The passing of industry legend Ernest Gallo has left its mark on the wine industry. Read on for reactions and recollections from industry leaders on this iconic vintner.
Richard Arrowood Director of winemaking, Arrowood Wine, and winemaster, Amapola Creek.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Ernest on a couple occasions. The man was obviously greater than the legend. He was all there! When he’d hold forth at tastings and shake your hand and tell you the wine was nice, it lifted your spirits. Like Robert Mondavi, he was an icon, there’s no parallel to him. People had different takes on him, but everything I ever noted with him, it was always a pleasant experience. He was always kind with the comments. As far as I’m concerned, he had a right to be tough. Here’s a person who, along with his brother, was the benchmark for someone starting out with this industry with nothing, and achieving everything there was.”
Agustin Huneeus, Sr. Proprietor of Quintessa and Veramonte.
“I lost touch with Ernest 3 or 4 years ago, but I always had a good relationship with him. He was really a brilliant man. I traveled with him and his late wife [Amelia] a few times in Chile. One trip we took was with him and his son, David, who was quite frail. [David Gallo died in 1997]. Ernest took such loving care of him, and I was really touched by his dedication to David, and to all his family. And one of the things I enjoyed most about Ernest was his incredible sense of humor. I know that’s not something most people would agree with! He wasn’t a joker, but he was, internally, caustic, very keen. An incredible person. And of course he did not play it up in popularity—no question about it, popularity was not his thing. Then, of course, bigness breeds problems a lot of time, and he was a worrier—he created this huge company, and that doesn’t happen with a mellow, meek man. As for his achievements, there’s always been a bifurcation in our industry, the commercial wine and the esthetic wine, and Ernest was definitely a leader in the commercial wine business. He created a big base, from which the esthetic wine benefits ultimately, so he did create something from which we were able to build the complex industry we now have.”
Alan Shoupe Former president and CEO, Stimson Lane Wine & Spirits. Now founder/CEO of Long Shadows Wineries & Vineyards, in Walla Walla.
“The two men who have left the greatest legacy, not only in the American wine industry but in the world, are Ernest Gallo and Bob Mondavi, and I had the great fortune to be with both of them. I used to always feel like I was sitting at the feet of the two masters. Ernest was always miscast as a very difficult, demanding taskmaster, when the truth is that all he expected from anyone was what he would give them in return. I started at Gallo as a group product manager, and was with Ernest on a number of occasions, and was invited back a number of times for lunch or dinner with him.I always said, if Ernest Gallo had been in espionage during World War II, the war would have ended earlier. He had this uncanny ability to get you to reveal everything abut yourself. He was an intensely inquisitive person: He would always in the end have you spilling your guts. And his interest was broad—he wanted to know as much about you personally as about your thoughts. The first time he invited me for dinner, I told him more about my life than I’d ever told anyone before or after. I have a graduate degree in psychology, and he asked me how he could use that to get our employees to be more loyal. He really valued loyalty. I was there once when he interviewed a candidate. The way it worked was, if they made it through all the interviews, they would have lunch with him, and after lunch they’d either be hired or they wouldn’t. We had this one candidate, and Ernest asked, “How’d you pay for your education?” The candidate said his company had paid for it. Ernest wouldn’t hire him. In Ernest’s mind, anyone who would take money for an education and not stay with the company was not a loyal person. And he put such a premium on loyalty.
The other thing, he was supposedly very imperious, but everyone who worked for him will tell you, whenever you presented an idea to him, he would always ask the lowest person on the totem pole what they thought about the idea, and then he’d go all the way around the table. He knew it would be difficult for someone lower down the ladder to contradict someone higher. Commonly, he would say, “No, You’re all wrong; this person’s right,” meaning the lowest person on the ladder. It was exciting to work for him, and I can honesty say never, ever was he not a gentleman. He was an Old World person. Certainly I consider him and Bob Mondavi my greatest mentors. I believe Ernest Gallo has never received the real credit he deserves—he and Julio built in a non-wine-drinking country the largest wine company in the world, with their own money. And it’s still private—that’s an incredible story.”
Michael Mondavi Founder/Coach, Folio Fine Wine Partners
“I think the most memorable thing for me with Ernest took place in the late 60s or early 70s, at a Wine Institute meeting. I was there with my father, and the whole group of all the different members. I was standing alone and Ernest—then ‘Mr. Gallo’ to me—came up and said, ‘Hello, do you know who I am?’
