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Growing up Gallo

Sept./Oct. 2006 California Country magazine

Gina Gallo serves as winemaker at the Healdsburg-based Gallo Family Vineyards, crafting premium vintages for the world's second-largest winery.



Passionate winemaker has a family-first approach


Gina Gallo's close-knit family provides the foundation for her success as a winemaker.

The task was simple: gather as many walnuts as you can. The young girl bounded through her family orchard in Modesto, loading her burlap sack with nuts and thinking of the princely reward for her labors: $3 a bag from the local feed store.

Little did anyone know that decades later she, Gina Gallo, would become a prominent figure in one of California's most famous businesses--Gallo Family Vineyards.

Gallo, now 39, serves as winemaker at the Healdsburg-based company, crafting premium vintages for the world's second-largest winery.

The demanding job of making wine and her role as the company's most public figure has not stopped Gallo from fondly recalling the days of growing up on a farm and the character it helped instill in her. While she learned a lot of life lessons in the orchards and vineyards, she also remembers playing hide-and-seek with her seven brothers and sisters, riding horses, gathering freshly laid eggs and watching her father expertly prune their orchards.

At the time, Gallo could not have foreseen her family's deep and lasting impact on so many outside the farm.

The contribution Gallo's grandfather, Julio, and his brother, Ernest, made to the winery--and the world of wine, for that matter--is still being felt today. Patriarch Ernest, 96, continues to provide his expertise. Julio passed away in 1993, though photos of this dynamic duo can be seen throughout the property. Everywhere, signs of their energy, optimism and vision are evident.

The two brothers not only left an indelible mark on Gina Gallo, but their legacy is virtually unprecedented.

"When I think of the history, it sometimes boggles my mind," Gallo said. "There is a rich history and heritage here--when you think of America and California--what we have been doing with our family wines for three generations. There is so much to be learned in each one of those generations and that's exactly what we're trying to do, is pass it on and keep it alive for the next generation."

Ernest and Julio Gallo started the winery in 1933. The brothers' people skills and business acumen helped them overcome their lack of formal training and a transition period as America was emerging from Prohibition. During their second year in business, they bought grapes from the Frei Vineyard--the same Healdsburg ranch where Gina Gallo practices her trade today. In 1947, the brothers bought all of the grapes grown on the ranch, becoming California's largest winery at the time. They purchased the property in 1977 and have continued to grow. Today, annual sales eclipse $1 billion, with customers found in more than 100 countries.

Embracing family and preserving tradition are paramount for Gallo, who has methodically gleaned her viticulture knowledge from family, academia and real-life experiences.

After receiving a bachelor of science degree from Notre Dame de Namur University, she worked in sales at the winery while at the same time studying winemaking at the University of California, Davis. It was then she knew she had found her calling.

She became an apprentice winemaker under her grandfather. Her first full harvest of fruit to craft into wine occurred in 1993.

Gallo has since become one of the most famous winemakers in the world, and she has done it with the enviable combination of intelligence, intuitiveness, elegance and adapting to the two divergent worlds in her life.

"Versatility is a big factor," she said. "I may be in jeans and boots one day out in the vineyard, or I may be in a dress at a formal winemaker dinner in San Francisco. That's one thing about living in the country but having the city a couple of miles away. You have energy there, there's power and interesting things that happen in the city. Then, when you're in the country, there's that sense of peace and being one with nature where you can really reflect, understand and learn."

She further demonstrates her flexibility with her second job as store owner. In 2000, Gallo purchased the Dry Creek General Store in Healdsburg, a historic landmark that first opened in 1881. She renovated and upgraded it, maintaining its original charm. The store features scores of local treats, including meats and cheeses. There's also a generous selection of wine and a mouthwatering deli that's a huge draw for locals and tourists alike. When she's not in the vineyards, Gallo can be found in the store, taking meal orders and helping prepare gourmet sandwiches.

Owning the country store helps fuel some of her passions, including preserving history and bringing people and good food together.

For Gallo, food has long been an important component of her life. As a child, she sat in rapt attention as her grandfather and great-uncle barbecued and told stories, including how they earned their first dollar and what it took to make it in the world.

She not only listened, but also stored their wise advice and acted upon it.

Gallo has appeared on magazine covers and national commercials. She has rubbed elbows with celebrities and shared wine and food with Martha Stewart. In addition to her work in the media to promote their brands, Gallo has guided the winery to unprecedented critical acclaim--a marked difference from the old days when the family business was more often considered a maker of jug wine.

Gallo's winemaking and leadership have helped the winery become the only American vintner ever to win the Premio Gran VinItaly award three times. This award, from the world's largest wine event, was presented in 1998, 2001 and 2002.

Other honors include Winery of the Century (awarded in 1999 at the Los Angeles County Fair), Best American Wine Producer (awarded in 2000 during the International Wine Challenge in London) and three times being named winery of the year at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

"Many of a winemaker's best decisions are instinctive and Gina has great instincts," said Mike Martini, winemaker at the Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa. "I believe wine is an extension of the winemaker's personality and as Gina has matured into quite an international personality, the dimensions of her wine have followed."

The perception of Gallo Winery has changed, not only in the eyes of critics, but in the public, which has welcomed the family's promotional efforts that place Gina Gallo front and center.

"It's so unusual that the Gallo family continues to reinvent itself over the years and do well in a totally different market," said Jon Fredrikson, president of Gomberg, Fredrikson and Associates, Bay Area wine industry consultants. "Many companies go through cycles and some have gone away, but Gallo has survived. To use a grandchild to promote the very same label is a remarkable development and probably not repeated in many other businesses. It's a wonderful legacy to hand down to future generations."

Keeping the business all in the family is one of Gina Gallo's goals. Another is preserving the ranch's natural habitat. Half of the 1,400-acre property is vineyards, while the other half has been left to its natural state, including sovereign trees personally earmarked by Julio Gallo to save for future generations. She said her grandfather's growing philosophy began while he tended his backyard organic garden.

"We continue to grow grapes in a sustainable way," Gallo said. "The natural trees and habitat around the vineyards help their longevity. My grandfather loved nature, and it was a challenge for him to understand what that vineyard really needed. Through the years, he saw, improved and implemented very natural surroundings."

Coexisting with nature not only adds to the ambiance for those working on the ranch, but Gallo said the growing style benefits the wines, which continue to improve.

She credits the special combination of rich soil and textbook climate found in their farming region, the Dry Creek Valley, as another key to success.

"As a winemaker, it's almost like being a kid in a candy store," she said. "You really can find a different microclimate to create a special wine, one that will give the consumer that ?wow factor' as a real showy, fun wine with personality."

The wines she crafts, and the winemaker herself, have plenty of pep and drive. While she said wine brings her a great deal of joy, she attributes something else as providing her truest foundation.

"My family is at the top of my priority list," she said. "Family for me is a sense of wholeness--a true completeness of who you are and what you are. We always get together around the table--all of my brothers and sisters, my cousins and my mother and father. It's my center of being."

Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at info@californiacountry.org.


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