I drag corporate wineries though the mud. Family-owned companies exude more devotion and spunk than mainstream, money-driven entities, so it’s painful when they sell out to big business, even for good reasons. Maybe the founders want to finally enjoy retirement, and their children don’t want to live knee-deep in vineyard dirt. It seems insane that anyone would eschew the wine lifestyle but, hey, people have their reasons. But one family has allowed this pastoral life to bind them – a family that has trudged through the mucky hardship of government regulations, market fluctuations and consumer fickleness: The Gallos.
Yes, that Gallo, of pot-bellied jug wine fame. Perhaps you considered Gallo to be one of those soulless corporate drones? Sure, they successfully market umpteen cases of wine annually, but they are, indeed, family-owned and operated. They have been since 1933 when Ernest and Julio established the company. In fact, 15 of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren still run the largest family-owned winery in the world. To give you an idea of the scope and depth of their offerings, one in every four bottles of wine poured in the U.S. is sold by E&J Gallo. Whoa? Yes. Corporate? No.
To put my mind at ease with these enviable, leviathan stats, I recently interviewed third generation Gina Gallo, one of seven kids, who jumped into the family business in 1991. She started out in sales and followed her grandfather Julio into winemaking shortly thereafter. Although her face has smiled back from magazines and her credit cards never max out, she’s surprisingly down-to-earth and cool. She spoke frankly about Gallo’s plans and the challenges of working for a family business.
Taylor: What advantages does Gallo have being family-owned and operated? Gina: Agriculture is perfect for a family business. There’s no immediate return on investment on a grape crop so we have the luxury of thinking long term. Also, we’re a big foodie family and we all get along. That helps.
I conducted an impromptu poll in my office, asking what my co-workers thought of when they heard “Gallo.” Virtually everyone replied “cheap” or “jug” wine. How is Gallo overcoming that reputation? That’s interesting and enlightening to hear. Right now, we’re expanding our labels, either establishing, partnering with or buying wineries that fit our philosophy and fill a void, like higher-tier cabernet producer Louis M. Martini in Napa. We also have McWilliams and Black Swan in Australia. And a lot of others. [54 brands, including: MacMurray Ranch, Barefoot Cellars, Rancho Zabaco and Dancing Bull.]
How is Gallo positioning itself for future growth and changing consumer habits? In the late 1970s, we started buying land in Sonoma County to begin making higher quality wines from grapes we farmed. That led to the Gallo of Sonoma line [which has since been renamed Gallo Family Vineyard]. We’re also diversifying for the younger drinker – they want to try new stuff. Malbec is growing by leaps and bounds, and we now have a partnership with Los Alamos winery in Argentina. But our long-term goals are to balance out the portfolio and focus on mid-range wines.
After talking with Gina, I felt surprisingly relieved. And after conversations with the principals at Louis M. Martini winery, I learned the Gallos are good stewards. They purchased Martini in 2002, and have poured much needed resources into the enterprise. Sounds like the Gallo family practices what it preaches.
From the Gallo portfolio:
Frei Brothers 2006 Chardonnay Russian River, $15
MacMurray 2006 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, $16
Louis M. Martini 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa, $25
Whitehaven 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough, $19