I said, ‘Sure, you’re Mr…Mr…Mr. Gallo.’ He said ‘Do you know what I do?,’ because he would always interrogate you; he would never just have a conversation. I said ‘You run the biggest winery in America.’ He said, ‘No, in the world—but that’s not what I really do. What do I do?’ So I said, ‘You’—and I gave him all this business school stuff, ‘you set the strategic direction and stuff.’ He said, ‘No. I’ll tell you what I do. I call on my customer.’ And he then he said to me pointedly, ‘You’ll never be as big, or as important, as Gallo. If I can call on my customer, you can call on yours.’ And it was the best advice I ever got, whether it be university or post-graduate classes or anything. Absolutely just a pearl of wisdom. And I believe it to this day. I think he loved to challenge people, to encourage them to excel. Needless to say, Ernest was a voracious competitor, but he was tremendous for the industry.”
Peter Mondavi, Sr. Chairman, Charles Krug Winery.
“Ernest Gallo was extremely dedicated to the wine business, much more than so many others in this business. It was in his blood up to the very last minute. It took his foresight and drive to bring the wine business up to this present level. Others who appeared to approach his level have done so by purchasing well-established wineries, while Ernest and Julio Gallo developed their business from the ground up. There’s a big difference between those two phases of growth. There’s big difference between that and purchasing an already an already established business. He as well as Julio will be sadly missed. But rest assured their business, under the family’s guidance, will continue. I’m certain Ernest has made the necessary arrangements for its continuation.”
Peter Mondavi, Jr. Proprietor, Charles Krug Winery.
“I wouldn’t say I knew Mr. Gallo well, but I spent time with him. We’d get together for the oldtimers’ winemaker dinners, a group of the founding people of the wine industry—Dad, the Gallos, Seghesios, Mondavis, people back from the Forties, who would casually, quietly get together, reminisce and have a good time. My brother Mark and I were lucky enough to get invited to a few of these events. Ernest was a wonderful gentleman to be around—driven, focused. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him, not only for his family business but for the industry as a whole. He was really instrumental in making quality wine accessible to the masses. I loved hearing him talk about his early times, marching around the country with his little sample pack of wines, trying to sell it and generate some interest. Just imagine the perserverance and drive it took to get that accomplished.”
“Ernest Gallo’s death is a milestone in American wine. It’s hard to see a pioneer such as Ernest Gallo pass. He has done more to teach America to drink and the industry to sell wine than perhaps anyone, and as such enriched all of us. All of this he’s done while holding true to his core beliefs of family and hard work. Our hearts go out to the family at this time, knowing that he had such a huge role of improving the lives of Americans. I think my father [Robert] saw in Ernest a likeminded fellow of similar heritage and past. Both were hard working men of Italian descent who recognized wine as part of the future of America. People like Ernest Gallo and my father will in many ways live forever.”
Founder, chairman, Kendall-Jackson.
“Ernest Gallo was a substantial part of the recovery of the wine industry after Prohibiton, and one of the titans of the industry, who helped position California as a wine producer of the highest international respect. He concentrated in the early years more on volume, and was equaled by Louis Martini and of course, Robert Mondavi and others, who elevated the perception, consistency and quality of the industy and helped lay the foundation for what the industry is today. And Ernest was in the early lead on that. We admired him as a titan of the industry and his death closes a chapter, that although it started long ago, was critical as a component of our evolution.”
Fred Franzia CEO, Bronco Wine Co.
“Ernest was a beacon of light to all of us in the industry. We respected him greatly and of course I’m personally saddened. We’ll honor him by continuing on the path he set.”
Don Sebastiani CEO, Don Sebastiani & Sons.
“It deserves to be said, he was someone who put great stock in family and that’s not just words, it’s where the rubber meets the road. The idea of building an enterprise, passing it down to your kids, your grandkids and even your great grandkids, was not lost on these guys. Ernest and Julio were very conscious of that. I saw them a couple of times, and they behaved almost like teenagers. Ernest was an interesting guy. He would engage you in conversation, start an argument, start jousting with you, and you could either be intimidated or you could come back at him. I was very, very junior to him in the industry, and to come back at him and find, I can take him on! I caught him a couple of times laughing, with pleasure, because it was so rare he would find someone to take him on. He cultivated this aura, a mystique almost, of command, of regal posture, and he used that well. He had people saying, ‘Yes sir!’ Sometimes with guys twice his size and half his age, it worked, but he preferred to have a joust-about, to spar, and in some cases even lose! He would admire a guy who beat him back in argument.”
John DeLuca Chairman of the board of the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center, University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, and Executive Vice Chairman, Wine Institute.
