The importance of being Ernest

23 March, 2007

When they arrived at their desks on March 7 2007, employees of the E&J Gallo Winery found they had the same, slightly eerie screensaver on their computers. Edged in black was a photograph of Ernest Gallo, who had died the previous day, with the words "in memoriam". Even from beyond the grave, it seems, Ernest likes to exercise a measure of control over the company he created with his brother, Julio, in 1933.

What sort of man was he? I can't speak from personal experience here, because I never met him, despite numerous requests to do so. At times I felt a bit like Michael Moore in the film Roger & Me , trailing after the head of General Motors in an attempt to get him to go on the record. The only interview I ever read with arguably the most powerful individual in the wine world was in an American wine magazine, where the questions had been submitted in advance and came with a brown nose attached. You know the kind of thing: "On a scale of one to 10, just how great are your wines?"

One thing we do know about Ernest was that he worked hard. According to an insider, he still went into the office in Modesto at least three times a week, possibly to put the finishing touches to that screensaver.

Ernest was not as dedicated to the family business as he was in his twenties, perhaps, when he sometimes worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, but then he was 97 when he finally shuffled off to the great sales conference in the sky.

The official version of Ernest's personality is provided, as you'd expect, by the PR machine of the hugely successful company he leaves behind him: "remarkable focus", "great inquisitive nature", "enormously optimistic, detail-oriented and down-to-earth", "extraordinary zest for life", "a father figure and mentor to generations of employees over the years". Just a regular, if somewhat driven, guy, in other words.

A less flattering picture emerges from Ellen Hawkes' unmissable book Blood & Wine: The Unauthorised Story of the Gallo Wine Empire. "Ernest's suspiciousness seemed to originate more in his sense of his own character than in a fear of the randomness of fortune," she writes. "Given his propensities to manoeuvre, control and conceal, he might easily suspect that others were out to do unto him what he was likely to do unto them. As one former employee would later quip, 'Ernest is the embodiment of the Hobbesian view of the world: nasty, brutish and short'."

Whatever his apparent failings as a human being, Ernest succeeded - and succeeded brilliantly - as a businessman, entrepreneur and marketer. An early ambition - reported by a number of employees but subsequently denied by Gallo himself - was to become "the Campbell Soup Company of the wine industry", or, as Hawkes puts it, to "mass-produce reliable wines that appealed to the majority of the consumers and were reasonably priced".

In volume terms alone, no one can deny that Ernest achieved his aim. In 2006, E&J Gallo produced a staggering 73 million cases of wine. It remains the single largest family-owned winery on earth and is far more significant in the world of wine than the CSC is in the world of minestrone and condensed mushroom.

And what of the wines? Everyone I've ever met who knew or worked for the brothers has told me that "Julio was the wine man; Ernest was the salesman". This may be true - Ernest's favourite tipple was his own deeply mediocre Chenin Blanc - but a large part of his genius lay in understanding what the average consumer wanted to drink.

If that meant producing Thunderbird and Hearty Burgundy (both of which are still part of E&J Gallo's portfolio) or sugar-coated White Grenache and White Zinfandel (one third of Gallo's sales in the United Kingdom last year) then so be it.

The Gallo brothers made some very good top-end bottlings at their much smaller Sonoma County winery, but their real contribution to the history of wine was producing (more or less) drinkable booze for everyman and woman.

Wine's bad lad mag fails to hit the spot

With the demise of Wine X, a faintly ridiculous cross between a lads' mag and a set of none-too-informative tasting notes, another wine magazine is currently chewing its share of economic dust. In the circumstances - crap, badly-written magazine, not enough advertising, small readership - it seems a bit rich of founder and editor Darryl Roberts to blame the wine industry for the failure , lambasting it for targeting "rich, old, white people" (does he mean you and me?) rather than hip, bar-going twentysomethings who think it's cool to describe wine in "wacky" terms?

Wine does have problems attracting younger drinkers in traditional producing countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Argentina, where young people don't want to behave like their parents do, or rather did. But there are no signs that they are turning away from wine in the UK. Producing brands that appeal specifically to the younger generation has always seemed patronising to me, and I'm in my 40s. Far better to teach people about the pleasure of drinking wine with food - and the enormous diversity that wine has to offer - and wait for them to catch on.

Bookmark this

Site Search


English wine: a happy harvest for Christmas

All across England and Wales, vineyards are being harvested. Down winding country lanes come armies of welly-wearing conscripts wielding secateurs and buckets, ready to reap the rewards of our vines. Happily they come, their cheeks ruddy with pride. Half an hour later they’re crawling over muddy clods with lacerated hands, drenched in claggy juice and cold sweat, as if ploughing through an endurance race.

Click for more »
Upcoming events


Is blended Scotch overshadowed by single malt in retailers?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Don't know