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Family Matters

Author: Jean Saylor Doppenberg
October, 2012 Issue

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As the Gallo family approaches 80 years in the wine industry, third-generation winemaker Gina Gallo looks to the future.

 
As owner of the Dry Creek General Store, Gina Gallo gets a little frustrated when delivery trucks show up during the lunch hour, one of the shop’s busiest times of day. The deli counter is buzzing with activity, and parking spaces are precious. Standing among freshly unpacked home and kitchen merchandise, Gallo quietly gives instructions to her staff as they assemble rustic, marble-topped tables to display the items, while a deliveryman expertly weaves his hand cart, loaded with cases of wine, around the browsing customers. Organized chaos is on the menu today.
 
“I love this store. I just adore it,” Gallo says of the 131-year-old institution at the intersection of Dry Creek and Lambert Bridge roads that she purchased more than a decade ago. “It’s a meeting place for the field workers, the farmers, the tourists—it’s a wonderful mix of people.”
 
Gina Gallo, 45, is among several third-generation Gallos who are active in the family business—the world-famous E. & J. Gallo Winery—in different ways. This includes her brother, Matt Gallo, 49, vice president of coastal operations and winemaking, who oversees the coastal California winegrowing and winemaking operations and is a full-time resident of Sonoma County. There are also five other siblings, two brothers and three sisters.
 
Gina is winemaker for the Gallo Signature Series line of premium wines, which bear her autograph on the labels, and the winery’s estate line. The wines are made from fruit grown in estate vineyards in Sonoma, Napa and Monterey counties.
 
“Matt was one of the first of our family members to move up here [in Sonoma County] in the late 1980s, and he’s raising his six children here, too,” she explains. As if on cue, two of Matt Gallo’s offspring arrive outside the store. After greeting their aunt with hugs, the teen-aged girls go inside to help out wherever the staff may need a bit of assistance on this busy day. Is the fourth generation of Gallos moving into the family wine business? Yes, affirms Gina, but not into the agriculture and farming side—yet. One of her college-age nieces, however, is currently enrolled in the wine agriculture program at California Polytechnic State University, so that’s coming.
 
“The fourth generation of Gallos are definitely exposed to the business and are around it,” Gina continues. “Every fall, the family produces a small lot of wine together, from picking the grapes to making the wine and bottling it, then coming up with a name and a label,” she says. “So all of the siblings, cousins and the next generation do that together. Most of them live in Modesto or here in Sonoma County, though some live in Washington. It’s a way for the third generation’s children to really have a sense of the family’s heritage.”
 
Gina is now raising her own part of the fourth generation as the mother of twin daughters born in 2011. “Being a new mom has been so much fun,” she says. “The girls are walking now and just starting to run. They’re always moving. I’ve childproofed everything in the house, because we want them to enjoy themselves and be safe.” (In 2009, Gina married Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Burgundy-based Boisset Family Estates, which owns DeLoach Vineyards and Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma County, and Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley, among others. The couple is raising their daughters at their Napa residence.)
 

Growing up Gallo

E. & J. Gallo Winery’s legacy in California has been well documented, and its success as a decades-old, family-owned and -operated business is impressive. Said to be the largest family-owned winery in the world today, it was founded in 1933 by brothers Ernest and Julio (Gina’s grandfather) in Modesto, where it’s still headquartered. It’s the largest exporter of California wine, selling in more than 90 countries. Gallo reportedly sells approximately 80 million cases of wine annually and employs more than 5,000 workers worldwide.
 
The winery has a portfolio of 60-some brands and labels—from wine to spirits—with about 14 of those imported from other winegrowing nations. This summer, the company announced its first winery acquisitions in Washington state with the purchase of Columbia Winery, the oldest winery in Washington, and Covey Run.
 
As the clock counts down to 2013 and the 80th anniversary of E. & J. Gallo Winery, Gina is certain that some special recognition of the milestone is fermenting. “Eighty years is young in respect to European winemaking, but our family will be planning some way to celebrate,” she says. “What that is, I don’t know. Nothing’s been worked out yet. But it will probably have something to do with how we’ve come a long way [since Prohibition], from first getting Americans to enjoy the taste of wine to helping to expand the American palate.” 
 
Gina fondly remembers her childhood in the Central Valley. “At our family home in Modesto, I could walk 100 yards right behind our house to my mother’s parents’ home, and down the road was my father’s parents’ house. So when my parents weren’t home, my siblings and I were at our grandparents’ homes. Our cousins came over every Saturday, especially in summer. It was easier for all the family members to be together when I was growing up. Now some of them live farther away.
 
“But what’s key is that we still have many of the family traditions we all grew up with,” she continues. “In our immediate family, my mom is wonderful about bringing everyone back together for certain things, whether it’s birthdays or holidays.”
 
In addition to sharing the harvest-time winemaking project, all of the Gallos on both sides of the family—Ernest’s and Julio’s—gather together every Easter, says Gina. “This keeps everyone connected and engaged.”
 

