Cheap no longer: Gallo wines now want some respect

VINTAGE POINT

August 01, 1993|By Michael Dresser

Ernest and Julio Gallo built the largest wine business in the world and made a ton of money, but somehow it wasn't enough.

They wanted respect, not just because they could buy up half the Napa Valley and use it for hog farms if they so desired. They wanted people to know that they could make wine that was as good as anybody's. They wanted the name Gallo to mean something besides cheap wine.

It's a monumental task. Gallo, after all, is the company that gave us Hearty Burgundy and Pink Chablis. It's the company that makes wine for the worker and the panhandler alike. It's the company that gave us the advertising slogan: "What's the word? Thunderbird. What's the price? Two bits twice."

It's a long way from there to the 1991 Gallo Estate Bottled Northern Sonoma Chardonnay, with a suggested retail price of $30. But if a $30 Gallo wine sounds like a joke to you, remember the cracks we used to make about cheap Japanese transistor radios? Even the most hardened image can change with enough effort. Just ask Sony.

The 1991 chardonnay will go a long way toward winning new respect for the Wine Cellars of Ernest and Julio Gallo. But it won't go all the way.

It's a very good wine -- better by far than most of the chardonnays in the market. But when you get up into the $30 territory, you're playing ball with the Kistlers, Kalins, Sanford Reserves and other chardonnay heavyweights.

Gallo's 1991 can't compete. For $20, maybe, but not at $30.

It's a plump, pleasant wine with rich, creamy flavors of pear, lemon and yeast. The generous use of new oak gives it a sweet vanilla flavor. It comes on like gangbusters, takes the mid-palate by storm, but comes to the finish and just sort of loses its breath. Neither is there the complexity you find in the best chardonnays.

Still, this chardonnay marks a very promising debut for Gallo's new line of estate-bottled wines. If Ernest Gallo, the surviving patriarch of the family business, recognizes that the 1991 is a start rather than a culmination, Gallo has no great distance to cover to reach the pinnacles of California winemaking.

There's little doubt the Gallo company is proud of the wine, as well it should be. Carmen Castorino, the sophisticated and straightforward Gallo representative who has been pouring the wine for wine writers across the country, said the estate-bottled wine came under the personal supervision of Julio Gallo, who died in May in a vehicle accident.

"The final blend was his statement," Mr. Castorino said.

The wine comes from a vineyard in Sonoma's Russian River Valley that Gallo has owned since 1980. This vineyard is the centerpiece of Gallo's strategy of moving upscale.

Production down to a trickle

Gallo made only 3,500 cases, or a few hours' production of Hearty Burgundy, of the 1991 chardonnay. About 2,500 will be released on the U.S. market. Next year, Gallo expects to release an estate-bottled 1990 cabernet sauvignon from another part of the same vineyard. Meanwhile, the company is scaling back the size of the Gallo name on cheaper wines, while it lets the name Livingston grow in prominence.

According to Mr. Castorino, the block that produced the estate-bottled chardonnay abuts the highly regarded Vine Hill Road Vineyard, a major source of grapes for Kistler Vineyards. That's classy company, as Kistler may be the finest chardonnay producer in California.

Mr. Castorino said the grape production on the site was kept to 2.3 tons per acre, which helps account for the wine's concentration. The juice was barrel-fermented on the yeast residue to extract complex flavors, and for the secondary fermentation Gallo used a particular strain of yeast to prevent the development of bitter flavors. Filtration was kept to a minimum, he said.

"That was in keeping with Julio's philosophy, which was never to let the character be subservient to the winemaking techniques," Mr. Castorino said.

The philosophy is sound, but somehow the wine still fell short of being sublime.

Speak no ill of the dead, the saying goes, but there is reason to believe Gallo can advance farther with its winemaking decisions being made by non-family professionals. Julio Gallo did much for the industry, and created some meritorious wines, but there were some holes in his winemaking talents. Anyone who has tasted one of Gallo's dried-out zinfandels, released years too late, can attest to that.

The dilemma facing the winery is how to encourage some media buzz about the 1991 chardonnay without getting carried away by its own press clippings.

Julio Gallo's legacy is not a great wine, but it's a good start. And if Ernest Gallo realizes this, there is indeed good reason to believe Gallo will soon be making wine that puts the "cheap" image to rest at last.

*

Baltimore-area lovers of Alsace wine, take comfort.

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