Gina Gallo on Her Palate, Her Winemaking Style, and What’s in Her Way Now

Gina Gallo inherited more than genes from her famous family. “I am very connected to the vineyards and the land,” she says, “which I get from my grandfather Julio.”

In 1933, Julio Gallo and his brother, Ernest, started a winery in Modesto, Calif., armed with a $5,000 loan and winemaking pamphlets from the local library. In their second year they sold nearly 450,000 gallons of wine, and in the intervening decades E&J Gallo has expanded production, acquisitions, and land holdings to become the largest family-owned winery in the United States.

Today, fourteen family members work in the company, including Gina Gallo. Although she started out in sales—the dry side of the business—she was drawn to working hands-on with what the land can yield. She enrolled in extension courses in viticulture and enology at UC Davis, and in 1990 moved into production under the guidance of Gallo veteran winemaker Marcello Monticello.

In 2011, Gina launched her own line of premium wines, Gallo Signature Series, making Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel from the company’s estate vineyards in Napa, Sonoma County, and Monterey County.

Nomacorc caught up with Gina Gallo just as harvest 2016 was cranking into full gear. She told us about her palate, her winemaking style, and what’s in her way right now. 

What’s most exciting to you right now in your winery? What new developments can you share with us?

Gina Gallo: There is so much I love about winemaking—being on the land and telling the story of a specific place. I enjoy considering the vineyards and the grapes and what they might become. I get a lot of energy from my team and working with other passionate winemakers. I also love that great winemaking isn’t just about what you do in the cellar. It’s about the books you read, the places you’ve traveled, and the foods you cook.

Right now, the most exciting thing is that harvest is starting. I love the energy during the growing season and through harvest. A winemaker needs to be on the ground making decisions, going from vineyard to vineyard and back to the cellar.

Over the last year and a half, Gallo has acquired some important vineyards and brands. How do these factor into plans for your premium winemaking?

GG: The last few years have been very exciting in terms of our acquisitions. The best part for me is to talk to and learn from the people who have been working with the fruit for these wineries and vineyards to see what they have experienced and enjoyed.

It remains to be seen how each new piece factors into my plans for premium winemaking. What I am sure of is that I will be influenced by learning about the nuances of each new place.

Is Gallo planning to drive further into the premium space?

GG: Gallo is committed to growing in the premium and luxury wine segment. I think we have a terrific portfolio of premium wines from diverse and interesting regions and styles, and I’m honored to have been a part of that portfolio.

When you’re crafting a blend for Signature Series or Gallo Estate, are you targeting a particular type of wine drinker—an “ideal customer”?

GG: We are definitely not targeting a particular type of wine drinker or “ideal customer.” One of the most important things for me as a winemaker is to follow the path of the vintage and the grapes. I focus on finding my favorite blocks in each vineyard, blocks that consistently offer complex, mature, layered flavors, and structure. Then I let nature be my guide.

You’ve said you love racy Chablis, and that your winemaking would be “much more Bordeaux” if the U.S. palate were more attuned to that profile. How do you balance your personal taste with the demands of the marketplace?

GG: With racy Chablis, a Bordeaux blend, or a Burgundian Pinot Noir, you can really see the history of how wine was made through the centuries and how it is still made in these places. And these are wines I drink and enjoy at times, but I also enthusiastically embrace wines from the United States. It’s not a matter of balancing my personal taste, because I love California wines as well. It’s a different history, different land beneath our feet.

We also have a freedom here that they don’t have elsewhere. We have the freedom to grow grapes where we feel they give us the best flavors and quality. We have the freedom to experiment with oak or winemaking techniques. We have the freedom to do what we want to make the best wines. As much as I do enjoy an Old World wine, [those winemakers] don’t always have that freedom to experiment and push the envelope that we get to enjoy here.

I actually feel it’s one of our core missions as winemakers to respect the land. In California, we have the incredible, beautiful fruit that we need in order to craft great wines that quintessentially speak to where they are from. I can’t make a Pinot Noir that tastes like Burgundy because we aren’t in Burgundy. I’d much rather make fantastic, fresh, and vibrant Pinot Noir that tastes of the Santa Lucia Highlands or Russian River Valley.

With California winemaking, it comes down to grabbing the history of these wines and this land. We have to respect where these grapes were grown.

How has your palate evolved over the years? Have your winemaking choices changed as a result?

GG: Part of the art of winemaking is building your experience from year to year, taking to each new vintage all of your years of history, learning, creativity, and innovation, and capturing it in the wines. It’s about pushing the envelope and challenging the process, while still respecting winemaking’s roots. So as I’ve learned, my palate has evolved.

I think, though, my winemaking choices are not necessarily a reflection of my palate changing but my deepening experience with the process. I am in a great environment because I’m not afraid to make a mistake. When you make a mistake, whatever you’ve done might not work for that wine, but it could give you an amazing idea for another wine. It opens your eyes for your work on another varietal or from another region. 

Cooking, food, the table, entertaining—all of these seem important to you. How does your love of food influence your winemaking?

GG: Food is not only important to me, it has always been incredibly important to our entire family. We are all very passionate about food. Growing up, sitting at the family table with my parents and grandparents was a lesson in our shared history. It was a great way to learn about who we are as a family, and who I am within this wonderful group of people.

This love of food and cooking has influenced my winemaking because I am constantly exploring the balance of flavors. I am always looking to add this layer or that, and having access to the memories of all these different flavors and textures has helped me achieve what I want to do in the cellar. When I am tasting the grapes in the vineyard or approaching the final blend, I rely on this flavor memory.

It also helps me craft wines that pair beautifully with foods and meals. We always had wine on the table; it is an intrinsic part of the family dinner for me. I want our wines to be shared with other families and friends at their tables.

What’s most in your way right now?

GG: My biggest challenge is staying balanced in my life. I’m passionate about my career, my family, my husband, my children, and my home. When I was single, I could go anywhere and work for as long as it took. Now I am married, we have twin four-year-old daughters, and we’ve established a home together. We’ve grown and are learning how to balance it all. This has helped me be able to have a successful and thriving career while also making sure our family bond is strong and that we have healthy meals. We’re still learning to navigate the balance, but I’m so much further on that path today than in the past.

 What would you like to say to someone who’s opening a bottle of your wine tonight?

GG: It’s important to me that the Signature Series wines honor the story of our family winery. We also wanted to embrace our family’s tradition of each of us carving our own path. For me, that’s what these wines are—my opportunity to build on our legacy, and to interpret our vineyards by telling the story of those special places in a way that’s unique and personal to me.

 

This interview was edited and condensed. Photo credit:  Women of the Vine, E&J Gallo Winery, and Gallo Signature Series

About the Author

Meg Houston Maker, CSW, is wine and food journalist focusing on traditional foodways, artisanal food and wine production, and the intersection of nature and culture. She travels extensively to visit and taste with producers, and her freelance writing has garnered mention by The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Brain Pickings, The Kitchn, Wine Business Monthly, and other publications. She is a juried member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a Certified Specialist of Wine, and a professional member of the French Wine Society, the Society of Wine Educators, and the Guild of Sommeliers. Meg publishes regular dispatches on her own award-winning site, Maker’s Table. Learn more at Megmaker.com or follow her on Twitter @megmaker.

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