GEYSERVILLE, Calif. — Massive earth movers scrape at the reddish soil. Enormous trucks shift tons of dirt. Mountains are being moved here. Nearby, huge plastic sheets blanket hundreds of acres of newly fumigated earth.
It may look as if this northern Sonoma County landscape is being prepared for battle, but for the E. and J. Gallo Winery of Modesto, this little project is merely the beginning of a frontal assault on the premium wine market. The company that became the world's largest winery through the sale of inexpensive, sweet and fortified wines--jug wine, Boone's Farm and Thunderbird--has set its course for the next generation: fine wine.
To do it right, Gallo bought land in three different fine-wine regions to grow grapes with different characteristics. To do it Gallo-size, the company bought lots of land (and has plans to buy more). To exercise complete control, Gallo is reshaping the landscape, flattening a hill if it doesn't fit the program.
Last November, Gallo paid $11 million for 1,000 acres of land that had been owned by Italian Swiss Colony, nearly doubling its Sonoma County holdings. Gallo now has 5% of the vineyard land in the county--more than any other firm. And it is some of the best vineyard land in the state. After this Asti Ranch project is fully planted, 2,000 Sonoma County acres will be under Gallo vines.
This is a project is so large--estimated by one industry analyst at tens of millions of dollars--that only a winery the size of Gallo could handle it efficiently. And this is a company so vertically integrated that it makes its own bottles at its own bottle manufacturing plant, from which lime waste is trucked--in Gallo's own trucking fleet--up to Gallo's Sonoma properties to condition the soil. The trucks also carry pomace from the Gallo's main property in Livingston to fertilize the land. When Gallo decides to build, it buys not only the earth, but the earthmovers as well.
Not only is Gallo large, it is secretive. This family-owned company keeps a tight rein on its corporate image; few people, even inside the operation, know exactly what Gallo really owns. The secrecy surrounding the company--still run by its founders, brothers Ernest, 81, and Julio Gallo, 80--is legendary.
Even trying to find the new Gallo property off Frei Road in Sebastopol is a trick. There is only an unmarked asphalt road. The name Gallo appears nowhere. In fact the Gallo name is not seen on any of its Sonoma county properties or on any of the trucks in the Gallo fleet.
But with the new Asti Ranch so visible and with rumors flying that Gallo intends to open a visitor's center here, Julio Gallo agreed to a day-long interview.
Julio is responsible for the vineyards and wine making. Ernest, the president of the company, markets the wine, but rarely gives interviews.
Julio Gallo is about to eat lunch. Right now he is busy directing its creation.
To his grandson Matt's home in Dry Creek, another Gallo property in Sonoma, Julio has brought vinegar that he has made and tomatoes that he has grown, and now he is watching as the salad is tossed. "Not enough vinegar," he says to his son Bob and to Matt. They toss again. He tastes again. "More vinegar," he says. Not until he is satisfied is the salad set upon the table and luncheon served. It includes crusty sourdough bread, smoked meats . . . and Gallo wines. When Julio eats, he likes to know that it is his own food.
And he likes to talk about wine. This Gallo is passionate and knowledgeable about the technical details.
He lets you know, for instance, that he's against malolactic fermentation, and he doesn't think wine should be aged in small oak barrels. He says Gallo wines go through a minimum of handling and are aged in the cellar longer than those of most California producers, so they are ready for consumption when released. And he is irritated at some things the winery has to do because of public perceptions.
For example, white wines such as Chardonnay will, if too well chilled, begin to form crystals as tartaric acid falls out of solution. These crystals are a sign of fine wine making, of a lack of processing, but the average consumer wants clear wine with no tartrate crystals on the bottle or on the cork. That's why most wine makers "cold-stabilize" their wines before releasing them.
But Julio feels this hurts the wine: "We have to ruin it to make it look nice," he says with a grunt. "It would be better if we didn't have to do that." Sometimes Julio Gallo sounds nothing like Gallo the mass producer, the company that puts the words "limited release" on a massive 300,000-case release.
Tasting through the wines that represent the best of the recent past, Julio Gallo commented briefly on each:
--On the 1978 Cabernet: "A little tired now, still pretty good, but it was better a year ago."
--On the 1981 Zinfandel: "Mmm, good wine. One of the best."
--On the 1981 Cabernet: "Holding up really well. Good fruit."