How Ernest Gallo brought affordable wine to the masses

Profile of Ernest Gallo, the sombre perfectionist who bought affordable wine to the masses - and the secret of his marketing success.

The official version of the life of Ernest Gallo, who died earlier this month aged 97, is a heart-warming story. With his brother Julio, he built what became the world's largest wine company from a rented shed in Modesto, California.

The two penniless, orphaned farm boys knew nothing about wine-making when they started up in the Depression in 1933. Having scraped together $5,900 to fund the venture, they learnt their trade from a dog-eared library pamphlet. It was, says The Daily Telegraph, a classic rags-to-riches tale built on "sheer hard work and commercial flair".

But a "rather different" story emerged in 1989 when the brothers took legal action against sibling Joe Jr to stop him using the Gallo name in his cheese-making business. They won, but a "darker side" to their early years was revealed, later fleshed out in Ellen Hawkes's unofficial history of the Gallos, Blood and Wine.

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Far from starting from scratch, the brothers had inherited a fully equipped wine-making business, which Italian immigrant father Joe and his brother Mike (a convicted conman who specialised in blackmailing married men he "discovered" in bed with his girlfriend) had established during Prohibition, serving Al Capone among others. More sensationally, it emerged that the Gallo parents hadn't died in an accident, as had been claimed, but in a murder/suicide in which their father shot his wife and then himself. The full circumstances remain mysterious to this day. Whatever the truth, within months Ernest and Julio had taken over the business and founded a new one: E&J Gallo Winery.

They made a formidable team. Julio concentrated on wine; Ernest on his natural gift for sales: shortly after starting up, the Gallos were selling three million gallons of wine a year. What distinguished them from hundreds of other wineries was dogged hard work, says The New York Times. "We could afford one tractor," Ernest recalled, "and there were times when I drove it for 12 hours, then turned it over to Julio who drove it for another 12 hours."

But Ernest was also a marketing wizard who wanted the firm to be the Campbell Soup Company of America's fledgling wine industry. He saw the main growth was at the cheap end and started selling fortified wines with glamourous names to the inner cities. Thunderbird, launched in 1957 and named after a Ford sports car, was aimed at "the misery market"; the Gallos were later accused of "exploiting black people with cheap booze", says The Guardian. But their advertising jingle caught on: "What's the word?/Thunderbird/How's it sold?/Good and cold/What's the jive?/Bird's alive/What's the price?/Thirty twice."

The Gallos' achievement was to demystify wine, says The Washington Post. Using clever packaging and advertising, they kick-started a mass market. By 1975, the firm accounted for one in four bottles sold in America. "Sombre, secretive and seemingly humourless", Ernest "had a compulsive need to be the best at what he did", says The New York Times. When US sales started to stagnate in the 1980s, he took aim at the European, and particularly British, market, spending more on marketing over four years than the other wine firms of the world combined. Julio's death in a car crash in 1993 did nothing to diminish Ernest's drive: he worked into his nineties and it was a bitter blow when E&J Gallo lost its top-ranking global position to Constellation. Ernest was remarkable, says the FT. "He founded a dynasty that brought affordable wine to millions and put California on the map". His death "marks the end of an era".

The secret of Ernest Gallo's marketing success

Ernest Gallo believed he could turn his hand to anything. When popular tastes changed, he'd produce a wine to suit, gradually steering further up-market. E&J Gallo's wines were rarely appreciated by connoisseurs, says Andrew Catchpole in The Guardian. Speaking snobbishly, "I wouldn't want to be seen in a bus shelter" with the shocking pink "white" Zinfandel.

But that belies the wide range of wines the firm produces beyond its classic "under a fiver" supermarket best-sellers. Some, aimed at "the more discerning drinker", have "unsettled the preconceptions of many a critic during blind tastings".

Gallo delighted in working out new ways of persuading the public to buy his carefully devised brands, says Jancis Robinson in the FT. "Secretive to a fault about the detail of his family company and sales", he had a "strictly one-way policy on information transfer. My one and only meal with him was dedicated to his extracting as much as he could from me about the UK market while divulging as little as possible." He had much to teach any marketeer, but, contrary to some reports, was not the principal force behind the introduction of Californian wine to the rest of the world. The groundwork was done by more upmarket producers, notably Robert Mondavi. E&J Gallo came relatively late to export markets. "But once Ernest decided that, for example, the British were ready for his wines, it was entirely predictable that he would not give up until he saw his brand at number one."