No one seems to know for sure how many cases of wine the Gallo Winery produces annually. Some say more than 80 million cases, making it the largest wine producer in the world, even larger than some major wine-producing regions. If you ask the brothers Gallo, Ernest and Julio, they will politely evade the query; they would rather talk about their current single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon 1980 and their first vintage-dated Zinfandel 1981.
The Gallos' reaction is understandable. Throughout the years, critics have suggested that the brothers' penchant for volume was not suited for smaller production lots of boutique-type varietals. They questioned whether, even if the wine were good, consumers would be willing to spend an extra $5 and trade the likes of Hearty Burgundy and Pink Chablis at $2.50 for the Cabernet at around $8, or even pay the additional $2.50 for the new Zinfandel at $5 to $5.50. They also questioned whether hosts, conscious of the snob appeal of an expensive wine label, would be embarrassed to serve an upgraded Gallo varietal.
With that in mind, it's no wonder the Gallos are gun-shy about volume production figures. What consumers may not realize is that the Gallos are probably the largest buyers of quality grapes in California from such major regions as Sonoma, Napa and Monterey counties. They staff and maintain a wine laboratory, which in my opinion is probably superior, or at the least equal, to that of the UC Davis department of enology. Many of California's renowned creme de la creme wine makers studied and learned grape basics at Gallo's wineries.
It is said in the wine industry that it is hard to make a bad wine at Gallo considering the superb grape availability, scientific know-how and limitless funds for experimentation. That is why the new releases are worthy of a look.
The '81 Zinfandel is decidedly a good value, especially if you like the Gallo style, which strives (as in all its varietal reds) for silky softness, little tannin showing and above all, early drinkability. The wine may not age, but that is immaterial since it is full of ample soft texture and flavor. This is not a complex wine, but is straightforward, simple and attractive with no sharp or hard edge. The style is just right for pairing with fast food for a casual dinner. The wine was bottled on May 23, 1985, so it does have some bottle age as well as 36 months in Yugoslavian oak. It's made from 100% Zinfandel grapes, most of which are from the older hillside vineyards of Dry Creek in Sonoma County. Grapes there mature a bit earlier and are generally known for good Zinfandels, a fact not overlooked by the Gallos.
While this is the first Gallo vintage-dated Zinfandel, it is by no means the first produced by the winery. When the E&J Gallo Winery was established in 1933, the Gallos shipped their first freight car of barreled Zinfandel to a Chicago wine bottler. Zinfandel was also produced in 1942 when the brothers introduced the first wine from their winery in Modesto. By 1953 they concluded that there weren't enough good Zinfandel grapes available to continue their marketing program. The '81 establishes a new Gallo Zinfandel tradition.
Another tradition is the Cabernet Sauvignon, 1980, from its Reserve Cellars. The 1978, released several years ago following the same theme of early drinkability and silky texture, was a huge success. The 1980 is even more so in an attractive mature supple style with a bit of long-term aging ability. It is a "now" red, also made from Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County grapes, long considered prime Cabernet resource material. Aged for 36 months in Yugoslavian oak, the wine is now being released after being bottled in April of 1985.
Stress on Today
If you are looking for big, broader structured wines, stay away from Gallo reds. Obviously, the winery is striving for today's drinkability and not tomorrow's complexities. The '78 Cabernet, incidentally, drinks today as well as most at the same price level. The '80 can stand some aging but comes across now with generous flavors and beguiling softness.
Keep in mind too that a slight sweetness in both reds may be detectable. This helps provide the wine with softness and roundness. Those who prefer tannin and a sharper, more astringent style may be disappointed, but consumers looking for an everyday casual taste will be amply rewarded.
It is interesting to note that the Gallos are producing their "Reserve" reds during a period when whites are more popular in the marketplace. Indeed, many Americans are avoiding reds and zeroing in on pinks such as Zinfandel Blanc.