The Life and Times of Ernest Gallo
Looking back at the life of a California wine icon.
Ernest Gallo, the iconic vintner who, with his younger brother, Julio, built the world's largest winery starting with a $6,000 nest egg, died in his home on March 6.
He was 97 years old, and lived long enough to see his grandchildren assume senior positions in the E. & J. Gallo Winery the brothers started in 1933.
Ernest was the businessman, Julio the grape-and-wine man. One of the more apocryphal stories has Ernest telling his brother, "You make the wine and I'll sell it." Julio made plenty, and Ernest sold more of it than anyone else in history. Along the way, he more than any other figure introduced wine to post-Prohibition America, at a time when Americans didn't even know they wanted it. In the process, Ernest Gallo almost single-handedly created the modern distribution system, and together the brothers laid the foundations of many of the industry's current practices.
The company also nurtured several generations of wine industry leaders in all fields: grapegrowing, winemaking, public relations, sales and marketing. Look through the top management of many an American wine company, and you're likely to find a Gallo alum.
It was in 1933 that Ernest, who had been growing and selling grapes in the Central Valley town of Modesto, decided to get into the wine business, and invited Julio, who was one year younger, to join him. Their parents had died that year, and Ernest, determined to pay off his father's debts, decided that the impending end of Prohibition provided opportunities. Legend has it that one of Ernest's aunts, a fortune teller, predicted the boy would become a success in either oil or wine.
The brothers borrowed $5,000 from Ernest's mother-in-law, supplemented by $1,000 in Ernest's savings, and learned how to make wine from reading old pamphlets they found in the Modesto Public Library. This was at a time when hundreds of wineries were starting up, many of them run by Italian-Americans just like the young Gallos. By sheer dint of work ethic, Ernest and Julio put in 18-hour days, and they earned a profit their first year of production.
Ernest Gallo is largely credited with inventing the modern distribution system, and E. & J. Gallo was the first American winery to have its own national sales force. Ernest also pioneered the art (or science) of shelf placement in stores, and there are legions of stories about how aggressive his sales force was in the 1940s getting Gallo product before the public's eyes. Ernest also was an early proponent of advertising, including on television.
By the 1960s, E. & J. Gallo was the world's biggest winery, a position it held until 2003, when Constellation Brands briefly surpassed it, through a merger. But in 2006, Gallo once again became the U.S.'s top wine company, with annual case sales of 62 million, according to the industry publication, Wine Business Monthly.
Ernest Gallo slowed down in recent years, but still maintained an active interest in the company. "My father's passion for the wine industry was matched only by his passion for life and for his family," said his son, Joseph Gallo, who is CEO of E. & J. Gallo Winery. Also surviving Ernest are five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Funeral services will be private, and the Gallo family has asked that contributions be made to the Ernest and Julio Gallo Scholarship Fund at Modesto Junior College.
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