Great grape crop—so far

In California, E. & J. Gallo owns eight wineries and 16,000 acres of vineyards, including 18 vineyard blocks in Sonoma and Napa counties. The company also has numerous contracts with growers locally and around the state to supply additional fruit every year.
 
Gallo’s senior director of coastal winegrowing operations is Jim Collins, a lifelong farmer who grew up in the hay and alfalfa business on the Central Coast. He joined the Gallo organization nearly 11 years ago and lives on Gallo’s Frei Ranch property in Dry Creek Valley, where he works closely with Matt Gallo to oversee the company’s coastal vineyards, support grower relations, hire field workers at harvest and secure grape contracts. His territory ranges from Santa Barbara County to the North Coast and now into Washington state to support vineyard operations for Gallo’s newly acquired wineries there.
 
Collins, 54, is responsible for the Sonoma County-grown grapes that go into the Frei Brothers Reserve wines, and he also acts as spokesperson for the label. From a hillside overlooking vineyards on the Frei Ranch property, Collins is upbeat when asked how the North Coast grape crop is looking as of late July. “Great so far! As farmers, we’re naturally pessimistic, but we think the grape quality this year is going to be tremendous.”
 
Collins admits that a “fair bit” of Gallo’s North Coast grapes were lost during last year’s challenging weather. “But there’s an old saying: ‘Are you lucky or are you good?’ It’s a gut decision we farmers have to make, and we use a lot of science to help us get to those choices.”
 
To help avert damage to last year’s crop, Collins and Matt Gallo made some decisions about the vines early in the growing season, looking at what they thought was going to happen and taking action that paid off. “We spent quite a bit more money early with canopy management to open up the vines, so they had sun exposure that helped them dry out between the rains,” says Collins.
 
“If you can live through seven cuttings of alfalfa every year during your teens, like I did, [a difficult winegrape harvest] isn’t that bad,” he adds, laughing. “Yes, last year was challenging, but there have been tougher ones.”
 

Sustainability and science

In explaining some of the Gallo family’s grape-growing methods, Collins points out ways sustainability is practiced in everything they do. “We’re really big into sustainable winegrowing, and that has a lot of aspects,” he says. “It permeates so many things, from water and power management at the winery to the waste stream.”
 
Collins says the weight of the Frei wine bottles is also being reduced by 25 percent to help lower the costs of transportation, among other things. “That’s, like, a half billion pounds of glass taken out of the system,” he adds.
 
“In the vineyards, one of our cool things directly related to sustainability and wine quality is the use of remote sensing and satellite imagery to help with our soils,” says Collins. “Instead of doing excavation of soils, we use ground-penetrating radar to map them out more holistically. We can see a better view of the soil profile and the limiting factors we may have in there.”
 
Being on the cutting edge with vineyard technology also includes some mechanical harvesting: “We do a lot of hand harvesting here, but we’re also big into the de-stemmers on the harvesting machines, so that we can deliver pristine fruit to the wineries.”
 
When Collins was first being taught how to farm winegrapes, “a vineyard floor was so clean you could eat off it,” he remembers with a laugh. “Now, we understand that’s not the best for the vines. They need to cultivate the habitat for the good bugs, and to allow water penetration and the good aeration of the soil, which is why you now see a lot of vineyards with cover crops.”
 
Gallo’s coastal vineyards are unique for having cover crops of native grasses, according to Collins. “We have to rotate them out every five years or so,” he says, “but when they’re supposed to be green, they’re green, and when they're supposed to be dry, they dry out…and then they come back. It’s been a big help for us in terms of vine health.”
 
Collins says Gallo has a couple of vineyard blocks where they’re trying biodynamic methods and a couple that are going through the organic certification process. “But with sustainable methods, there are many more choices and options, yet it still isn’t easy to do,” he adds. “If you truly believe in sustainability, as the Gallos do, you have to take so many things into consideration, such as all the materials you purchase, the fuel economy of a tractor and even where that tractor was made.”
 
E. & J. Gallo works with the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance to write the certification protocol, according to Collins. In addition, he believes Gallo’s many vineyards and wineries are still the only ones in North America with ISO 14001 environmental management certification. Under that system, auditors dispatched by the Switzerland-based International Organization for Standardization diligently inspect the company’s business and farming operations to analyze how they impact the environment.
 
“When you get ISO 14001-certified, you open yourself up to a third-party audit,” says Collins. “They come in and require proof about what you say you’re doing. It was my idea about eight years ago [to seek the certification], and sometimes I wonder, ‘What was I thinking?’” he adds with a roll of the eyes. “At the start, it was extra work, but we now see a lot of cost savings.
 
“But even with the sustainability methods and the environmental management and all the science stuff we’re doing, well, if it doesn’t help make better wine, what would be the point? However, it does,” Collins continues. “All those things keep you focused—on what you’re doing in the vineyard and how to make this or that better—just by doing them, you’re making better wine.”
 

