Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Winemaker Ernest Gallo Dies at 97

Marketing genius parlayed $5,900 into world's largest wine empire.

The passing of Ernest Gallo brings home personal memories of the fruitful decade of the eighties. As a wine and spirits sales manager in northern California, Gallo Wines was a major brand in our distributorship, the Northcoast Mercantile Company.

I once was told that Ernest Gallo said "Good for Kenny" while at a meeting with regional managers in Modesto. While I never met the man personally, he knew who I was by name and was happy with my results. Modesto, California is the headquarters of Ernest and Julio Gallo Winery, where the largest volume of wine sold in the world for more than fifty years is produced and distributed. Today, E & J Gallo Winery sells close to 75 million cases of wine each year. The company is so large that it makes its own bottles, caps, and closures.

I played a small part in those sales for a decade, (1981 - 1991), in the northern California region of Humboldt County.

I have a photo (somewhere) with Carlo (Charlie) Rossi's arm around my shoulder. Carlo had married Ernest and Julio's sister, and had already built an empire of his own when he joined up with the Gallo brothers. For those out west, Carlo Rossi's Red Mountain "jug wines" were well known in virtually every major grocery store, as well as most of the "mom and pop" stores.

While attending a regional sales managers meeting in Modesto in the mid-eighties, Charlie Rossi came into the room and stood at the podium for over a half hour and told us his history and involvement with the Gallo Bros. At eighty-six years old, Charlie still had the gift of vividly selling himself and his product to any audience.

Also at this two-day seminar I had the privilege of being allowed to tour the world renound cellars at the winery that few have ever seen. The single wine barrels in one room (the size of a football field) stood 17 feet tall and 10 feet across. Each single "stay" (board) was a cut and carved at seven inches wide and seventeen feet long. Individually cut and numbered, the French oak boards were shipped to Modesto back in the early 70's. A father and son team was imported from Portugal and took most of four years to assemble the barrels. Each individual barrel would hold 1,700 gallons of wine. The bulk of the wine stored in these barrels consisted of Chardonnay and Cabernet grapes. I can remember standing in awe while the tour guide ran the numbers of the total volume of wine stored in this one room. I also marveled that you could pour a plate of food on the floor and sit down with a fork and eat it. It was that spotless.

Later that same day we toured the warehouse, (in a small bus) where pallets of wine bottled and stacked to the ceiling were waiting for shipment. As the buyer for our distributorship this was of interest to me more than the others on the tour. At one point I mentioned (a little too loud) that I had ordered 75 cases of one product the previous week and was shorted the complete total, yet there, right before my eyes was the product. The top sales director of the winery (who was at the front of the bus) had the driver stop the bus. In almost complete silence, the director addressed me in the back. "Mr. Crumley, do you see the date on those packages of the product you ordered?" As all eyes were on me, I looked out and saw the dates on the cases, and meekly said "yes sir". The director said, "Well then, Mr. Crumley, you can obviously see that according to the release dates on those packages, we are out of this product. I knew what he meant as soon as I saw the dates. The product still needed seven more days to age in the bottle before it would be released.

"We will sell no wine before it's time" was a motto created by a competitor, (insert winery), but it was also a "religion" at Gallo. There were millions of gallons of wine in this one warehouse that would turn over (usually) in thirty to sixty days.

While many of you may remember Gallo wines were sold as a "bulk" wine, (Hearty Burgundy, and Chablis Blanc), Gallo also has produced some of the great Chardonnays and Cabernets at their Sonoma County location. The Gallo family now owns over 2000 acres of prime growing region in Sonoma Co. including the Alexander Valley. I will put up their Gallo of Sonoma Cabernet (approx. $12.00) against most thirty dollar Cabs. But of course, I'm biased. :)

Rest in Peace, Ernest.........and thank you for your contribution to the industry and to the people you touched.

( the "good for Kenny" comment by Ernest Gallo was when it was reported at the meeting that I had sold a 25 case Gallo order, (for the first time in ten years), to a local co-op store that had boycotted Gallo wines for a union dispute that went back to the seventies. The co-op was the last market that still did not carry a single Gallo product in the county. And while the union dispute had been resolved for years, this must have stuck in Earnest and Julio's crawl. (Patting myself on the back.......again).......... :)

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