Smith wrote for The Times.

Ernest Gallo was born March 18, 1909, in Jackson, Calif., to Giuseppe Gallo and Assunta Bianco, Italian immigrants who called themselves Joe and Susie after coming to the United States. The couple operated boardinghouses in the Sierra Nevada foothills and later got into the grape business, selling the fruit to home vintners, who could legally make up to 200 gallons of wine a year even during Prohibition.

But times were hard, and after Julio was born, Ernest was sent to live with his grandparents in the San Joaquin Valley town of Hanford, where he remained until age 6.

It was here that Ernest was introduced to winemaking.

Ernest’s grandfather Battista, who had grown up in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, operated a 20-acre vineyard in Hanford -- half of a 40-acre vineyard he had once owned with a partner. When the two men argued, they decided to split the land. The winner of a card game -- Ernest’s grandfather -- got the better part of the vineyard.

“His first and most loyal customers were Basque sheepherders from the surrounding hills,” Julio Gallo wrote of his grandfather in the brothers’ joint autobiography. “They came to town with their earthen jugs for him to fill for a nickel.”

Ernest Gallo sometimes told the story about his “first and last drunk” at age 5, when two men pressing wine for his grandfather offered him a cup.

“It tasted very good, slightly sweet,” he said. He liked it enough to drink a couple of more cups and woke up in his grandmother’s bed with a hangover. He said he would never overdo it again.

By the time young Ernest rejoined his parents and Julio, there was a new Gallo brother: Joseph, born in 1919.

But it was not a happy family.

Their father frequently beat the boys and their mother, who filed for divorce twice but each time reconciled with her husband.

In 1933, Joe Gallo apparently shot and killed himself and his wife, an act that marked the family for life. The two were discovered by workers who had gone to town for a load of hay. For many years, the family was close-mouthed about the tragedy.

Shortly after their parents’ deaths, with Prohibition over, the two older boys, who were in their 20s, obtained a temporary permit to open a winery, naming it simply with their own initials and the family surname, which means “rooster” in Italian.

“We had always worked well side by side,” Julio Gallo said of the long partnership that ensued. “Our personalities seemed to complement each other.”

The same could not be said for their younger brother, Joe, who left the business and became a farmer and cheese maker. In the 1980s, Ernest and Julio sued Joe over the use of the Gallo name on Joe’s line of cheeses; the older brothers won.

Ernest’s and Julio’s children and grandchildren have stepped in over the last few decades to take the reins of E. & J. Gallo and are expected to keep it in the family.

The hardworking Ernest Gallo stayed involved in the business well past retirement age. At 90, he told Wine Spectator that he worked at the business all day and for a few hours after dinner.

“In nothing that my brother and I ever undertook did we have the slightest doubt it would be successful,” Ernest said in the same interview. “We didn’t do the impossible. We did the obvious.”

In addition to his son Joseph, Gallo is survived by five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Gallo’s wife, Amelia, died in 1993. His first son, David, died in 1997. 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.

Hirsch is a Times staff writer; Luther is a freelance writer.