Wine, woman & Sonoma

- Tanya T. Lara () - September 30, 2001 - 12:00am
(Second of two parts)
Her streaked blond hair cropped short and wearing her everyday jeans and work boots, Gina Gallo strides into a wine room at the Gallo Frei Ranch in Sonoma County, California. She doesn’t look like a winemaker. Then again, our image of a winemaker is largely based on stereotypes: male, perhaps a lot older, more formal.

Gina Gallo breaks the mold and exceeds all expectations, even those of wine critics and her fellow winemakers.

"It’s still very traditionally a man’s job," she admits. "You still see a lot more men than women in the industry, but now more women are coming in, which is exciting."

Only 33 years old, she has had a lifetime of experience in winemaking, having grown up in a family that has produced wines since the end of the Prohibition in the 1930s.

Her first taste of wine was obviously when she was very young. How young? She doesn’t remember but she tells us of a Gallo family tradition: Her grandmother used to put a little bit of wine on her finger and put it in the baby’s mouth so that it wouldn’t hurt as much when their teeth were coming in.

"You didn’t grow up a Gallo and not work," Gina says. "The basic work ethic is very strong. By the time I was in grade school, I was used to tagging along behind my older brother Matt in the vineyard right by the house. He was pruning, which was his job, and my job was to help. I thought my job was to bug my brother. But we were both learning, both preparing, even when we were just hacking around in the vines."

Gina’s journey in the family business was from the balance sheets to the cellars, marked by a detour in sales. After studying business and psychology at the College of Notre Dame, she decided to learn the family business "from the ground up." But when she sat through her first winemaking course at the University of California at Davis, she realized that the blood that coursed through her veins was in winemaking and not in selling. The first course she took was the sensory of wine and it fascinated her tremendously. "Sure there’s science behind winemaking, but there’s a magical imagination and creativity behind it and that just captured my mind. I love that side of it and I realized that I wanted to be a hands-on winemaker."

She went to work in the research winery that Gallo uses for exploring different grape varieties and growing regions, and started "bugging my grandfather Julio instead of my brother." Julio Gallo, says Gina, taught her to follow her dream, wherever it might take her. "When I knew that winemaking was as much my own passion as it had been his, he told me that working in our vineyards with him and other winemakers was the very best way to learn what needed to be done and learn where Gallo of Sonoma wine was going."

"Great wine grapes are fragile things," she adds. "And each type of grape has a distinct personality that you have to nurture from the vineyard to the glass. The basics of winemaking are pretty simple, but we are not making simple wines."

Matt describes himself as the "farmer" and his sister Gina as the "artist."

Gina was apprenticed to Marcello Monticelli, Gallo’s head winemaker who has been with the company for over three decades. Gina considers Monticelli her mentor. "I get my winemaking soul from Grampa Julio, but Marcello is my strong, silent partner behind the scenes."

These days, as her brother Matt heads the vineyard operations and Gina is one of Gallo’s chief winemakers, she "still bugs him to give me better grapes. We still hack around. Family is important to all of us, a very strong tradition for the Gallos."

Now run by the third-generation Gallos, Gina and Matt Gallo work closely with their cousins Ted Coleman (another grandchild of Julio’s), Chris Gallo (grandson of Ernest) and Caroline Coleman Bailey, Gallo of Sonoma international marketing manager for Estate Wines.

The team has made easy the transition from producing jug wines (the kind of wine that wine enthusiasts don’t like to admit drinking, as one writer put it) to fine wines that people bring to their everyday table and bring out on very special occasions.

"When you look at the United States, the American public was not drinking wine when we began. We started out with the dessert wine and moved to the popular generic, jug wines, then we went to varieties, then we went into vintage-dated in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Now in the ‘90s and 2000, what people really want is a lot of character, a lot of personality."

Gallo’s wines have been harvesting rave reviews and awards over the past 10 years, including this year’s honors for producing the "Best Chardonnay Worldwide," given by the London-based International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC). Gallo of Sonoma’s single vineyard 1997 Stefani Vineyard Chardonnay took the top honor this year, the second time in three years.

In the last two years alone, Gallo of Sonoma has had a crop of awards and medals. It was named "Winery of the Year" at the San Francisco International Wine Competition this year, the third time in the last five years. The award is given to the winery earning the greatest number of medals. This year, Gallo competed against 730 wineries from 22 states and 19 foreign countries. Gallo earned 17 medals. And for the second time in three years, Gallo won the Premio Gran Vinitaly award for the most medals bestowed on a winery.

Last year, its 1996 blend Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon of Ernest and Julio Gallo garnered the top spot in the Best of Show competition at the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. The judging panel consisted of US-based masters of wine and select wine journalists. Also last year, it won eight medals in the prestigious UK-based International Wine Challenge.

Gina attributes much of the success of her family’s company to Sonoma County. To create incredible wines, she says, one starts with the vineyard. "The number one thing was finding Sonoma County. Our grandfathers could have bought land anywhere in the North Coast, and spent many years investigating vineyards and land throughout Northern California. Sonoma offered something not found anywhere else – a series of valleys both alike and distinct, with unique microclimates and the classic warm days, cool nights that are so critical for fine grape growing and winemaking. We can craft wines with greater complexity and depth of flavor than if we simply sourced all our grapes from a single region."

The next key to Gallo’s success, says Gina, "would be really investing in the winery, in the equipment to create the wine, and then the trust given us, of getting out of the box and creating, experimenting. That helps us pull ahead of competitors."

There’s nothing in the world like Gallo’s state-of-the-art winery. Used only 45 days in a year, it is good science married with decades-old traditions in creating some of the world’s best wines. It’s said that when they designed the winery, they got everybody together – the winemakers, people from sales, and marketing – and the engineers said, "Think of what you want. Don’t think about how expensive it will be."

