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The world according to Gallo

Think you're drinking an obscure Chianti, a surprising Australian Shiraz or an unusual Cotes-du-Rhone? Think again.

January 19, 2005|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

If Joe Gallo has his way, everyone in the world will be drinking Gallo wines. They just won't know it.

The American vintner's new French wine, Red Bicyclette, is tailor-made for America's sweeter-is-better palate. Gallo's got the consumer research to prove it's going to be a winner and the marketing muscle to push it through grocery stores and discount chains around the country.

But Gallo's plans for this sunny vin de pays from France's Languedoc region don't stop at the U.S. border. The whimsical Frenchman on a spindly red bike that graces the bright yellow label, first seen last fall on American supermarket shelves, will be doing a tour de France -- showing up in wine stores throughout the country, and then pedaling across Europe.

It is the globalization of wine a la Gallo, a challenge not just to French vintners making wine on their own turf but to the entire Old World of wine. Eventually, Gallo plans to produce wines in every major winemaking region on the globe.

"French wine is the gold standard," says Gallo, noting that his research shows that American consumers consider it the best wine in the world. But they're drinking less and less of it because it's too hard to understand, Gallo says. It is a pattern of declining consumption that holds true with French wine drinkers in France as well, according to Gallo.

With Italian wine, says Gallo, there's a similar paradox. "Americans love Chianti. They just don't like the way it tastes." The romantic image in consumers' imaginations doesn't fit with the dry, acidic wines they've had to drink. So, again, they are buying less and less of it, says Gallo's market research.

Breaking free of these patterns won't be easy. And Gallo's reputation as the maker of Hearty Burgundy jug wine is no help. As it did with its first Italian wines -- Ecco Domani and Bella Sera are the alpha and beta tests of this international strategy -- Gallo chose not to put its name on the imported bottles or the marketing materials. They're Gallo wines, but they don't say Gallo.

For consumers, Red Bicyclette is a fun wine from Southern France; Gallo's Da Vinci Chianti is a Tuscan Sangiovese that happens to be made in Leonardo da Vinci's hometown; and Pont d'Avignon, a Cotes-du-Rhone that Gallo plans to introduce in March, is a wine made by a French vintner who must live in that lovely place we all grew up singing about.

In reality, it is the on-the-nose, unintimidating wine names and the eye-popping labels that actually give away the fact that these are Gallo wines. The road to world domination for the largest producer of American wine -- Gallo shipped 70 million cases of California wine last year -- has been paved with years of disciplined market research.

Gallo's new international focus is a dramatic departure from the family's California-centric past, only recently made evident as Gallo has announced one after another of its international wines. Each wine is made with a partner in the region: a French grape cooperative in the Languedoc, another in the Cotes-du-Rhone, an Italian cooperative in Chianti. Gallo also recently partnered with Whitehaven, a family-owned winery in New Zealand, and McWilliam's, a family-owned wine company in Australia.

The rollout continues this year as Gallo plans to announce a wine project in Chile; a Gallo wine from Germany will be next.

No one in the wine industry has ever tried to make so many new wines in so many different places at the same time, according to industry analysts.

Sure, American wine companies have created international partnerships before, but mostly to make high-end prestige wines for the American market. Gallo is targeting mass markets -- $10 wines that appeal to serious wine drinkers as everyday bottlings and, for the less experienced, that work as special-occasion wines. In each case, the American-model wines will be marketed in the foreign countries where they are produced, after they're introduced in the U.S.

Gallo is making French wine to sell in Paris? The whole subject of the globalization of wine has become a cause celebre in France with the release of the documentary film "Mondovino," which celebrates France's quirky small vintners (to be released in Los Angeles in the spring). A few Gallic farmers rioting over McDonald's hamburger stands may look tame when the French get wind of Gallo's hubris.

But, of course, Joe Gallo tells me in an interview: The French need Gallo.

A careful man with the bearing of someone well aware of the singular influence his family holds within the American wine industry, Gallo deliberated for months before agreeing to talk with the Los Angeles Times. Since his family started E.&J. Gallo Winery after Prohibition in the 1930s, the company has talked to the press only on select occasions. Joe Gallo, the 64-year-old driving force within the company for the past decade, rarely makes public comments.

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