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Q&A with Gina Gallo, who carries on her wine family's traditions


Ernest and Julio Gallo started their namesake winery 75 years ago, from the modest farmlands of post-Prohibition Modesto.

Today, third-generation winemaker Gina Gallo, Julio?s granddaughter, is carrying on the family tradition from Sonoma County, as well as through her travels around the world as the voice and face of the largest family-owned winery in the United States.

In a recent interview at the historic Dry Creek General Store she bought in 2001, just down the road from Gallo?s Sonoma headquarters, the 41-year-old Modesto native talked about the evolution of Sonoma?s Wine Country reputation, her role in the family business, and what the future holds for the Gallo brand and clan.

Press Democrat: It?s the 75th anniversary of E&J Gallo. When people think of California and our great wine history, do you think they understand Gallo?s role here?

Gallo: We started in 1933 and at that time, where were we with wine? At the beginning. My grandfather was dying to make wonderful blended wines, (but) he knew it was going to be awhile before people would enjoy them, so they started with sweet wines, dessert wines; that was a stepping stone.

I started traveling out to the market 10 vintages ago, and people would say, ?Oh, wine, yes, Napa. Napa, Napa, Napa.? Now they know Sonoma, they get it, they know Russian River. It?s great to see the evolution.

I think they realize we were there from the beginning and probably have a great feel for how our family introduced wine to the United States, and I think they?re starting to understand what we?re doing now... in Sonoma. It started with us and then maybe we lost them for a little bit and now they?re back, trying new wines.

PD: It feels like you?re at the forefront of almost every trend in wine. Maybe that?s part of being among the first in the industry, but by starting in California and then getting more specific in Sonoma and then buying properties like Louis M. Martini so then you?re in Napa. And now Gallo has all these wines from around the world as new regions emerge.

Gallo: To me, wine follows the food trends and the food world started exploding. Being in America you have such an influence from Asia, Europe and all the different food communities from around the world, that it?s not just chardonnay and cabernet anymore, it was a natural evolution to move into pinot noir, a wonderful food and wine pairing, pinot gris, tempranillo, albarino.

The philosophy for our family is, sure, we have our family wines that we produce and create, but we know there?s a thirst out there to try other wines. We have to be sustainable and our way is not just buying, buying, buying but partnerships with families. They?re all family relationships.

PD: You?ve been the face of Gallo for about 10 years. Is that a role you wanted or were you tapped on the shoulder and told, go do?

Gallo: I knew when I discovered I loved wine and wanted to spend more time learning about winemaking and the vineyards that I wanted to be part of the family winery but it was like, which area? When you?re young you?re still trying to figure out your passion. So when I figured it was wine, I went to talk to my mom and my dad because I was living at home at that time, I was in sales.

(Today) it?s a normal thing for the winemaker to go out and talk about their wines but in 1991, ?92, ?93, I don?t know how many winemakers were out there promoting wine themselves. Uncle Ernest sent me to do a couple events (and) I found I really liked going out and telling the story about our family and what we were trying to do with the wines, what was happening in Sonoma and the history of where we were.

I enjoyed it and then it just sort of exploded. We did more promotions and customers loved talking to the winemakers and the growers and the family, they really wanted to find out what was going on through them.

PD: What was it like when you came to live here in 1996?

Gallo: We knew people in the wine industry, different growers in the area. My brother Matt had been up here for quite a while, and when we were younger we?d come up on the weekends.

I really enjoyed living in Modesto but it was exciting to come to a new place where you knew you were starting roots of your own. It?s one thing if you get shipped off to Manhattan, but coming here and you run into people like Lou Foppiano, who has been a family friend forever, they had stories of my grandfather or my father. It?s important for different generations to keep these relationships alive. Now it?s the hot spot, it?s fun.

PD: Is there any element of Gallo?s history that people would be surprised to know?

Gallo: We make a really large handful of wines that could be 3,000 cases, 200 cases ? that would be a big surprise ? some of our single vineyards. Under the family brand, we have a tempranillo, barbera and pinot noir and those are like 220 cases (each). We do 2-ton lots, four barrels and out of that if we find something really special, we can capture it.

PD: It?s Gallo Family Vineyards now. Why did you decide to drop ?Sonoma? from the label?

Gallo: In the simplest terms we?re celebrating being family-owned. We started realizing a lot of family businesses weren?t family anymore and what better way than stating it right on the bottle? As far as Sonoma, we still do have Sonoma on the label but instead of ?Gallo of Sonoma,? it?s all changed to Gallo Family Vineyards.

PD: It?s been rumored that Gallo is among the largest organic growers in the state. Is that a function of being one of the largest growers, period? Or is that something that?s been conscious?

Gallo: Definitely conscious and a true statement. It really started with my grandfather and a lot of things he learned as far as quality was through his garden, and then passing that on to the vineyards. His biggest drive was growing better grapes.

The philosophy?s definitely changed to a more sustainable approach. Not just what you?re doing in the vineyard but what?s happening on that vineyard, how many passes are you making through, how many cars on that vineyard, and then bringing it into the winery and all of our employees thinking that way so the decisions made every day are better decisions because of it.

PD: Do you have anything special planned for the 75th anniversary this year?

Gallo: Somehow we got the shy genes. We were going to design a new label for our estate chardonnay and estate cabernet and we decided no, because we are very proud of the estate wines, very proud of the labels. That?s the culmination of the 75 years ? the estate chardonnay and the estate cabernet.

PD: How conscious are you and other family members of how you?re going to make it to the 100-year anniversary? The 150th?

Gallo: As family members we all believe our greatest strength is being family-owned and how do we nourish that, strengthen that? Us being together, understanding each other, we?ve learned a lot from the founders, how they really made it work and, not that I?m biased, but I think they were an amazing partnership. They were brothers and I don?t think that?s always an easy thing to do. But what they gave us is how we saw them working; it was really about respecting each other in their area. My grandfather was a farmer and Ernie was the marketer.

Now the third generation, we see that and know that. I see that mentality in my brothers, my cousins. Everyone?s thinking long-term. It can only get better because we?ve learned so much from the past. Ultimately it?s not about a business, it?s about a family, and that?s the way our family looks at it.

You can reach Staff Writer Virginie Boone at 521-5440 or virginie.boone@pressdemocrat.com.