Ernest Gallo, 97; Influential Co-Founder of Winery

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Ernest Gallo, 97, who with his brother Julio reaped riches from California grapes, shaping the drinking habits of a nation and creating a wine fortune from a small investment, died March 6 at his home in Modesto, Calif.

A reticent man who was seldom interviewed, Mr. Gallo was the dynamic, hard-driving sales and marketing chief of what became the E&J Gallo Winery, one of the biggest wineries in the world. (Julio, who made the wine, died in a car crash in 1993.)

At 96, Mr. Gallo was No. 283 on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. A self-made man with a high school education, he had a net worth of $1.2 billion.

The company began with inexpensive products (such as Thunderbird and Ripple) but eventually moved into the middle levels and high end of a market that Mr. Gallo did much to create. Although little was known of the two brothers and their lives and personalities, the labels on their bottles brought their names into households, conversations and celebrations across the nation.

Behind the story of the creation of their empire of alcohol was a tragic tale. The Gallo brothers had toiled in their youth with their immigrant parents on a small California vineyard, growing and selling grapes. But in 1933, in the face of Depression-era economic reverses, their father killed himself and his wife.

According to published accounts, that event unleashed the determination, energies and initiative of Ernest and Julio. The brothers decided to make and sell wine. They borrowed $5,900.23, bought used equipment on credit and set about studying a pamphlet from the Modesto public library titled "The Principles of Wine-Making."

If there is a gift for sales, Mr. Gallo had it. As a 17-year-old, he had traveled by train to Chicago to sell grapes from his parents' vineyard. When the brothers began making their own wine, Mr. Gallo turned a $30,000 profit in the first year, according to a profile published by the James Beard Foundation, which gave him its lifetime achievement award in 2001. He sold 177,847 gallons of red table wine that first year, the profile said.

It described Mr. Gallo, a native of Jackson, Calif., as a merchandising whirlwind, perpetually negotiating with bankers, buyers and suppliers and crisscrossing the nation to bargain with bottlers. A few years after starting up, the Gallos were selling 3 million gallons of wine a year.

Wine was once described as a small business; Mr. Gallo was seen as the man who made it a big one. He bought out failing bottlers, designed his own bottles and labels, and adorned them with recipes requiring wine. He created display racks for his bottles and hired a sales force to sell only Gallo products.

If some Americans were uncertain about placing a bottle of wine on their table or of opening one at their parties, Mr. Gallo allayed their fears and stimulated their desires with his advertising, using billboards and later television. From 1948 to 1955, Gallo sales grew almost fourfold.

The brothers' winery, which began with a staff of three -- Mr. Gallo, his wife, Amelia, and his brother -- grew to have more than 4,600 employees and a presence in more than 90 countries, according to a statement last night from the Gallo public relations organization. (A third brother, who operated a cheese business, died this year.)

Mr. Gallo and his brother Julio worked on separate floors of their headquarters, according to a Fortune magazine article. Julio, it said, strove to produce more than Mr. Gallo could sell, and Mr. Gallo aimed to sell more than his brother could produce. Mr. Gallo was said to be active in the business until he died.

A firm believer in family ties, Mr. Gallo once called Julio the ideal partner, the one person "willing to work as hard and as long as I did."

Survivors include Mr. Gallo's son, Joseph, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His wife died in 1993.

"My father died knowing that he had lived life to its fullest," his son said in a statement.

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