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Winery will close Friday

For employees trickling out of E.&J. Gallo Winery in Modesto on Tuesday afternoon, it was the end of an era: the winery's co-founder — the last direct link to the company's birth — had died.

A letter informed employees of 97-year-old Ernest Gallo's death, and the news filtered through administration offices and production lines.

Workers walked out of the bottling plant entrance on Santa Rosa Avenue and the glass plant on Santa Cruz Avenue thinking about the passing of the patriarch.

"He was somebody who helped us and the rest of this community," said Daniel Hernandez, who has been working for the winery 24 years. "He and his brother built this company from the ground up."

Some employees said they were surprised to hear of the death. Few wanted to talk, but those who did shared their admiration for Gallo.

Hernandez, 51, of Modesto, said he didn't share more than a handshake with Ernest Gallo. But the Gallo brothers left behind a lasting legacy to the employees who come to work each day.

"He had health problems, so he couldn't come down here any more," Hernandez said while standing in front of the bottling facility. "But he used to come down around Christmas time, about 10 years ago. He would go around shaking everybody's hands and thank them for their hard work."

'I thought it was my best shot'

The company employs about 3,000 people in Modesto and about 1,600 in Livingston, Fresno, Sonoma County and elsewhere.

All Gallo Winery operations will be closed Friday to honor Ernest Gallo's memory, according to the letter to employees from Joseph Gallo, Ernest Gallo's son.

Hernandez remembers that the last time the company shut down its operation was when Julio Gallo died in an auto accident in 1993.

Many employees, including Hernandez, crammed into a Modesto cemetery for Julio Gallo's funeral. Hernandez said he plans to do the same for Ernest Gallo and pay his respects.

Hernandez works as a machine operator, alongside Noe De Los Santos and Deo Dutt, filling bottles with wine or labeling the products.

They started working at the winery decades ago in general labor positions, inspecting the product's quality, dumping glass or cleaning the bottling facility.

"When I came from Mexico 20 years ago, this was my first job," said De Los Santos, 43, of Modesto. "I used to work in a bank in an office in Mexico City, so general labor wasn't what I was hoping for."

De Los Santos said he told himself he would learn English and leave the Gallo company for another job.

"But I found out it was a really good company, and I stuck around," De Los Santos said. "I thought it was my best shot."

De Los Santos didn't know Ernest Gallo, but he said he owes a lot to the company that gave him a chance at a new life.

Dutt and other employees who work on the production lines heard the news of Gallo's death from others as they walked out of the winery facilities.

"A lot of people don't know about it yet," said Dutt, 47, of Modesto, who has been working at Gallo Winery for 18 years. "A lot of people are new, so they don't know him. But when anybody dies, it's always sad."

The Gallo brothers started the company in 1933. Ernest focused on the distribution and marketing of Gallo wines, while Julio's expertise was in winemaking and vineyard management.

"My father always enjoyed walking through the buildings, meeting with people, asking questions, overcoming challenges, problem solving and seeing the commitment of all of us to grow, produce and market the highest quality wines in the world," Joseph Gallo said in his letter to employees.

He went on to say his father strongly believed in the power of family businesses and he took the necessary steps to ensure the winery will remain family owned.

Jose Martinez, 49, of Modesto has worked at the winery for 10 years. He said the company's operations already have been passed on to the second generation of winemaking Gallo family members.

"I think it's going to be business as usual tomorrow," said Martinez, who works in the maintenance department.

However, he said Ernest Gallo's death severs the company's last connection to its roots.

"He was the family's last icon," Martinez said.

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