Gina Gallo steers improvements at world's largest wine producer

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  • Tuesday 2 November 2010

She’s been responsible for upping quality at the world’s biggest wine producer, but her family firm suffered a major blow when it was found to have imported ‘fake’ Pinot Noir. Stephen Brook meets Gina Gallo

As great wine families go, the Gallos are not much loved. The patriarchal image conveyed when the founding brothers, Ernest and Julio, were alive seemed more menacing than heart-warming. Whereas Robert Mondavi was maniacally missionary, never happier than when lapel-grabbing the wine world about his latest project, the Gallos were grumpy and reclusive. Requests by the press to visit their astonishing, town-sized winery were usually turned down; those lucky few invited to the Ernest Gallo lunch table found themselves subjected to a long, detailed inquisition rather than fine food or fine wines.

This began to change in the early 1990s when the Gallos bought up huge tracts of land in Sonoma and replanted or converted them into immense vineyards. Julio Gallo had long enjoyed close relationships with the many growers of Italian origin in Sonoma, and his attachment to the region seemed genuine. As bulldozers resculpted the terrain, the scale of the Gallo Sonoma project offended many neighbours, but a decade later many gave the Gallos credit for their efforts to preserve existing natural habitats.

When the wines were eventually launched, Julio’s granddaughter Gina was dispatched worldwide to introduce them. At last: the human face of the famously litigious Gallo family. Today Gina Gallo is the most visible member of her family, based in Sonoma rather than at the corporate HQ in Modesto. Recently she married another wine scion: Jean-Charles Boisset of the eponymous Burgundy producer (with acquisitions in California and elsewhere). It’s like a dynastic union between the Medici and the Borgias, but without the poisonings.

Gina Gallo grew up in Modesto, and grandfather Julio’s house was close by. ‘On weekends the family would gather for meals, and there was always wine on the table, although as a child I didn’t much like it. We were a typical, tightly knit Italian family. I was never under pressure to enter the business, but I grew up hearing conversations about grapes and wines. My siblings and cousins were involved with Gallo, so it was natural for me to want to be part of it. But which part? The family allowed me to stray, to find out in my own time what I really wanted to do.’

Gallo went to college near San Francisco, studied psychology and business, and took marketing courses. After graduation she joined Gallo’s sales department. ‘It was a great way to understand the market, but I wanted to know more about the science behind the wine. I already knew about the agricultural side, but less about production. So I took the sensory appreciation course at UC Davis and discovered I had a knack for blind tasting.’

It was a godsend that just as they were entering the premium table wine market, the dysfunctional Gallos could release from the nest a good-looking, intelligent, personable young woman who knew her stuff and could change, for the better, the closely guarded Gallo image.

‘When I was 21, my grandfather Julio, who was the chief winemaker, invited me to join the company’s tasting group. The company was entirely male-dominated at that time. I was also allowed to work on the experimental wines that we had always made from different varieties, as well as trials with different clones and yeasts. I learnt first-hand about the discipline of winemaking: hygiene, temperature control and so forth.

‘At this time we were developing the Sonoma ranches, and the winemaker Marcello Monticelli invited me to work there in 1991 on vineyard development. The Sonoma project was revolutionary for Gallo. We were ageing wines in small barrels for the first time. My work with Marcello was hands on. We studied barrel types and toasts, and went to France to visit coopers.’

Taking charge

Those of us who attended the London launch of Gallo Sonoma patronisingly assumed Gina Gallo was chosen for her youth and accessibility. But it soon became clear that she knew what she was talking about. Gallo believes she was asked to present the wines precisely because she was a practising winemaker, and not a publicist. Nonetheless she says she found her ambassadorial role nerve-racking at first.

By the late 1990s she had become more than a winemaker and was helping build up the team of winemakers required to manage Gallo’s numerous Sonoma brands. ‘I learnt to manage winemakers, and that meant giving them their freedom, including the freedom to fail occasionally.’ At the same time she and her brother Matt were becoming increasingly involved in strategic issues, again focusing mostly on the Sonoma wines.

