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Gallo, part II

text and photographs © 2004 Tom Cannavan

Gallo part 1 - Gallo part 3

Modesto is a large town two hours driving south east of San Francisco, and a gateway to the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite National Park. This is the Central Valley, one of the great agricultural areas of the Western USA, growing almonds, apricots, peaches and of course, grapes. Modesto is, to an extent, a company town. Gallo is the biggest employer, with 3,000 of Modesto's population directly employed at their various facilities, plus many more employed indirectly in the service industries of the town.

The Gallo headquarters is a sprawling estate; basically a mini-town referred to as "the Campus". Indeed, the parkland setting complete with roaming peacocks is popular with locals, who are free to walk the miles of paths and woodland. Gallo is a significant benefactor to the community, endowing chairs at the Merced campus of the University of California, and building a brand new theatre in the centre of the town at the time of my visit.

Gallo was the number one wine company in the world in terms of sales until the takeover of Australia's BRL Hardy made Constellation Brands, a US-based producer whose brands include Paul Masson and Arbor Mist, the world's biggest.

In some ways this must be a relief for Gallo, giving them both something to shoot at, and some relief from the media's fixation with "tall poppy syndrome" - though Vice President Gallo International, Jeff Bland, can't help but point out that the company inches Constellation into second place in terms of production volume.

For 50-odd years Gallo had grown its business organically, with no acquisitions other than land. But there has been a fundamental shift in the way Gallo does business in recent years with numerous international partnerships, and a steady stream of very interesting acquisitions.

A truly fascinating project is Red Bicyclette. Made in the Languedoc, Gallo's project is going full steam ahead, even though an attempt by Mondavi to set up a Languedoc operation faltered an died. These cleverly marketed wines are set to introduce a whole new sector of US wine drinkers to southern France. Given Gallo's track record for pressing the right consumer buttons, I predict this will become the best selling French wine in the USA.

Gallo sells a large volume of Italian wine under the Ecco Domani label thanks to a partnership with CAVIT of Trentino, for example, and it's Black Swan label does the same for Australian wine in the US.

Gallo's more recent partnership with McWilliams has seen another substantial investment in Australia. Recently, the company has purchased the historic and highly regarded Louis M. Martini Winery, Gallo's first venture into this prestigious Cabernet-growing Mecca that is the Napa valley. Gallo is investing heavily in the Martini operation, creating a state-of-the-art bespoke winery for premium Cabernets.

I visit the Gallo "campus", which contains the bulk of the administrative offices, as well as various technical and creative departments.

   At one end is a huge warehousing and bottling facility. Much of the warehousing work is managed by robots, including the tractor robot (shown left) which steadily, quietly and rather eerily, plods away, running around the warehouse to lift, carry and drop pallets of wine in precise positions without a human being in site.

Protected by ear-plugs, safety glasses and hard hats, a visit to the bottle-production facility was absolutely fascinating.

Even though this was a tremendously hot and noisy environment, I confess I could have lingered for hours watching the huge machine blow glass and throw out red-hot bottles with astonishing speed and hypnotic rhythm. The plant can produce two million bottles per day, which given Gallo's 60-million case annual production, is just what is needed.

Next day, it was back on the road to travel another 40 miles or so south across the dusty roads that carve through the Central Valley, bringing us to the town of Livingston. Close by lies the main Gallo winery, or "plant" as it is referred to, giving a clue to its industrial proportions.

Hoving into view, the Gallo plant - the world's biggest winery - is like no other winery I have visited - and I've been to some huge wineries. "Many people around here think we are an oil refinery" says Production Manager John Paradiso and it's not hard to see why. Serried ranks of massive, two hundred thousand-gallon tanks tower over the surrounding countryside, in a compound ringed by security fences.

Everything here is on a massive scale, which it has to be with 10,000 tons of grapes per day being crushed at peak season, before slowly making there way towards no less than 17 bottling lines.

     The plant is sophisticated to the nth degree, with systems in place to process dozens of different wines quickly, economically and efficiently. Nothing is wasted, with tartrates recovered and recycled for industrial use, and a roasting facility that takes off-cuts from barrels to produce wine-making oak chips. Head Winemaker Cal Dennison had just returned from a trip to Florida, to look at how the fruit juice industry is using technology to improve their production, in a continual quest to streamline the business further.

Turning Leaf and other inexpensive brands for the domestic market are made here, like the famous Gallo Heart Burgundy (curiously, and off-dry Zinfandel blend which is still immensely popular). There is no doubt that this is industrial-scale winemaking. There are eight full-time winemakers, but one senses it is the project managers and engineers that really drive this facility. Wines are pumped for hundreds of feet and processed with ruthless efficiency. It is simply a fact that like all the world's biggest brands, these wines must be pretty heavily manipulated to achieve Gallo's consistent and commercially successful results.

The product is high quality commodity wine, far removed from the single vineyard labels of Sonoma, and possibly not the wines that readers of this page will buy. If this was Ford motor company, these would be the Fiesta's, built to a price and unlikely to stir the souls of enthusiasts, but doing what they do very, very well.

I have no photographs of the impressive Livingston facility, because on arrival mobile phones and cameras had to be deposited. That may sound like Gallo has something to hide, but in fact my visit - part of a small party of UK wine magazine editors - was the first by European wine journalist to this facility; a sign that whilst Gallo may remain sensitive about how its operation is perceived, they no longer feels the need to shut out the world.

The rolling hills of Sonoma and £50 bottles of Estate Cabernet may be the finery that Gallo dons to show it can step out with the best of them, but Livingston is the stripped-bare naked truth of a hugely successful family company. Gallo simply gets it right where it matters: in the hearts and minds of "ordinary" wine consumers. Complacency is still seen as an enemy, and in a chat with Tom Smith, Vice president in charge of wine growing, I hear of extensive experimentation, including plots of Portuguese and Spanish grape varieties, and how even the basic recipe for their most important products like Turning Leaf has altered with the times, with less oak, reduced malolactic fermentation, and an attempt to let the quality of fruit show through.

As wine enthusiasts, you and I may not be buying Turning Leaf for our own tables, but only a zealot would deny there is a place for mass-produced commercial wines of consistent good quality. The produce of Livingston will not set the wine-lover's world on fire, but very few consumers would trade the satisfaction such brands can offer for a return to the uncertainty and frequent disappointment that was inexpensive wine a generation ago.


In part 3...

The final part of this feature is a tasting through the wine portfolio of both E & J Gallo and the premium wines of Gallo of Sonoma, with twenty wines tasted, assessed and rated.

part 1 - Gallo Sonoma
part 2 - E & J Gallo
part 3 - Gallo tasting