As an impressionable, 23-year-old wine salesman, the thought of meeting Ernest Gallo in person was enough to send chills up and down my spine.
It was 1975, and Ernest Gallo was the single most tenacious and brilliant businessman in America. His reputation was of a man who “took no prisoners” when it came to display of merchandise—it was his wine that deserved the best position near the door at liquor stores, on the shelves or in cold boxes, end of story. His sales and marketing acumen was instinctual but the techniques he refined were to become the prototype for textbooks in the best business schools for years to come.
The Gallos single-handedly convinced consumers that wine was something that they should try and that they would enjoy. Their many lines of affordable, well-made wines found their home on more American tables than any other. Breakthrough television commercials touted the delicious flavors of Hearty Burgundy and Chablis Blanc. The Gallos paved the way for generations of new winemakers and new consumers as well: Due to their striving, wine proliferated on dinner tables across our nation, as people from all walks of life enjoyed delicious glasses of white, red or rosé. Wine is a civilizing beverage, and Ernest reached out to help create a better America and influence our culture in a dynamic way that few can claim.
In the 60s, Gallo was the exclusive advertiser of wine on television. Then a competitor, Italian Swiss Colony, started its own television campaign with “a little old winemaker.” The trade press rushed to Ernest and asked him if he was worried about the competition. “Quite the contrary,” said Gallo with true passion and “big picture thinking.” “I am so grateful that someone else is finally advertising wine.”
Ernest and his equally formidable brother Julio challenged each other throughout their careers: Ernest’s goal was to sell more wine than Julio could produce and Julio’s goal was to produce more wine than Ernest could sell. It was this contest between these two driven men that expanded and proliferated wine sales in America.
But on that day in 1975, my concerns were simpler, and more narrow: my own career. My sales manager warned me that Mr. Gallo was in town and that he might be visiting some of my clients. They had better be well stocked and have our sales promotional materials right in front, where a potential wine purchaser might see them, I was told. I immediately rushed all over town, from store to store on my route, frantically building huge displays of Gallo wines, stocking shelves and posting signs. This was in the day when a liquor store (that’s what they were called) was 70 percent distilled spirits; wine was relegated to a smaller portion, so our fight for customer attention on behalf of Gallo was a true struggle. By the end of the day I was exhausted—and there was no sign of Mr. Gallo.
Ernest Gallo made sure that every one of his distributor representatives was on high alert for a personal visit and inspection by him. I came to realize that on any given day, thousands of Gallo wine salespeople across the nation were concerned that Mr. Gallo would be visiting their clients. Every morning of that time period, I woke to the thought that Ernest Gallo would be stopping by on a “tour of the market” and making a personal visit to see how I was doing.
I later learned that Ernest had been in quite a few of my stores that day. He had been right behind me and was impressed and “relatively happy” with the way things looked but there was a great deal of room for improvement.
Many years passed. After starting Wine Enthusiast Companies, I would have the honor of sharing “a plate of spaghetti and a glass of wine” (his words) with Ernest Gallo on a few occasions, and he would always remark (in between business talk, of course) on how this simple ritual held the secret to binding family values and traditions.
The E&J Gallo Winery remains today a family business. The importance of family is the greatest legacy that Ernest Gallo has left us. That’s saying a lot, for Ernest and Julio Gallo were the two people most responsible for creating America’s wine industry and wine culture, period.
Thank you and bless you, Ernest, for introducing this wonderful pleasure and helping to keep families together at the dinner table for a lifetime of love and wine.
Read the The Life and Times of Ernest Gallo