“Ernest and his family were really outstanding members of the Wine Institute. The work of our Institute has many committees, and Ernest was very active in putting together our code of advertising and many other projects. He was always very interested in what was going on politically in Sacramento, in Washington, D.C., and the other states. But he was also concerned that Gallo was so big, would they dominate the Wine Institute? So there was a very prudent, artful, respectful approach by him. But he wanted to be kept informed, which I felt was correct. In that capacity, we had many a joust. He did not want sycophants—people who just simply said ‘yes.’ But he absolutely wanted to make sure, if you took a position it was backed by facts and analysis. So he was an excellent muscular person to deal with.If ever there was a man who captured the essence of the Socratic method of question, it was Ernest Gallo. He could ask not only the first and second question, which many people can, but the fourth, the sixth, the tenth! Every time I had a phone call with him, or met with him, it was like having my general exams all over again. He was experienced, he was savvy. What I found particularly interesting, he was very interested in international affairs, politics. He asked me a lot about my days in the Soviet Union, or my days as Deputy Mayor of San Francisco. He liked to talk to me in Italian, and he had a sense of humor no one else apparently saw. Because it was so different from the persona expected of him. Because he was so private, people would fill in the blanks, but not based on personal knowledge. So I learned he had a real sense of humor! He would say ‘La meglia parole é quella che non si dice.’ ‘The best word is that which is not said.’ He was full of these old folk wisdom statements, which he would say to me in Italian.Finally, I believe, as chairman of the board of the Gallo Clinic: His interest in the study of the brain, which he started in 1980 at UCSF, was an incredible insight into this exploding area of brain research. He chose to put his money and philanthropy in this area, and in the long term, people will remember him not only as a great wine merchant, with Julio, but that he supported this research into the effect on the brain of substance abuse and co-morbidities.”
Bill Newlands President/CEO, Beam Wine Estates.
“I worked at E&J Gallo for 9 years, in various roles, my last of which was VP of marketing. Left in ’94. I saw Ernest many times. Ernest was one of a kind, and I mean that in a positive way. He got a lot of reputation for being tough and demanding, and he was, but he was also a guy with a good sense of humor, and really desired to get to great solutions. That’s what he was all about, good solutions, and was ready to debate. That’s why I chuckle when I remember him. He loved a good debate. In his view, the more he could spur debate, the better you could arrive at a decision on whatever you were working on. Here’s one of those stories that’s a smile: At one point, I was working on new products, and we were going to introduce what is today Hornsby’s Draft Cider. We thought we had developed a pretty good product, and we were debating what to name it. I said it ought to have an English character. The door opens, and in comes the Gallo’s chef, and Ernest looked up, and, as he tended to do, he got this little twinkle in his eye, and turned his lip up in this little grin, and he says to me, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ And I said, ‘Definitely.’ Because the chef’s name was George Hornsby. Ernest was not afraid to work on his instinct, and to me, that was a perfect example of his approach, where he was ready to trust his instinct that that was a great name, and it was.”
Roger Trinchero CEO/Vice Chairman, Trinchero Family Estates.
“We’ve lost a real pioneer of the industry. A loss like this is tremendous, and it’s felt throughout the industry. He was such a tremendous force for so many years. I had the opportunity to have lunch with him a few years ago. He was about 93 at the time. I was amazed at how sharp he still was, in terms of how he thought about business. He seemed to live for the business and to enjoy life. He really loved what he did and was happy all his life. And he was an inspiration to all family-owned wineries.
Gallo’s sales training division created a lot of top-notch executives in the industry, and some work for us now. Ernest wrote the book on marketing techniques and obviously his success speaks for itself.”
David and Marc Taub
“For industry savvy, wine marketing acumen, and an unerring ability to chart his family’s company on a constant growth trajectory throughout the post-prohibition era, no one can equal the late, great Ernest Gallo.In his later years Ernest, along with his brother Julio, took immense pride in creating the definitive wines of Sonoma Valley, working with the younger generation of the Gallo family on developing the finest vineyards in that area.I can frankly say that no single individual in the American wine business has had a more profound impact on my own professional life than Ernest Gallo. Ernest had an intense mind, and it was his ability to constantly adapt to changing times and his personal sense of vision that led the way in establishing the Gallo family as a driving force in the wine industry worldwide. One of the major achievements was building the E&J Brand which has truly been an extraordinary success!”
Gary Cowen Sales and Marketing Manager, Fine Wines International, a San Francisco wine shop.
“I worked for Gallo in the early 70s, starting in marketing, then brand management with the brandy. It was my MBA in the wine business. I saw Ernest daily. I remember, we were launching E&J Brandy, with the goal to overtake Christian Brothers. Spirits were declining bigtime, everyone was buying mixed drinks, so Ernest decided to sell mixed drinks as well—we’ll do a mixed drinks strategy. We’d have private parties in a restaurant or bar, and mix drinks with brandy, instead of using the normal spirit. My job was to make the mixed drinks so they could try them, so I’m sitting there with my blender, mixing the same drinks with the regular spirit and the brandy. So eventually everyone would be getting very looped. Ernest, too…he was getting jollier as we went on. That was one of the stranger deals. And I remember, if he didn’t like the way a meeting was going, he would just get up and leave, even if you were in mid-sentence. No one would know if he left to go to the bathroom, or if the meeting was over. Other times, he could be very jovial.”
Read more Wine Enthusiast coverage of Ernest Gallo: