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Ernest Gallo: In his own words

Ernest Gallo was a private man who rarely granted interviews.

He made a major exception in 1969, however, by agreeing to a candid extended interview for the California Wine Industry Oral History Series that was being conducted by the University of California.

But there was a catch: The university had to agree to keep the interview secret until his death.

The 168-page transcript of Gallo's comments were unsealed this week and converted into a digital format, a copy of which was provided to The Bee on Thursday.

The wide-ranging interview was conducted over two weekends in his office by Ruth Teiser, who was project director for the oral history series.

"The purpose of the series is to record and preserve information on California grape growing and wine making that has existed only in the memories of wine men," Teiser wrote at the time.

Much of the interview covers historic details of E.&J. Gallo Winery operations and how its decisions were made.

Here are some excerpts from that interview:

I was born in 1909, and my father was probably 24 years of age at that time, and he must have arrived (in San Francisco) around 1905.

That's right, because I remember him telling me stories of the earthquake in San Francisco which occurred in 1906. And at that time Italians were not well-regarded -- probably like Mexicans are in this country today, or not even to that degree.

In any event, after working as a ditch digger for a year or so, he decided to go into the wholesale wine business. This meant that he had a cart and horse and would go out of San Francisco to down in the valley, and he happened to buy wine -- eight or 10 barrels at a time -- from my mother's father.

That's how he happened to know those people. And then would take that wine back to San Francisco and sell it to the boarding houses, the Italian boarding houses.

And immediately upon getting married, he got out of that type of business and moved to Jackson, Amador County, and started a boarding house of his own.

He was running a boarding house for the miners and many of the miners were Italians. I was born there on March 18, 1909.

At the age of 1 year, I was farmed out to my maternal grandparents, who were the Batista Biancos in Hanford. So from the age of 1 to about 5 or 6, I lived with them.

My brother Julio was born on March 21, 1910. And he remained with our parents. And the reason, apparently, I was farmed out was that another youngster came along and it was difficult for my mother because she was running the boarding house.

My earliest recollections were those with my grandparents.

At the age of 5, I obtained my first and last drunk. It's probably the first recollection I have. I recall being in this very small winery, which was not much more than a shed in the back of the house there in Hanford. My first memory is of two men working a hand press during the vintage.

They had a tin cup there and they'd put it under the press and get some of that freshly made wine. It was still sweet, but high in alcohol, and they'd drink a little and sit down and talk.

As a youngster of 5 I saw them do this frequently, and I remember taking the cup and filling it up and drinking it, and it tasted very, good -- sweet.

I have in my memory, and I never will forget it, these two men laughing. And I must have continued drinking because the next thing I remember I was in bed and my grandmother was standing over me.

In any event, from then on, I have never gotten drunk in my life, so it served a good purpose.

At about 6 years of age, I moved back with my parents.

My father had left Jackson and opened a saloon in Oakland. It was located at 49th and Broadway. In those days, a beer was 5 cents for a long stein and there was a free lunch counter.

Prohibition came into effect in 1918, which meant that my father had to close down his saloon. At that location, he was not only in the saloon business but also had a boarding house. He closed down, sold his building, and decided that he was going to go into farming.

He bought a ranch of 120 acres at Antioch, 30 of which were in wine grapes, the balance being pasture.

My father knew absolutely nothing about farming. He had been a city man all his life. I recall vividly at 8 years of age working in the field, cultivating with four mules. That was a good long hard day's work.

When I was 12, he sold that ranch and bought a small vineyard at Escalon, which was 20 acres. This was during Prohibition.

Wine grapes at that time were selling for over $100 a ton because they were shipping wine grapes east to Italians back there who could not buy wine and were making homemade wine. Under Prohibition, a home winemaker was allowed to make 200 gallons.

My father, in getting to know people of the area, happened to visit a well-known and what was in those days a well-to-do farmer, in his own way, Giuseppe Franzia.

This Giuseppe Franzia later became my father-in-law. Giuseppe Franzia was a rather blunt, direct-speaking type of an individual. He came over one day to visit my father, and my father asked him, by the way, what did he think of the vineyard?

So Giuseppe Franzia said, "Well, what I would do is wait until the springtime when the leaves are cut and looking well and then stick somebody else like you got stuck."

The place wasn't quite that bad. My father made a lot of money on it, but he did follow that advice and the following spring sold it and bought a place which was 40 acres here in Modesto, out on the Maze Road.

This was in 1926, at which time I was 17 years of age. I had gone to high school in Escalon, and then finished high school here in Modesto.

It was my job at age 17, therefore, to harvest the grapes and ship them back there to my father and to Joe Gazzara (in Chicago). At that time we had the 40 acres on the Maze Road and 20 acres in the Keyes area. We grew zinfandels on both.

As I said, my father went in the year 1926 to Chicago and sold his grapes. He returned, had done reasonably well -- had done very well -- but told me that he was not going back to Chicago any more. He just couldn't put up with that element.

The people involved in that type of business were a cross-section of characters. For example, they would haggle with you at the beginning, and you'd arrive at a deal and they would pay you, usually in cash, and then if you could get to the bank with the cash before they could hold you up, you had a good day.

If the market went down the following day, they'd come after you wanting a refund. And this was the type of deal it was.

So my father came back and said he'd had it, he wasn't going to go back. At which point I asked for the opportunity to go back myself. To which he readily agreed. So at the age of 18 I went back to Chicago, and he shipped me the grapes. I enjoyed the operation very much.

There was a fundamental difference in my father's personality and mine. If he got into an argument with a man over a deal, why he'd just stop dealing with him forever. Whereas with me, every deal was a new deal.

And if I thought I could make a profitable deal with a man, I would deal with him, regardless of what happened 15 minutes ago. By nature I can't carry a grudge. I can't remain mad. So I worked very well with those people.

I'd make a deal with them, and if they came howling for a refund, a rebate, I may have given it to them, but at the same time I'd sell them another car for more profit.

I spent two years at Modesto Junior College, but never did graduate. That is, never did get a diploma because I confined my studies to the subjects I thought would do me the greatest good, and things like physical education and some of what I thought were liberal arts classes, which would not prepare me for making a livelihood, I just didn't take.

It must have been about 1930, my father bought 160 acres across the street from what was now 70 acres (he owned) on the Maze Road.

We wanted to plant it into a vineyard. So he rented a Caterpiller tractor and a Le Tourneau scraper on a daily basis.

The number of hours that a day consisted of was not specified in the agreement, so I took the equipment from, 8 at night and drove it until 8 in the morning, and my brother would take it at 8 in the morning and run it until 8 at night.

So we ran it around the clock, and did the land levelling in very short order and planted the grapes.

And that is the location that my house is now on, as well as my brother's.

It was during my years going back to Chicago to sell grapes (1927 to 1932) that I met Giuseppe Franzia.

When the season was over, I noticed that he timed his departure from Chicago to coincide with mine. And he invited me to travel with him.

And he boarded the train with a large wicker basket under his arm, which he put under his seat. When lunch time comes, he pulls it out and here he has a salami and a piece of cheese and some big onions and some bread and a couple of bottles of wine.

And I thought he was a nice old fellow, and when we landed in California, why, he invited me to come and visit him.

I thought nothing of it at the time, but some months later, I decided to just go and see the old guy. I drove into his place and talked to him out there, and I noticed his daughter, and this is how I happened to meet my wife, Amelia.

And not too long thereafter, of course, we were married (in 1931).

On June 21, 1933, both my father and mother passed away.

(Franklin) Roosevelt had become president in the elections of 1932.

It was obvious that Prohibition was going to be repealed and wine could be made under a temporary permit, anticipating repeal of Prohibition, which would take place and be effective on Dec. 5, 1933.

So therefore, that summer of 1933 (at that time I was 24 years of age and my brother Julio was 23 years of age) I decided that we would not go east to sell grapes anymore because not only had grapes, in the meantime, become very cheap, but repeal of Prohibition was opening up a new opportunity -- a start in the wine business.

So it seemed to be the natural thing to build a winery, and take the grapes we had and make wine out of them.

Therefore, on Aug. 21, 1933, we started the winery. My brother and I pooled our cash resources and we had $5,900.23, and we rented a building from the railroad because we didn't have the money to build a winery on the ranch.

(It was) here in Modesto, at the corner of 11th and D streets. We rented the building from the Modesto and Empire Traction Company for $60 a month. And then went to San Francisco and purchased a crusher and a press, and 100,000 gallons of redwood cooperage, all on a trade acceptance basis.

Growers coming into town would come in and inquire what was going on, and when we told them we were building a winery, they immediately became interested and wanted to participate.

Not having money to pay for grapes, we made a deal with them that if they would deliver their grapes to us, we would be willing to make wine and give them in payment 50 gallons of wine to the ton.

Grapes at that time were worth about $8 a ton, so receiving 50 gallons for every ton they delivered meant that if wine sold at 50 cents a gallon on repeal of Prohibition, they'd be making $25 a ton, which was a great deal for them. It also made a very good deal for us, since a ton produces at least 150 gallons.

This got around, and we had more grapes offered than we could handle.

So we started the first year with 100,000 gallons of wine.

On Dec. 5, on repeal of Prohibition -- as a matter of fact, just a few days before that -- I received an airmail letter from Chicago from a gentleman that I used to sell grapes to in Chicago, whose name was Charles Barbera.

Charles Barbera had written me inquiring if I knew anyone who was going into the wine business, for he would like to go into the wholesale wine business and wanted to buy some wine. Could I put him in touch with these people?

I received that letter the first day or so of December. I immediately drew samples out of the tanks and took a plane to Chicago the same day, arriving at his office the next morning.

When I walked in Barbera expressed surprise and said, "You know, I just mailed you a letter."

I said, "Is that so? Well, I just happened to be coming through, and I'm in the wine business."

He said, "Fine, let me see what you have."

And based on this, I sold him.

My reason for haste was that I wanted to make sure I got the order first, before other people found out he wanted to buy wine. I sold him 100 barrels of wine at 50 cents a gallon, 50 gallons to the barrel.

From there, I proceeded to New York and made other contacts.

And one was Griffler. It was in a sub-basement, and I went down there, and I saw a large number of women bottling wine by hand.

I inquired for the proprietor and Griffler, who was an elderly man, came forward and I told him I was there to sell wine.

He said, "Fine, let me see your samples."

In those days, we had no knowledge of processing other than that you would filter the wine, then wait. With age it would clarify and stabilize, and it would take years to eliminate the sediment.

So this was new wine that I had, which required filtering almost every day in order to have it clear.

So, these were samples I had filtered the night before in the hotel room.

I showed him one sample. He tasted it, and he asked, "What's the price?"

I said, "Fifty cents a gallon."

"Oh," he said, "Oh, no, I don't want any of this cheap stuff -- I only want good wine."

I said, "'Oh, I'm glad to know that. I have some very good wine here, but it is 90 cents a gallon."

"Well," he said, "that's what I want."

I said, "Fine." So I pulled out another sample of the same wine, poured it out for him.

He tasted it, said, "Well, now, that's exactly what I want."

So based on this I sold him 100 barrels at 90 cents a gallon instead of 50 cents.

That's the type of people who were in the business in those days. They didn't know anything about the product, and they judged it by the price.

Neither myself nor my brother knew anything about winemaking.

We were aware of the fact that when my father made wine at home during Prohibition, the wine started out being sweet soon after it was made in November or December, and gradually became sour, so that in July it was very sour.

