His legend, unbeatable. His reputation, peerless. His name, household. His gift, wine. Ernest Gallo, the man behind so many bottles and vines, passed away on March 6, 2007. Living to a ripe old age, he was only a few weeks shy of his 98th birthday.
Born on March 18, 1909 near Modesto, California, Ernest Gallo was the epitome of the American spirit, and of American spirits. Beginning with just under six thousand dollars, five thousand of which were borrowed from his mother-in-law, and a University of California wine pamphlet borrowed from the public library, Ernest and his brother Julio eventually became partners in wine, and kings of a viniculture empire.
The brothers founded the E & J Gallo Winery in 1933, shooting out of the gates as soon as Prohibition ended. They started in a rundown, rented building with members of their families all helping out to make wine and sell it for half the going rate. This, as they say, was only the beginning.
The post-Prohibition era was marked by many people sampling the wine business. Some of these people had a vast knowledge of winemaking, others had thousands and thousands of dollars to spend. Ernest and Julio had neither. But, what they lacked in knowledge and finances, they made up in determination and a willingness to sacrifice. In the beginning, Ernest and Julio lived, breathed, and ate wine; waist deep into grapes, they worked constantly. This constant dedication was not in vain; the Gallo brothers saw their first profit within the first year.
Ernest and Julio soon became wine pioneers: like two people who stood up and said, "America, Wine. Wine, America," these brothers practically introduced wine to the US consumer, at least the modern version of it. They also helped establish the wine market, and implement the idea of wine advertising. Industrialists in their own rite, they were the first ones in the US wine industry to utilize brand management and merchandising, and to export and import different wines out of California. On the other side of the vine they were also entrepreneurs, becoming the first to employ long-term contracts with wine growers and initiate programs for grape research. Together, they put Sonoma County on the wine map, making it known as one of the best wine regions in the entire world.
The E & J Gallo Winery started with just three employees, Ernest, his wife Amelia, and Julio: the holiday party may have been considerably low key, but the loyalty and perseverance wasn’t. Since 1933, the company’s employment rate has reproduced like a group of rabbit (corkscrews) with an employee count of over 4,600 people. The Gallo products have followed a similar path: initially sold locally, they are now distributed to over 90 countries. Today, E & J Gallo Winery produces approximately 900 million bottles annually, selling them under 40 different labels; one of every three bottles of wine made in the US is produced under them. The E & J Gallo Winery is also the only winery in America to be deemed "International Winery of the Year" three times.
Ernest Gallo, to those who only know his name, will be remembered for his wine, but those who knew him personally and professionally will remember him for a vibrant sense of self, competence, intensity, demand for loyalty, focus, and an unyielding optimism that reminded everyone the wine glass was always half full. Perhaps more than anything, Ernest will be remembered for being earnest: his sincerity was so great that, despite being ranked 297th on the 2006 Forbes 400 list of billionaires, he kept his phone number listed in the Modesto telephone book.
Besides wine, he was also interested in reading, sailing, fishing, food, world travel, and, above all, his family. Married to Amelia Franzia, his first girlfriend, Ernest had two sons, Joseph and David. Amelia and David preceded him in death, passing away in 1993 and 1997, respectively.
With the death of Ernest Gallo, the world of wine has lost an innovator and an ally. Few people have done for any industry what he did for wine: a world of wine without an Ernest Gallo is like a world of animation without a Walt Disney. His wine, like the legend, lives on, on the shelves and the cellars of wine lovers everywhere. As for Ernest himself, we can only imagine that the wine in Heaven just got a whole lot better.