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Gallo lays off most Clos du Bois winery workers

The Clos du Bois winery has laid off most of its workers and closed winemaking operations at the Geyserville facility.

Managers of the operation, which was purchased by E. & J. Gallo along with about 30 other Constellation wine and spirits brands for $1.7 billion in January, held a meeting Thursday at 10 a.m. and told employees they were being laid off immediately.

“They told us in the meeting that sales went from $4.5 million to $1.8 million,” said Kevin McDonald, a Clos du Bois senior laboratory technician until Thursday. “And that’s because, from my perspective, Constellation stopped investing in the wineries they were selling.”

The winery employed about 37 workers, McDonald said, and all but about five lost their jobs. All of the winemakers were laid off, he said. Others who lost their jobs included lab personnel, the legal compliance team, the barrel team and almost all of the cellar workers, he said.

“I know of one foreman, one manager and two or three other people who are going to be staying with the facility, as babysitters, basically,” said McDonald, who lives in Santa Rosa.

Lon Gallagher, director of trade, media and community relations for E. & J. Gallo Winery, pointed to “changing market dynamics over the past two years” in an emailed statement Friday.

“We are transitioning the bulk of our production from the Clos du Bois winery to our other wineries in Sonoma County,” Gallagher wrote. “We will maintain some operations at Clos du Bois moving forward, but the current staffing levels are not needed for future production.”

The winery is located in the county’s Alexander Valley appellation. It was co-founded in 1974 by Frank Woods and former Secretary of the Air Force Tom Reed in 1974, with its first commercial wines being a chardonnay and a pinot noir.

The winery’s name, French for an enclosed vineyard in the woods, was a play on Woods’ own name.

The pair grew Clos du Bois quickly into a premium label before selling it in the late 1980s.

According to the winery’s website, Woods was “a true pioneer in the California wine industry. He worked hard to bring Sonoma County wine to the world stage, while also pursuing Chardonnay varietal wines specifically.”

With wines often priced in the $8 to $15 range, the winery changed hands several times as the industry consolidated and shifted assets. Constellation bought the brand in 2007 as part of an $887 million transaction that included several others.

At the time Constellation Brands sold a number of its wineries, the future of the Clos du Bois label was murkier than others, according to analysts. Its legacy as Sonoma County’s first Bordeaux-style red blend and as a local premium brand during the 1980s faded over the years and the wine was priced as low as $7 per bottle when Gallo bought it.

On Saturday afternoon, the winery’s gate was closed and the place looked deserted. A tasting room employee at the winery across the street, Trentadue, said the tasting room at Clos du Bois had been closed since the pandemic began.

Possibly because of smoke taint caused by the recent wildfires that affected county vineyards the winery contracted with, no grapes had been delivered to the Clos du Bois facility for some time, McDonald said.

“We didn’t have any wine in the cellar because they weren’t giving us any grapes,” he said.

Up until Thursday, he said employees were cross-training at other sites and other wines were being brought in for the staff to blend, bottle and put their label on. McDonald said he was feeling good that during the pandemic he was working in agriculture, which was considered an essential industry.

The company may use the Clos du Bois facility for storage, he said.

Gallo’s Gallagher said in the email that the company is assisting laid-off employees to find other jobs “both within Gallo as well as externally. To aid these employees we will be providing one-on-one support along with a number of employment services.”

Gallagher did not respond to follow-up questions through email and voicemail Friday night or Saturday.

Gallo offered employees severance pay, giving them credit for time worked when they were employed by Constellation, McDonald said.

“That was nice of them,” he said. “They are allowing us to apply for some internal positions.”

McDonald said he received 16 weeks of severance pay. He had been employed at Clos du Bois for between eight and nine years.

He has already revised his resume and has been looking for positions on winejobs.com.

“This provides a little fear,” McDonald said. “It’s not a great time to not have a job.”

Wine Writer Peg Melnik and Staff Photographer Kent Porter contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at kathleen.coates@pressdemocrat.com.

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