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Gallo Stumps the Skeptics

January 17, 2001|CHARLES E. OLKEN

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the Gallos moved into Sonoma County over a decade ago, saying they were going to make fine wine, many were skeptical. After all, these were the Modesto Gallos. They may have made more wine than anyone else in the United States, but not much of it was the sort that wine lovers would even admit drinking. As you may have noticed in earlier Tastings columns, though, the Gallos have had no trouble accomplishing their aim.

I would like to say that I first encountered Gallo wines when the new Sonoma line was introduced. But the truth is, the everyday tipple of my youth was Gallo Hearty Burgundy, a rich and deep red wine made in large part from North Coast grapes. Of course, that was back in the days when there were plenty of old vineyards in Sonoma and Mendocino, planted to all kinds of red varieties for which there was no great demand.

The Gallos do not make jug wine from the North Coast anymore (neither does anyone else--the grapes are now much too valuable for that). Instead, out of their new facility smack in the middle of the Dry Creek valley, they're running four different labels.

The top of the line is what they call the Ernest & Julio Gallo Estate Bottled Wines. Since there is little but their names on the minimalist white labels, I call them the signature bottles. In this line--just Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay so far, though Pinot Noir is soon to join the family--the wines are very rich and ripe and have spent their fair share of time in the best barrels. They are limited in production and priced accordingly, at $40 to $60. That's per bottle, old-timers--not per case.

The next tier is called Ernest & Julio Gallo Single Vineyard. These wines, which have a neckband reading Gallo/Sonoma, are in the $20-and-over price range and are made in a ripe, fairly bold style. It is no criticism to say that depth, rather than finesse, is the hallmark of these wines. Many of them, especially the better versions of Cabernet, have challenged wines twice their price for overall quality.

The third tier, a mass market-oriented group of wines, priced at around $10, is called Gallo of Sonoma. These represent some of the best value wines made in California today.

And then there's Rancho Zabaco, which started out to be a line of hearty, rustic Zinfandels but has succeeded so wildly that it has become a label of its own. In fact, the label has done so well that one of the single-vineyard Zins is going to migrate over to Rancho Zabaco, and Gallo is putting out an ever-broadening mix of wines under that label, including a very interesting Pinot Gris reviewed below.

It's a bit of a mystery to me why Gallo needs to have all these names, when wineries like Beaulieu have made do with only one to cover an even greater price spectrum. The Gallos should do us all a favor and choose one name without the confusing variations. But nomenclature aside, the bottom line is that value means more than labeling oddities.

I have always said that the only way to take a winery's measure is to taste its wines blind against the competition. I may have been skeptical when Gallo moved north, but now, after several years of tastings, I confess that I've been won over.

* 1998 Gallo Laguna Vineyard Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, $20. This wine, and the similarly constructed Stefani Vineyard, illustrate how the second Gallo tier is a mix of very ripe fruit and rich oakiness. This wine has a rounded, sweet edge with hints of herb and pineapple, and its slight soft texture accentuates its deep flavors.

* 1998 Gallo Stefani Vineyard Chardonnay, Dry Creek Valley, $20. This one is for those who like round, fleshy, soft and open Chardonnays.

$ 1999 Gallo of Sonoma Chardonnay, Sonoma County, $10. Halfway between jug wine Chardonnay and expensive Chardonnay, this wine has a soft, sweet edge that makes it an easy gulper and a good value. In fact, this is the kind of wine that often gets discounted by several dollars and becomes even more attractive at those prices.

$ 1997 Gallo of Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County, $11. The 1997 was tasted a few months ago and it may now be in the process of being replaced by the 1998 version. Still, if you see this ripe and rich bottling, pick it up now. I know of no Cabernet that comes close to it at the price.

1996 Gallo Stefani Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, $25. This is not the best Stefani Cabernet I have tasted from Gallo; its deep, ripe flavors and rustic tannins are more appropriate to the less expensive Gallo of Sonoma line. There is nothing off in the wine, but the ripe, dry 1996 vintage was not this vineyard's best.

$ 1998 Gallo of Sonoma Merlot, Sonoma County, $10. Most inexpensive Merlots are thin imitations of the real thing. Not so this amazing bargain. It expands nicely in the mouth with clean, well-formed fruit and oak flavors that capture more than a little of Merlot's succulent side. Like the Gallo of Sonoma Cabernet, this Merlot is virtually unbeatable at its price.

* 1999 Rancho Zabaco Pinot Gris, Sonoma Coast, $15. Gallo's first venture into Pinot Gris has fresh, decidedly peach-y fruit trimmed with a touch of residual sugar not unlike some wines from France's Alsace region. Lots of wineries have rushed into the making of Pinot Gris, and in its fledgling effort, Gallo has outpaced most of them.

Definition of Symbols

* * * A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.

* * An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.

* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.

No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.

$ Good value for the money.

x Below average quality, to be avoided.

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