Nearly 14 years after younger brother Julio died, Ernest Gallo died on March 6th. Despite what you may think about the vast majority of wine that came out of the Gallo factory over the last however long, it is they who turned a post prohibition America onto wine. Ernest took control of sales and marketing whilst Julio took control of winemaking.
From the Gallo website "Ernest was among the pioneers of wine advertising on television, and he launched many memorable wine advertising campaigns. Ernest and Julio were first in the U.S. wine industry to establish their own national sales force; first to introduce brand management and modern merchandising to the wine industry; first in breakthrough quality initiatives such as long-term grower contracts for varietal grapes and major grape research programs; first to establish a truly significant foreign sales and marketing force to export California wines overseas; and pioneers in bringing new products to store shelves. Also, they were pivotal in establishing Sonoma County as one of the premier wine growing regions in the world."
"The son of Italian immigrants, Ernest was born March 18, 1909, in Jackson, California, about 90 miles east of San Francisco in the Sierra Nevada foothills. His parents, Giuseppe (Joe) and Assunta (Susie), ran a boardinghouse for immigrant miners. It was not an easy life. After moving several times, in the early 1920s Joe bought a small farm in Modesto, California, about 70 miles east of San Francisco. Ernest and Julio, who was one year his junior, were required to come home directly from school to work in the fields, and they worked all weekend as well. It was here, in the late 1920s and the early 1930s, that the family’s grapes were harvested and loaded on rail cars for shipment to Chicago for sale to home winemakers, a small market dominated by immigrant communities in the big cities of the East and Midwest.
By age 17, Ernest was already displaying his talent for salesmanship, traveling by himself to Chicago, where he was able to sell his family’s grapes and hold his own against older and wiser men. The experience instilled in him an independent, self-assertive nature and a fierce work ethic that remained with Ernest throughout his life.
For a brief time the family business prospered, but the Depression brought renewed hardship. In 1933, both parents died deeply in debt. Determined to pay off his father’s debts and seeing an opportunity with the impending end of Prohibition, Ernest decided to start the Gallo winery. He asked his brother Julio to join him. Julio was “the one person I knew who was willing to work as hard and as long as I did,” he explained in the brothers’ 1994 autobiography, “Ernest & Julio: Our Story.”
The Gallo brothers pursued a dream few could ever envision. Their starting capital was limited to less than $6,000, with $5,000 of that borrowed from Ernest’s mother-in-law. In the first few years after Repeal in 1933, hundreds of companies were entering the wine business – more than 800 in California alone, some of them with extensive pre-Prohibition experience and access to millions of dollars.
The brothers began without knowing how to make wine commercially. Ernest and Julio learned by reading old, pre-Prohibition pamphlets put out by the University of California and retrieved from the basement of the Modesto Public Library.
At the age of 24, however, Ernest had confidence in his and his brother’s ability and stated “we could do anything anyone else could do – not because I was brilliant or well educated, but because I was willing to devote as much time and effort as was necessary, regardless of the sacrifice.”
The sacrifice was often great. During the company’s infancy, the Gallo brothers often worked around the clock, sometimes 36 hours straight. In the first year, the winery produced 177,847 gallons of wine and earned its first profit. It became routine to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Although he cut back in recent years, Ernest remained active in the business on a daily basis until his death.
“There are few stories that match up to that of my father, Julio, and my uncle, Ernest,” said Bob Gallo, Julio’s son. “They built this company on a very clear set of principles that we still follow today: hard work; respect for the land; respect for the wine industry; respect for the employees; respect for the grower; respect for the family; and respect for our competition. Not only did they start a company 70 years ago, they also established a culture that thrives today.”
Over the 1940s and 1950s, Ernest introduced modern techniques of merchandising and brand management to the wine industry, including such techniques as a dedicated sales force, point-of-sale displays, outdoor billboards and later television advertising. Between 1948 and 1955 alone, the winery’s sales nearly quadrupled, from four million gallons a year to 14 million.
The company also grew through vertical integration. E. & J. Gallo Winery continued to acquire vineyards, expanded its wineries, storage and distribution facilities, and built its own glass plant. It also established the Gallo Research Laboratory, which became a distinguished center of research on all facets of wine production. These strategic additions helped the company achieve its primary mission – to provide consumers with consistently high-quality wine at the best possible price.
“While I am deeply saddened by the death of my Uncle Ernest, I am grateful for the many wonderful memories I have of growing up with my father, Julio, and my uncle,” said Susann Coleman, Julio’s daughter. “They led amazing lives and they were great examples of what you can achieve through hard work and dedication. To me, the greatest lesson they taught us was the importance of family.”
Ernest sought to maximize every opportunity life provided him. He also appreciated the role good fortune played in his and Julio’s success. They started their business at the right time; they had each other as brothers; they married two wonderful wives, Amelia and Aileen; they had children and grandchildren, many of whom joined the family business; and they were able to find and attract some of the most talented and dedicated employees in the United States.
Over the course of his lifetime, Ernest was recognized with many awards and honors. Among them were the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award, and the American Society of Enologists’ Merit Award.
Ernest worked hard on behalf of his industry, and he served on many industry marketing boards and trade organizations, including the board of the Wine Institute. He was chairman of the Wine Institute from 1957-1959. Ernest also founded the Maynard A. Amerine Endowed Chair in Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis, which was the first endowed chair in the University’s Department of Viticulture and Enology. "