When I was in elementary school, we were considered cool if we could say a few lines from television commercials. We memorized a lot of them.
One ad I still remember is “What’s the word? Thunderbird,” an ad for cheap, fruit-flavored, fortified wine named for the Ford sports car. It sold for 60 cents a bottle and was marketed to those in poverty in the inner city and to misguided high school and college students.
I drank some awful stuff during my college years, but never Thunderbird. But that wine, along with a bunch of other cheap wines whose names will be familiar to some of you, built E&J Gallo Winery from a business that started in tragedy and on a shoestring into the world’s largest wine-producing company.
Yes, that’s the same company that now produces Carnivor, a very good, inexpensive cabernet sauvignon.
Last year Forbes ranked Gallo as the 120th largest privately held company in the United States, with revenues of $3.8 billion and 5,000 employees worldwide.
Just after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo started a winery in Modesto, California, with $5,900 that Ernest had borrowed from his mother-in-law. Legend has it that they didn’t know how to make wine commercially, they learned from some old pre-Prohibition University of California pamphlets they read at the Modesto library.
However, the truth is they came from a long line of Italian winemakers and grape farmers, and they had grown up in the wine business. Their father, Joe Gallo, and his brother operated the first Gallo Wine Co. in 1906, buying wine from wineries and selling it to bars in the San Francisco-Oakland area. Joe later grew grapes and sold them during Prohibition to home winemakers on the East Coast. Their mother’s family was the Biancos, who were successful winemakers. And Ernest’s mother-in-law was a Franzia, a well-known name in California winemaking.
Just months before the brothers started the business, their father shot and killed their mother and then himself. The family’s vineyard and farm were in debt. It was the Depression. Ernest and Julio, then in their early 20s, had a 12-year-old brother to look after, and they had to do something to turn things around. So they worked hard, 16-hour days in the beginning, according to their obituaries in The New York Times.
“We could afford one tractor,” Ernest, who died in 2007 at 97, is quoted in the obit. “There were times when I drove it for 12 hours, then turned it over to Julio who drove it for 12 hours.”
Julio, the affable winemaker, and Ernest, the hard-driving business builder, did well after World War II with inexpensive wines, and then starting in the late 1950s with the fortified wines.
In the 1970s, when California winemakers were first being recognized across the world for producing fine wines, the Gallos realized that the business couldn’t be sustained with cheap, fortified “street” wine alone. They turned their attention to producing fine wine, and now they make some of the world’s best.
Just last week, Gallo announced the acquisition of the tony J Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, one of the top producers of fine sparkling wines, pinot noir and pinot gris. So it’s no wonder that, along with its high-end and lower-end wines, Gallo produces a number of good inexpensive wines that I like. Carnivor cabernet sauvignon is one of them.
Although reasonably priced, Carnivor, which is widely available, is marketed to appeal to sophisticated wine drinkers. The wine has a classy black, white and red label split in two parts. The website features a partial profile of a man, wearing an expensive-looking suit and tie, reclining in a chair. His fingernails appear to be manicured. There’s little information on the site, except the title “Your Cab Has Arrived” and the hashtag “Devourlife.”
Despite the elegant sales pitch, Carnivor is a very approachable wine with a deep red color and flavors of blackberry and roasted coffee. It’s an excellent wine to have with such ordinary fare as grilled meats or wonderfully rich soups.
The Gallo brothers certainly had critics, maybe rightfully so, but Ernest and Julio are gone now. The company is still owned by the family: 14 members are actively involved with the operation, continuing a long history of protecting the environment, using sustainable farming practices and setting land aside to preserve natural habitat.
I suppose I might have had some deep-seated prejudice against Gallo, maybe something that wine drinkers who grew up after the Thunderbird ads may not have. However, it’s hard to be too much of a wine snob when most of the wines you drink cost less than $10 a bottle.
It’s also hard to deny that Gallo makes very good wine, and I’ll keep drinking it.•
Suggestions for wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.