We knew you couldn't sell wine of that type commercially, so it was important that we make the wine right.

Based on this, just as soon as we got the tanks up and just before we started crushing, I went down to the Modesto Library and inquired of the librarian if she had any books on winemaking.

And with her help, I looked through the library and there were none.

After all, this was just on repeal of Prohibition, and it wasn't a very popular subject.

Then she thought, and "Well," she said, "down in the basement there's a stack of pamphlets. There might be some there from before Prohibition."

And she said, "Why don't you go down there and see if there are any?"

I did go down in the basement and went through an enormous stack of pamphlets and found two of them that were published by Professor Frederic T. Bioletti of Davis.

One of them was entitled "The Fundamentals of Fermentation" and the other "The Fundamentals of Clarification."

So this was what we needed, and I came up and I told her I had found these, and she said, "Well, you're welcome to them."

So this was the beginning of our knowledge of the wine business -- how to make wine.

My brother and I then proceeded that year to make wine in conformance with these two pamphlets.

As we were ready to ship wine in December on repeal of Prohibition, it happened that some of the old-time winemakers from up around the Napa Valley, men who had been in the wine business prior to the time of repeal, happened to come through and they saw us barrelling wine, and they asked, "What in the world are you fellows doing here?"

We replied, "Well, we're barrelling wine we're shipping east."

One said, "Why, this is ridiculous. That wine will never carry to the east. It's too new. It's still in the process of fermentation. It's going to blow the ends out of those barrels."

He said, "We're not going to ship our wine. We're going to age it for a year, at least."

We, on the other hand, felt that as long as the buyers wanted it and the wine was sound, we should supply it -- which we did.

As a result, we sold the entire output the first year for 50 cents a gallon and more.

These other people up north kept their wine; did not sell it. We developed a very good bulk wine business.

As I say, we adopted a policy of making the wine and selling it each year, turning it over.

Each year we made a profit and increased the size of the plant. In 1937, I believe it was, we built out at this location (known as Dry Creek) a million gallons of concrete tanks.

We liked them better than wood tanks because they didn't leak, and they were not porous, and they wouldn't be contaminated. And in the summertime, if they were empty, they would not shrink and deteriorate.

Being in the bulk business, we were selling bulk to various bottlers all over the United States. Although it was a very competitive business, we made money every year.

It was in New Orleans that Franck and Co. Bottlers, who were buying from us in bulk and bottling wine, became insolvent because their business was so competitive.

I made an arrangement with them that they should give us half the company in exchange for cancelling their debt, which was something like $30,000. They readily agreed to this.

I made the deal, came back to Modesto, and about 60 days later I received a news clipping from a New Orleans paper, anonymously. This clipping was to the effect that Franck was indicted for white slave traffic.

I wasn't being told what the facts were. And so I hopped a plane and went down there. His trial was coming up within 10 days, and so I remained for that period of time. He was convicted and sent to jail, whereupon I purchased his share of the company.

And that's how we started in the bottling business, by taking over this bottler.

That was 1939, under the brand name of Cream of California, which was the best seller in that market.

And then in 1940 in Los Angeles, in selling to a bottler by the name of Distillers Outlet, owned by David Vito and Sam Watt -- they too became insolvent.

We made a similar arrangement with them for them to turn over half of their company to us, and we would continue this business and my brother and I would supply them with bulk.

About this time it became apparent that there would be no future in remaining in the bulk business, and we should start developing a brand if we were to build anything.

And as a result of that, since we had no one good brand, the natural thing to do would be to develop the Gallo label.

And so we designed a bottle that was different from anything else on the market.

It was a high-shouldered tapered quart. Everyone else was using amber glass, and Watt, Vito and I decided to use flint so that the wine could be seen. We designed a label to fit the tapered bottle.

I thought that the consumer would like to see the color of the wine. Wine is a beautiful color, and why not take advantage of its appeal?

