BERKELEY, Calif. – Ernest Gallo, who parlayed $5,900 and a wine recipe from a public library into the world's largest winemaking empire, died Tuesday at his home in Modesto. He was 97.
"He passed away peacefully this afternoon surrounded by his family," said Susan Hensley, vice president of public relations for E.&J. Gallo Winery.
Gallo, who would have been 98 on March 18, was born near Modesto, a then-sleepy San Joaquin Valley town about 80 miles east of San Francisco. He and his late brother and business partner, Julio, grew up working in the vineyard owned by their immigrant father who came to America from Italy's famed winemaking region of Piedmont.
They founded the E.&J. Gallo Winery in 1933, at the end of Prohibition, when they were still mourning the murder-suicide deaths of their parents. Ernest and Julio rented a ramshackle building, and everybody in the family pitched in to make ordinary wine for 50 cents a gallon — half the going price. The Gallos made $30,000 the first year.
It grew to become the world's largest wine company by volume, a title since taken by Constellation Brands of New York. But Gallo remains second, selling an estimated 75 million cases under more than 40 labels.
"My brother Julio and I worked to improve the quality of wines from California and to put fine wine on American dinner tables at a price people could afford," Mr. Gallo told The Modesto Bee on his 90th birthday. "We also worked to improve the reputation of California wines here and overseas."
Ernest directed sales, devised marketing strategies and kept a short leash on distribution. Julio, who died in 1993, made the wine.
Gallo was no less tough on the people who worked for him as on those he battled for business. He also demanded total loyalty from his employees. In 1986, when he learned that two longtime Gallo executives were secretly planning to buy a winery of their own, he fired them on the spot.
Gallo was a courtly man who affected Old World manners. But in business he was tenacious, shrewd, aggressive, and secretive. He and others of the Gallo clan shunned publicity. The reason for the secretiveness, many of their former associates said, was the way his parents had died.
Fresno County records say their father, Joseph, shot their mother, Susie, to death in June 1933, then killed himself. That was two months before the founding of the Gallo winery.