A Tale of Another Pioneering American Wine Family

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GrapevineIn previous columns, I’ve focused on the evolution of the American wine industry, notably California and the Napa Valley.

From its rocky beginnings in the 17th century to the early European immigrants seeking their fortunes during the Gold Rush era to successful family operations in the early 20th century, the American wine industry slowly evolved as the precursor of today’s booming business.

This trend is continuing. For the last four decades, new wineries have been popping up in Napa Valley at an historic rate. And many have succeeded.

But the early progress of the American wine industry was abruptly and critically halted by Prohibition (1920-1933). Old-line winemakers persevered by selling their grapes to home winemakers and their wine to the growing number of “churches” offering altar wines to thirsty congregations.

However, a vast number of wineries shut down permanently. The wine industry in the United States was devastated. But for a few notable stalwarts, the vigor and production of the pre-Prohibition industry was not to be revived for another four decades.

The foundation of today’s successful domestic wineries can be traced to several of the California stalwarts who travailed and prevailed in the post-Prohibition era and the financial calamities of the Great Depression. I’ve previously presented several of these pioneers. This week I continue, presenting the tumultuous history of the Gallo brothers, Ernest and Julio.

For years, the Gallo brand suffered disdain under a reputation for low-quality, mass-produced and mass-marketed wines at the bottom of the United States market. Their appeal to Americans was price, not necessarily quality. And it worked.

  1. & J. Gallo Winery is today the largest privately-owned wine company in the world. The founding brothers rose from humble and tragic beginnings to become well-respected businessmen, leaving behind an enviable legacy (15 family members are active in the business) and a vast roster of more than 130 brand names.

Ernest was born in 1909 and Julio a year later. Their parents began selling grapes during Prohibition. But the family business suffered during the Great Depression. In 1933, their distraught father murdered his wife and committed suicide.

Now on his own at 24 years of age, Ernest decided to become a winemaker and convinced his brother to join him. The only problem was that they had no experience as winemakers.

Self-taught, they started the E. & J. Gallo Winery, with Ernest heading up sales and marketing and Julio focusing on the vineyards. They quickly exploited a niche for cheap wines – Carlo Rossi, Thunderbird and Ripple – that had mass appeal, yet garnered them an early reputation for unappealing, unsophisticated wines.

However, building off these cash cows, the Gallo brothers embarked on a massive campaign to upgrade their vineyard management techniques, winery operations, marketing efforts – and their image. With little fanfare, beginning in the 1990s, they practiced sustainable grape-growing and introduced environmental-friendly winemaking processes. Today the winery is considered a leader in sustainable grape and wine production. Unfortunately, their image remained mired in their self-inflicted bad press of the post-Prohibition era.

Beginning in 1993, the Gallos sought another tactic to enhance their business. They began marketing domestic and imported wines under private labels, with no mention of Gallo to be found on them.

Slowly at first, they cobbled together their portfolio of individual brands/labels, culminating in their company’s 2021 acquisition of more than 30 wine brands from Constellation Brands, Inc. Its portfolio includes domestic wineries such as Orin Swift, MacMurray Estate, Pahlmeyer, J Vineyards and Louis Martini. International brands include the top-selling Prosecco La Marca, Alamos of Argentina and Las Rocas of Spain.

When Ernest Gallo died in 2007, annual revenues on a portfolio of 40 brands totaled $1.5 billion. Today, Gallo spans low-end and premium brands, generating annual revenue approaching $4 billion on sales of more than 80 million cases in 100 countries. They employ 7,000 workers worldwide. The family’s net worth is in excess of $12 billion.

Another successful tale of attaining the American dream by following one’s passion and persevering through the ebbs and flows of daily life.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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