Watt, Vito and I designed this rack with an electric bulb behind it that showed the color of the wine to the best advantage. We put these in the retail stores.

In thinking the thing through, I concluded that we had to do something that would appeal to the public more than what the others were doing, otherwise we had no chance of getting started.

So this new design of bottle, this rack, this label, this uniqueness of having recipes on it, was different.

Then also, why should a retailer carry it? He had all the wine he wanted.

I went on the basis of rendering a service to the retailer. Our salesmen would come in and would stock the shelf for the retailer. So this would give us the opportunity, while we were stocking, to get the best shelf.

And every week or every two weeks, we'd come back and restock that, and each time we did, we'd take a little bit more space, and in a better position.

I felt this: that since we couldn't spend a lot of money advertising, I wanted the retailer's recommendation of our product.

I knew he wouldn't recommend it verbally, because he would be too busy and would forget. So I felt that if I put it in the best spot in the store, with the widest spread and our bottles always nicely dusted and clean, this would serve in place of a verbal recommendation by the retailer.

The consumer coming in sees it in the most prominent position and figures, well, this must be what the retailer must think is the best. And based on this, we moved very well.

In 1941, we decided to shut down the bottling plant in Los Angeles and bottle here in Modesto just at the time when the war broke out.

In 1942, when the war was on, it was not permitted to make wine out of Thompson seedless grapes, so we made raisins by dehydration. We had a dehydrator on the vineyard. Grapes then immediately jumped to $50 a ton and more, as it turned out.

We are three brothers, you know. Myself, my brother Julio and my brother Joe, who is 10 years younger than I am.

My brother Julio and I and our children are the only ones interested in this company. My brother Joe is farming on his own and has 6,000 or 7,000 acres of his own, between grapes, field crops and cattle.

I see more opportunity in more areas in this wine business, today, than ever before. The industry is expanding because we have learned to make the type of wines that the consumer is considering beverage wines.

Now they can drink them because they enjoy them. Twenty years ago, or even 10 years ago, most California wines were an effort for most Americans to drink unless they were people who had been drinking wine for a long time.

And I feel that the quality of wine that we sell is really remarkable considering the volume that we produce.

For instance, we don't sell to restaurants, although we sell better than about 40 percent of all the wine sold in California, and one-third of the California wine sold in the United States is ours.

In other words, one bottle out of three of California wine that's sold in the United States is ours, and one bottle out of every four of all wine sold in the United States is ours.

We were one of the first to agree to have our vineyard unionized.

When we were approached by the union organizers, we were glad to have them organize our help. I have felt for a long time that the grape laborer has never received his fair share of income. I was raised in the vineyard.

I know what it means to get up at 3 in the morning and sulfur grapes and spray and cultivate and prune, and as a result I can't reconcile a man working in the field in 100-degree weather in dust and dirt, doing hard physical labor and receiving, like they were here only a year or so ago, $1.25 an hour, when the women we have in our bottling room in white smocks, sitting on a stool in an air-conditioned bottling room looking at bottles go by are getting $2.75 an hour.

There's just something wrong. And I just can't reconcile the two. I've always felt that field labor should get a lot more money.

We've always paid our field labor more than the prevailing wage. However, that still was not nearly what it should be.

And as a result, when the unions came by -- that is, the organizers came by -- why, we told them we were quite glad to have them organize the help.

And as a result of this, I've been in favor of this movement throughout California to organize the grape laborers from a humanitarian standpoint.

There's a closer relationship between my brother and I and the community, and the community and us, than you normally would find in another area. We find that -- at least, we believe that -- people in the community are glad to have this organization here, and we, in turn, of course, find this a very satisfactory place to be located.

Wines such as Ripple, Pink Chablis, Boone's Farm Apple, Spanada and some of our champagnes, others that we have in development that we will launch before the year is out, (are) wines which it doesn't take any getting used to. I mean, you like them as soon as you drink them.

