Gallo Reflections

Gallo Reflections

Wine of the WeekGallo Family 2005 Sierra Valley Merlot *** ($8.15)Nicely done for eight dollars. Mid-merlot with a shy nose and some lack of fruit depth but perfect berry ripeness nicely embellished by vanilla and back ground clove. A touch of tobacco and earthiness as well. Best now to 2009. The label change on this vintage emphasizes the family rather than founders Ernest and Julio.

Ernest Gallo passed away last week at age 97 in California, closing a generational chapter in the wine life of North America. His equally famous and inseparable brother Julio had died in 1993 while working in the Sonoma hillside vineyards that had been the brothers’ spiritual centre for decades. The pair are widely credited with being the post-Prohibition creators of the modern California wine industry, from vineyard and oenological development, through marketing, advertising, distribution and retailing. To this day it remains the largest family-owned wine business in the world, with 4,600 employees and wines sold in 90 countries.

I never did meet Ernest or Julio—perhaps because I wasn’t of their generation. Nor do I sense they had a lot of time for young whippersnapper wine writers who freely dispensed their numerical opinions to the populace of North America. The Gallos, notorious for not granting media interviews, were much more focused on ensuring their wines were on America’s table, no matter what anyone else thought. Throughout my career I have been amazed by the sheer power of their marketing and distribution machinery, and its singular determination to promote the brand. Most recently came a four-bottle sample pack decked out as the ideal libation for watching the recent Academy Awards. The media kit was packaged in an empty film canister with a bag of popcorn. This is a company that never gives up. And yes chardonnay goes well with popcorn.

I think I would have quite liked Ernest and Julio, and I say this because I quite like the second and third generations who now run the company, as well the people in their employ, of whom I’ve met a least a dozen over the years. They are all upstanding, clean-cut, affable and serious—always enthusiastic about their wine, but even more so about the family. Above all, Gallo is a corporate family, the two concepts intertwined and sanctified in the way only an American clan of Italian heritage could manage. Old-fashioned in principle and style, but with a new generation working to be relevant in a faster-moving world with changing tastes. Ironically, their biggest competition today comes from another Italian family named Casella. That family operates from a massive new winery in the interior of Australia where they make a record-shattering brand called Yellowtail.

Ernest and Julio’s stamp runs through every bottle and brand the company makes. In one less-flattering word perhaps, there is a sense of dullness. The first impression is of Old World, reserved, sturdy and dry wine. Words like fragrant, effusive, polished and creamy rarely apply. Yet I am very often surprised by the complexity and sense of proportion built into the wines, especially the modestly priced Turning Leaf and Sierra Valley lines. These less expensive wines are proportioned well but not balanced to the point of elegance, and can show some coarseness on the finish. Yet there is real substance for the price, designed to weigh in at the dinner table.

For more length and harmony, move upscale into the Gallo of Sonoma varietals harvested from the massive, impeccably kept sites in Sonoma County, and then up into the very top tier Estate Cabernet and Chardonnay. When you pause over these wines there is actually quite incredible layering and complexity, even if you still walk away with a sense they could use a touch more flamboyance. But how to achieve this without resorting to over-oaking or over-sweetening the wines to the point that they become un-Gallo-like? I’ve seen it tried in the Turning Leaf 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon which is now full of tasty clove, mocha and super-ripe cassis-cherry. But it’s more mindful of Australian wine than Californian, and not much reminiscent of cabernet either, except for the grape’s churlish tannin.

Indeed it will be very interesting to observe Gallo—the wine, the concept, the corporation—now that Ernest has passed on. The next generations have been in full transition mode for the last decade, so don’t expect to see much change in the near future. But the modern wine world, which Ernest and Julio helped create, is now much bigger and more competitive than even they might have imagined it would become. Will it take new thinking, new direction, new organization for Gallo to stay the course? Or is the wine world perhaps soon ready to come back to the more serious Gallo aura after being suffocated by all the too-sweet, too-cute critter wines from the New World?

Whatever the direction, Ernest and Julio would have put their heads down and worked hard. As nephew and current CEO Joseph Gallo said last week in a tribute: “They built this company on a very clear set of principles that we still follow today: hard work; respect for the land; respect for the wine industry; respect for the employees; respect for the grower; respect for the family; and respect for our competition.”