Blends increasing in popularity

Asked which wine varietal may be the next big thing, Collins pauses. “We were really good on Pinot Noir when [the film] ‘Sideways’ came out,” he says. “We had planted a lot of it, and that helped. Here in parts of Sonoma County and Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon is always going to be gold, but the trick is to make it better and deliver a higher quality product to the consumer at a good value.”
 
Blends are likely to be hugely popular soon, Collins says. “There’s a big future in them, because you can start using some lesser-known varietals. There are also some opportunities to create blends that are regionally specific,” he adds. “We could do a red blend from the North Coast and a red blend from the Central Coast. White blends, too.”
 
In the short-term, both Collins and Gina Gallo are excited about an estate-farmed Chardonnay set for release next spring, made from grapes from Gallo’s Two Rock vineyard in southern Sonoma County. “It will be Chablis-like and flinty,” says Gina. “It will probably sell in the $30 range and have a screw-cap closure.” After fermentation in egg-shaped concrete, the Chardonnay will have more of a stone and mineral character, she explains, “and that adds to a silkiness of the palate. It will be a great food-pairing wine.”
 
Collins agrees: “I already know that one’s going to be killer. Gina’s one hell of a winemaker.”
 

Restoration projects

Back at the Dry Creek General Store, on the same day that biodynamically raised eggs from DeLoach Vineyards are offered in the deli as creamy deviled eggs, well-used picnic tables outside are getting swapped for more comfortable tables and chairs. As Gallo watches her staff set up the new furniture, she describes her intention to restore the store soon, perhaps as early as this winter. “So that it’s back open for next summer,” she says, referencing the successful restoration of the equally historic Oakville Grocery on Highway 29 in Napa Valley, which closed last winter and reopened in spring ahead of the busy tourist season.
 
“I’ll probably have the foundation lifted, and it needs a new roof,” she says, looking around the property. “I want to make it more efficient, too, for people to get in and out.” She speaks as if she’s almost thinking out loud, justifying it more to herself than her visitor. “See, there’s a part of the store that isn’t original,” she continues, pointing to an addition at the rear of the building. “So I might let that all go and bring it back to its original state. Then in that space, we could do more of an outdoor patio and make an indoor-outdoor kitchen to support the deli and have outdoor gatherings.”
 
The Gallo family knows a thing or two about restoring historic properties. Earlier this year, the 110-year-old Oliveto Winery building in Healdsburg became the new headquarters for Gallo’s North Coast administrative and office staff. Located at 845 Healdsburg Avenue, the building was purchased by the Gallo family about 20 years ago and used for wine storage before it began to crumble. The multi-million-dollar rebuild and restoration took approximately 18 months, with much of the original brick and interior wooden beams left intact.
 
“The Oliveto building turned out really nice,” says Gina proudly of the restoration. “That was a big deal, and I’m really glad we did it. If we hadn’t, it was going to have to come down.”
 

Still 100 percent winemaker

Though Gina is busy overseeing the Dry Creek General Store and raising her daughters, she says she’s still involved in winemaking “100 percent” and loves being out in the vineyards. “I learn so much there. When I’m outside, I feel the creation happening for the style [of wine] I have in my head. Plus, it’s really important to pass on information about rootstocks and clones and what you know about the land—to share that with others.”
 
Gina has been out of the limelight recently because of her young daughters, and she cut back on media work and extensive travel the year before when she was pregnant. However, she vows, “I’ll be active in the harvest this year, in Sonoma County probably every day. It’s where we own the most vineyards, and it’s the wines I work with most closely. I’m working on a lot of wines in Napa, too, and I’ll also be on the Central Coast every other week during harvest. I still want to stay involved, be out in the market but traveling for the business in a different capacity.”
 
She’s still “definitely involved” in the marketing of the Gallo wines she produces, as well. “I appreciate and like that side of the business,” she says. “My mind is ticking all the time.”
 
As for virtual marketing, Gina admits to not being active on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, but she does want to put together some videos that are shot in the vineyards for use online. “I want to be able to quickly touch base and say things, not just blogging. So I keep thinking about doing video, trying to figure out how to make it relevant,” she says.
 
Of the two of them, Gina says her husband, Jean-Charles Boisset, is the artistic and visual thinker. “He turns up the volume, whether it’s with packaging or new and creative ideas. He’s definitely progressive—his mind is light years ahead. He has all these crazy hats and berets, too,” she adds, grinning. “But when you get to know him, he’s extremely traditional and his heart is family-driven.”
 
Winemaker and store owner: When you love what you do, says Gina Gallo, you do it 70 hours a week. “That’s how my mom and dad were. And they said to me, ‘Go find your passion, whatever it is.’ But in most family businesses, there’s always a need. It’s a different world when you’re in a family business.”
 
 
Jean Saylor Doppenberg is the author of three books: Food Lovers’ Guide to Sonoma, Food Lovers’ Guide to Napa Valley, and Insiders’ Guide to California’s Wine Country.


 

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