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Californian pioneer Gallo dies

Ernest Gallo, whose last name is virtually synonymous for Californian wine, has died aged 97.

His legacy, shared with brother Julio, who died in 1993, is the E&J Gallo Winery which was, for many years, America’s largest by volume. It was recently surpassed by Constellation Brands with Gallo remaining second, selling an estimated 75m cases with a portfolio of more than 40 labels.

The family business, which employs around 4,600 people, reportedly owns 10,000 acres of vines, and purchases grapes from hundreds of growers.

Forbes magazine reported that Gallo had sales of $980 m in 2005 with a $44m net profit. In 2006, Forbes said, Ernest came 283 on its list of 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of US$1.2b.

The company imports wine from France, Italy and New Zealand and last year exported perhaps seven million cases of wine to 85 countries.

The workaholic siblings of Italian immigrants, Ernest and Julio were born into the wine trade. Ernest, quiet and retiring, took care of the business, sales and distribution aspect of his family winery. Julio mastered winemaking. Armed with US$5,900, they created an empire, starting in 1933, in the Central Valley, with Prohibition’s repeal imminent.

In 1957, the Gallos developed the cheap Thunderbird wine brand, a blend of fortified white wine mixed with citrus flavors. With sales to down-and-outers, it made a fortune and is often alluded to by those examining the rise of Californian wine. From the mid-1970’s onward, the Gallos entered the premium-wine market.

A tough, critics would say ruthless, businessman, Ernest told The Modesto Bee on his 90th birthday, ‘Julio and I worked to improve the quality of wines from California and to put fine wine on American dinner tables at a price people could afford. We also worked to improve the reputation of California wines here and overseas.’

Ernest retained control of his family’s empire until his death yesterday in Modesto, California.

Written by Howard G Goldberg in New York

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