We know it’s uncool to speak ill of the dead, but all praise to Chron wine editor John Bonné for getting it right: Ernest Gallo was kind of a dick. The 97-year-old co-founder of California wine behemoth E.&J. Gallo passed away Tuesday, and business-section writers were quick to lay a glowing shroud over the remains. You know: penniless Depression boy pulls self up by bootstraps, becomes lion of industry. But this cliché had an added twist — Gallo, the narrative goes, turned America into a wine-drinking nation. Well, yeah, the way Hostess turned America into a Twinkie-eating nation. The New York Times reported that the company that gave the world Thunderbird and Bartles & Jaymes sells 2.64 million bottles of wine per day — like, every day. That stat alone is enough to give Ernest Gallo a questionable rep as the James Beard of the American wine movement.
The Gallo corporation got enormously rich selling products ranging from the indifferent to literal rotgut. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the company began trying to burnish its reputation as a venerable old quality winemaker. But here’s the real nasty: The Chron’s Bonné writes that Gallo had “an approach to business so coldhearted that he sued his younger brother, cheesemaker Joseph Gallo Jr., over the use of the family name.” And it wasn’t only in the realm of the personal where the deceased Gallo played corporate hardball. Bonné again: “Ernest’s legendary enmity toward the United Farm Workers Union fueled several long-standing feuds and two boycotts. But his seemingly preternatural ability to read the marketplace gained him enormous, if sometimes grudging, respect.” Raise your glass of Kermit-Lynch-imported Bandol to the late titan of industry.