As far as new wines, they started, I believe, with Thunderbird. The wine itself not only was the first nontraditional wine, but the name Thunderbird, too, was the first nontraditional name used in the industry.

We observed in the marketplace that people were buying white Port and adding concentrated lemon juice, which to a wine man was shocking.

To take a wine we thought we had produced with great care and to find black consumers dumping a can of concentrated lemon juice in a bottle of our white Port and drinking it and thinking it's great!

As a result of this, we put this idea into the laboratory and had them produce something which was much better and that we could turn out and satisfy that type of flavor characteristic, which was obviously very desirable.

I know many winemakers have many different ways that they will judge a wine. I simply judge a wine by pouring a glass and drinking it and seeing whether I enjoy drinking it all, and if I want another glass.

If I feel like another glass and have a desire for it, to me it's good wine. I'm not too particularly interested in how deep the color is and how pronounced the bouquet is and how high is the total acid and how low is the sugar.

To me, is it something I enjoy drinking and want more? If so, then it's good.

And if it's not, I don't think it's good, regardless.

It's wine such as these -- the Pink Chablis, the Rhine Garten, the Rose1, the Ripples, Spanada, Champagne and Boone's Farm Apple -- that have vastly expanded this wine market. These are all wines that you can drink in quantity.

It seems that you can develop a taste, and if you drink a product repeatedly, your taste tends to adjust itself to that measure of sweetness.

About 1962, we developed a lower-priced line of wine that we called Red Mountain, or Carlo Rossi Red Mountain Brand. There was a Red Mountain winery up above Oakdale. We did not own it. They closed during Prohibition. We just used the name.

There's a gentleman working for the organization by the name of Charles Rossi, and it sounded like a name that we could use for the purpose.

Carlo Rossi Red Mountain table wines are filling a need for a low-priced, good, sound, table wine. Burgundy, Sauterne, Rose. It's something that people buy in gallons, and it's of good quality for the price.

My day starts at about 8 o'clock in the morning and I leave for home at 6:30 or 7 o'clock, and I take the day's reports and mail with me, and after dinner, why, I'm usually through by 11.

And either Saturday or Sunday will be spent on the work that I haven't had time for during the week. But this is not unusual, I think, with people in my position.

I know a lot of men who put in a great deal of time. I find that sometimes, the more responsibility they have, that is the more their accomplishment, why the harder workers they are.

At least, I've never been able to quit at 5 and go home and forget everything and come back the next morning at 9 or 10 (laughter) or take off Wednesday afternoon and go play golf, and Saturday as well.

I just haven't been able to learn how to do that.

Other people would rather do other things than what they call work. What I do is fascinating to me. And as a result, when you do something you enjoy, why, you're never tired.

I can see that when people are doing what they want to do, why, hours don't seem to mean anything. It is irritating to this degree, that there are a lot of other things I'd like to do that I just don't find time to do. But I imagine everybody has that problem.

Instead of trying to provide a home for all the grapes that are produced, we're going to take a position: we're just going to buy from those growers who are going to supply us regularly and we'll pay them, not a price that's influenced by those who cannot sell their grapes, but a price I that they can make a profit on.

This way the winery knows that it's getting that tonnage and the grower knows he has a home. And at grape season he doesn't have to go around peddling his grapes to see what he can get for them.

I've made innumerable trips through Europe; in fact, around the world. On my earlier trips, I used to spend a great deal of time visiting wineries. After a few trips, I found that neither their plants nor their techniques are equal to what we have here. As a matter of fact, in most countries of the world, they're 30 years behind us.

And so my interest now every time I go to a country is to try three or four of their wines at each meal to cover as many as I can as a matter of interest.

I usually come home again confirmed in the opinion that we make far better wines than all these other countries, with the exception, of course, of the very best of France.

To learn more about the wine industry oral history project at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, go to