Anthony “Tony” Terlato, chairman/founder of Terlato Wine Group who indelibly influenced the American wine industry and culture for over 60 years, died June 29. He was 86.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, to an Italian-American family, Terlato will be remembered as the driving force behind Pinot Grigio’s skyrocketing popularity with U.S. wine consumers.
His wine career began in the 1950s, after the family relocated to Chicago, when he worked at his father Salvatore’s retail store, Leading Liquor Marts. Falling in love with Bouchard’s grand cru Burgundy, Terlato contacted a New York-based importer who agreed to supply the wine, but only if he took 600 cases of a then-obscure Portuguese rosé—Lancers—with it.
His success in persuading customers to take a chance on the rosé became the first of a long career marked by an uncanny ability to market lesser known styles of wine to U.S. consumers.
Terlato eventually joined Pacific Wine Company in 1956, his father-in-law’s bottling firm, and developed it into a successful distributor of fine wines. He developed a friendship with Robert Mondavi in the 1960s, and the two shared a similar vision of increasing the importance of wine in American culture.
“Bob Mondavi and I would go to the Sherman House restaurant in Chicago,” Terlato once told Wine Enthusiast. “We’d order several bottles of wine, and after dinner we’d walk around the block and talk. He told me ‘Tony—some day you’ll go to a restaurant and there will be a bottle of wine on every table.’ ”
While building out his domestic portfolio with California wines at the behest of Mondavi, Terlato began to utilize his family’s existing olive oil import company, Paterno, to bring in Italian wines. It was his procurement of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio in 1979 that changed American drinking culture in ways that still resonate today. Quickly, the white wine became the most popular luxury import in the U.S. and earned Terlato the moniker of “The Father of Pinot Grigio.”
In 1996, Terlato reached another milestone when he acquired Rutherford Hill winery, marking his company’s first foray into production. In 2002, he sold his business’s distribution interests to divert more attention to the company’s wineries and imports.
Today, investments in California wineries also include Chimney Rock, Sanford, Terlato Vineyards and more. Terlato Wine Group now represents more than 80 brands that include fine wines from across the globe.
When speaking to Wine Enthusiast in 2014 after being recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his impact, Terlato reflected on those early dinner conversations with Mondavi, as well as his own legacy.
“Some day,” he said with a smile, “there will be two bottles of wine on every table.”