Thursday, January 30, 2014

A nice glass of Gallo

According to author Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger -- a good book by the way, especially for the novice -- brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo really got underway in the wine business by making and marketing inexpensive, sweet, high-alcohol wine to lower-income urban neighborhoods. One of their most popular products was Thunderbird, a wine that sold via the commercial jingle, "What's the word? Thunderbird." Today Gallo still makes Boone's Farm and Carlo Rossi, the wines that teenagers are famed for starting out with. They also make Bartles and Jaymes' wine coolers, those wine "lites" which were all the rage some years ago.

However, the company has long since ventured beyond the bounds of the jug or the starter wine, which makes it all the more interesting to encounter not only Gallo wines in all their disguises, but also people who know enough about Gallo's rotgut traditions to insist that, whatever else they might try, they at least avoid Gallo -- all the while they are drinking Gallo.

The company now makes, markets, and distributes no fewer than fifty-three wines and brandies, among them quite a few familiar names and labels from our grocery store shelves. Barefoot Cellars, Bella Sera, Dancing Bull, Da Vinci, Ecco Domani, Livingston Cellars, MacMurray Ranch, Mirassou, Rancho Zabaco, Red Bicyclette, Sebeka, and Turning Leaf are all Gallo products. Some, like Barefoot, were once small independent California wineries which Gallo bought out, not an unusual thing these days when the second generation of a small vineyard does not want to go into the family business. Some, like Red Bicyclette, are European-made wines -- Red Bicyclette is from France -- which Gallo markets and distributes.

How do they taste? Are they any good, or all they all tainted somehow by their descent from Thunderbird? The answer, of course, lies in how they taste for you, the wine drinker. This may sound like a condescending way of disguising wine snobbery, as if I were saying "Well of course they're Gallo, but if you like them ...." Not at all. I enjoy Barefoot Cellars Zinfandel especially -- it's one of Martha's Vineyard picks, as you see! -- and logically there is no reason why a Gallo wine should not be good, unless the company subjects all its new holdings to the same treatment that produced Thunderbird: acres of vines, un-pruned, overproducing over-sweet grapes that make flaccid, high alcohol wines. Thunderbird had extra alcohol added, plus citrus flavors (see the book Blood and Wine by Ellen Hawkes). My guess is that a company with any smarts is not going to sabotage their product like that, because the wine market is big and growing and increasingly sophisticated, and has been for a long time. Not least of all, the people at Gallo must know the reputation they labor under (is that why they disguise their wines?) and they must know the way to quash it is to make and sell good wine.

So the next time you go shopping for wine, you might take a look at the fine print on the label. If somewhere you see "Modesto, CA," you very probably have a Gallo product. And that may not be a bad thing at all.

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