Winemaker Ernest Gallo Dies at 97

Ernest Gallo has died.

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.)

I knew the names “Ernest and Julio Gallo” mostly from a long-running television advertising campaign. I did not know this, though:

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.

I don’t believe I’ve ever sampled either Thunderbird or Ripple, but fans of “Sanford and Son” or the early work of Eddie Murphy are familiar with the products.

Gallo was apparently a major force in popularizing wine in the United States:

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.

Very interesting. Wine has been popular since antiquity, so I’m surprised that it required an advertising blitz to get it to catch on here. Still, the fact that the Gallos were being featured on the cover of TIME in 1972 tells you something about the state of the industry as recently as 35 years ago:

Gallo Winery Time Cover 1972

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James Joyner
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James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.