A tour of the winery at Gallo’s Frei Ranch showed us the facilities: from where the trucks of grapes come in to where the wines are stored. Just to show us how complex winemaking is, we were given handouts giving us an idea of how wines are created: Red wines and white wines have to be handled differently as they are being made. Within these categories, every variety and every blend has to be treated as an "individual" to get full expression of the fruit, the style, and the winemaker’s art. For red wines, the temperature reached during fermentation is critical. At Gallo of Sonoma, an array of 14 temperature-controlled rotary fermenters allow for hand-made precision. The rotation of fermenters is like hand-stirring, customized to get a complete but gentle mixing of juice and skins in order to free the best colors, aromas and flavors from the fruit. In the glass, this yields smoother, full-bodied wines without bitter tannins in the taste.

The reason for this coddling of grapes – "they’re treated like babies," says tour specialist Jane Charameda – is that they bruise easily and you get an imperfect balance from this, an off taste, if they are "injured."

"We use sophisticated technology to help us keep things simple," explains Gina.

For white wines with body, character and grace, it is important to balance acid and sugar in delicate contrast. At Gallo of Sonoma, after hand picking, white grapes go to a custom-built whole cluster press pad where gravity, not mechanical pumps, drives the process. The fruit is not stripped or crushed, but allowed to fall whole onto conveyors that gently deliver them into a series of specially designed membrane presses. Each press is a metal cylinder in which a large, soft balloon (membrane) can be inflated to press against the fruit as gently as a human hand. There is no grinding of stems and skins, just pure juice that is quickly tapped off before any bitter flavors can be absorbed.

Gina says, "The commercial process of crushing and destemming used by some other wineries crushes a lot of stems and seeds, and that can put a lot of bitter flavors in the juice. We want the natural fruit character to shine brightly. We even move the juice through pipes with large-radius curves rather than angles and corners. We try to avoid any kind of shock to the young wines."

In the barrel cellar of Frei Ranch, Gallo uses several kinds of oak, from French to Hungarian, Russian, Yugoslav and American oak. Gina explains, "You can focus on a lot of things. It’s not just about the grapes and the wine but also about the barrels, producing the barrels, the corks. We are very integrated when creating these things and we can pass on that value to the consumer."

Each variety of oak gives different characteristics to the wine. "Some are spicier, others are more mellow. Oak is one of the biggest variables in our blends. Our wines spend a lot of time in contact with oak, and we do a lot of experiments to see how the oak interacts with the wines. You’ll see some of our barrels marked not only with the name of the maker, but even with the specific forest where the original tree was cut."

As expected, Gina Gallo talks about her wines and winemaking with such passion. "I really wanted to know everything about winemaking. I still do today. I’ve been doing it now for almost ten years very seriously. I haven’t tired of it. I love the challenge side. It’s always new. The other thing that made me want to pursue it is the involvement of the people in the wine industry. They’re a lot of fun to be around. It’s a part of their life. If you look at the wineries, some are family owned. We want to keep the family business alive and pass it on to the next generation. I saw my grandfather Julio do it and my father do it – they really instilled that trust in us. To have that is very rare and it’s what sets you apart from the other wineries."

Just like her grandfathers, Gina works closely with her own brother Matt, who says this has only brought them closer together as siblings. "It’s really been fun seeing Gina grow in the family business. Winemaking is dominated by men, as businesses are, and she has done a fantastic job coming into a male environment and leading our company. I’m very proud to see what she has done. And we enjoy working together. In the end, we’re all after the same thing: We want to produce the highest quality wines for our customers."

It’s not just the making of wine that Gina is passionate about. It’s also about the creativity involved in it. "The experience of being here in my thirties is very exciting. Sometimes overwhelming. A lot of energy. I have the opportunity to work with a lot of creative minds, always committed to new ideas. Very stimulating. I really love it."

Wine to Gina is also about the joy it brings to the table. Ask her about food and wine pairing, and her eyes light up.

We thought, this is the woman to talk to when it comes to tips on wine. After all, you can’t get a better source than the chief winemaker of the world’s biggest winery. As it is her character, Gina doesn’t give complex suggestions, just practical tips for ordinary people to enjoy wine better. "Some things that I use are just very easy simple tips. If you’re having a dish that has heavier body or richer, like a steak, then you would like to have a wine that tends to have a little more weight. Another very easy tip is to compare and contrast. If you have a dish that’s very rich, like a pasta dish that has a lot of cream sauce in it, you might want to contrast it by having a nice wine that has a little more acidity and a little bit crisper to cut through that richness."

In the end, she says, one just has to taste the wine. "If you don’t like it, it’s important to say, okay, this wine is not for me. It might not be because it’s not a good wine, but it’s just not to your taste. There are a lot of fine wines out there. The red zinfandel is a really great variety to pair well with a lot of different dishes."

As Gallo’s Tommy Hsiao says, the company concentrates on educating the markets they enter. This is very evident in the way Gallo has entered Asia, which is not a traditional wine-drinking continent. In the Philippines, we have the amazing Gallo Sonoma wine, which is close to a thousand pesos (it’s worth every cent.) In terms of sales, the less expensive wines are the bestsellers, like the Carlo Rossi Red and Wild Vines, which are both less then two hundred pesos. If you want to get into wines, the key is to explore, see what you like. Don’t be too concerned with knowing everything all at once.

As Gina says, wine is all about enjoying it. "The better wines we produce, more wines will be shared at the dinner table. I think that’s a wonderful thing to come back to and wines play a strong role in creating that environment."
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Ernest & Julio Gallo wines are distributed by Andresons Group Inc. For inquiries, call 421-06-71 up to 78.
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