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Gallo Goes Gourmet?


SANTA ROSA — Great wine is made from the ground up, not from the price down.

The high prices most great wines command are usually the result of demand for a high-quality product in limited supply. The first vintages from Le Montrachet didn't instantly command top dollar. It took decades before that vineyard gained its exalted reputation for great wine and thus warranted a high price.

So it challenged tradition when Ernest Gallo declared in 1991 that his company would make "a Chardonnay worth around $30 or more." Few questioned that the wine was "worth around $30" to Gallo. The question was, would it be worth it to the consumer ?

Gallo's first ultra-premium wine, a long-awaited event in the wine world, is now heading for market. The 1991 Chardonnay is, as Ernest Gallo predicted, $30 a bottle--making it one of the most expensive Chardonnays ever made in the United States.

It is clear that Gallo could have made a premium wine any time it desired. Gallo is the world's largest winery, with annual production of more than 60 million cases and annual sales of roughly a billion dollars.

At any time, Gallo could have bought the best grapes and the best barrels, hired the best winemakers and made top wine. The fact that it took Gallo until 1991 to make an expensive Chardonnay is a testimonial to the fact that Gallo moves less quickly than other wine companies.

However, when Gallo moves, it does so with a force that moves mountains--just as Gallo literally moved mountains in developing some of the finest vineyard land in Sonoma County over a 20-year period.

The grapes for this first estate-bottled Chardonnay come from a lovely 360-acre parcel of land in the cool Russian River area of Sonoma County called Laguna Ranch. This plants Gallo firmly in California's north coast, where the state's largest fine-wine acreage is located. Napa and Sonoma ranked first and second in average price per ton of grapes last year, and the two counties accounted for more than 65,000 acres of wine grapes.

This first Gallo wine to enter into ultra-premium waters is packaged handsomely in a specially designed, antique-bronze-colored bottle with a label bearing the signatures of Ernest and his late brother Julio.

One of the controversies surrounding this wine is the name on the label. Gallo has long been associated with jug wine and "doorway wine" and little else. And many consultants told Ernest Gallo over the years that to be successful in the ultra-premium niche he must use a name other than Gallo on the label. But Ernest wanted the family name on his best products to--for one reason--meet his long-term goal of upgrading the Gallo image.

Interestingly, the Gallo name has recently been dropped from some of the company's lower-priced wines, such as its Livingston and Sheffield lines; also, the Gallo name has never been used on such Gallo brands as Bartles & Jaymes (a cooler) and the William Wycliffe and Copperidge Cellars lines, which are exclusively produced for restaurants as by-the-glass offerings.

No doubt the first release of this Chardonnay (all 3,520 cases of it, according to the company) will sell. I imagine there will be people who will like it and there are people who, even if they don't, will shell out 30 smackers just because it is from Gallo, a kind of reverse cachet.

But things about this wine bother me.

Gallo is trying to persuade consumers that its vision of what constitutes great Chardonnay ought to sell for more than the Chardonnays of Grgich Hills, Chalone, Far Niente, Arrowood, Matanzas Creek and a dozen others who began to ask $20 for their Chardonnays only after they'd been in the marketplace a decade or two.

Curiosity may sell some of this wine, but is the consumer prepared to buy a $30 Gallo Chardonnay on a continuing basis? Will the consumer like a wine styled like this one? Will succeeding vintages also be priced at $30, and will they be of the same style and quality?

A few decades from today, will wine lovers view Gallo Chardonnay they way they now view Le Montrachet?

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