‘I’m fascinated with the growth of Sonoma Coast as a region focused on quality. So with Matt I play a role in developing new lines and deciding what to plant where. Now 23% of Gallo’s production is from Sonoma, and it’s expanding. I find the conversations I have with distributors, sommeliers and wine writers all contribute to the winemaking process by furnishing new ideas about where the company should be heading.’

It seems ironic, then, that just as Gina Gallo is voicing her excitement about Sonoma, the very wines she is celebrating are being withdrawn from the British market in favour of Gallo’s cheapest brands such as Redwood Creek, Turning Leaf, and the non-vintage (!) Barefoot Cellars. What happened to the ‘focus on quality’?

‘That’s not entirely true, but yes, the Sonoma wines have very restricted availability. The UK is a very challenging market and we’re not giving up on it, but those mid-level wines just weren’t working, and we need to find a new approach. Personally I love Britain, and could move to London with great ease. – it’s a city that’s international beyond belief! I sympathise with your view that not having our best Sonoma wines and our Louis Martini wines in the UK is a missed opportunity. But with the economic downturn, most consumers are looking for cheaper brands rather than more expensive, high-quality wines. But of course I know that we should be offering more.’

Business decisions over the company range are one thing. Accusations of fraud are another. And given Gina Gallo’s experience and ‘knack’ as a taster, it seemed extraordinary that neither she nor anyone else at the company spotted that the imported Red Bicyclette range of $10 Pinot Noir from the Languedoc contained a negligible amount of the named variety. How was it possible that 18 million bottles of fake wine could enter the market without anyone suspecting something was amiss, especially since the entire Pinot production of the Languedoc is less than the volume bought by Gallo and rival Constellation?

‘Actually that number is inflated, as not all the mislabelled wines ended up under the Gallo label. I haven’t tasted the offending wine that often, and we’re committed to the Languedoc, especially Limoux, as a source of Pinot. But I admit it was something of a disaster. As a company we want to be squeaky clean, and we are scrupulous in declaring alcohol levels and other matters, so of course it was an embarrassment to us.’

It is not easy to press her further on such controversial issues, as her official stance is that she is primarily a mere winemaker. At the same time, she is no novice, and presumably has a greater say in steering the company than she lets on. Moreover, Pinot has a distinctive aroma, and it seems extraordinary that no one on the Gallo team smelt a rat.

California girl

Other large California companies, such as Kendall-Jackson, have established wine estates worldwide. Gallo has not followed their example to any significant extent, which makes the company more vulnerable to dishonest practices on the part of some of its suppliers. Gina Gallo thinks it unlikely this will change.

‘We feel we understand California extremely well, and we’re happy to have partners in New Zealand, Argentina, Italy and elsewhere. We import wines from those areas and showcase them with pride, but we have no wish to get involved in farming there. International wines are certainly a growing sector, but I intuitively feel there is a strong future for Californian wines. We will stick to our strengths.’ She says the company will continue to focus on the UK, but is ‘less confident’ about new markets such as China and India.

Many wine companies have been buffeted by the current economic crises. How has Gallo held up? ‘We’re protected in a way because although consumers are spending less, we have wines to offer at all price and quality levels. People are still buying wine, but what’s happening is that people who used to go to high-priced steakhouses are going instead to mid-level steakhouses. But those mid-level establishments don’t offer decent wines. So the steakhouse owners start ordering wines to keep those new customers.’

Is there anywhere else where she would like to practise as a winemaker if she could? ‘I love Pinot Noir, but it would be quite presumptuous to want to make wine in Burgundy – it’s too close to home [with a Boisset now in the family]! Perhaps Champagne? That’s Pinot territory too, and I love the wines. Champagne also calls for blending skills and the ability to predict how a wine will develop over time.’

Gina Gallo is a senior figure in the world’s largest wine company, yet when I ask her job title, she replies: ‘Winemaker. I am still involved in tasting and blending as well as in strategic decisions. With some of my pet projects, such as Two Rock Pinot, I’ll still top up barrels and I need to be dragged away to do radio spots or other promotion.’

I don’t doubt that this is true, but by donning the winemaker’s jeans and boots and by receiving visitors in the rustic ambience of the MacMurray Ranch in Russian River rather than in Gallo corporate offices, the warm and welcoming Gina Gallo is able to sidestep difficult questions about the company whose name she bears.

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