The first twist in this story is that it's actually pretty good. And why not? 8 million bottles sold per year, they must be doing something right.
There's another twist for the oenophile: Ecco Domani is as much the product of one Italian winemaker's vision as it is of Gallo.
Fabrizio Gatto is the only winemaker Ecco Domani has had in its 20-year history. Not only that, he's also the consulting winemaker for La Marca, the top-selling Prosecco in the U.S.
Most wine writers don't consider a winemaker who makes millions of cases of pretty good wine as interesting as those who make 250 cases of eclectic wine. Me, I jumped at the chance to meet Gatto for lunch.
Italians are the most parochial people in the world about food; usually I meet Italian winemakers in Italian restaurants. But this time we met in a little Korean restaurant -- the Gallo PR guy's choice -- and we learned Gatto had never had tofu. "What's this white substance in my noodles?" he asked, even though he had specifically ordered noodles with tofu so he could try it.
Fortunately he knows Pinot Grigio better than he knows soybeans.
Today Gallo is an international giant, but 20 years ago, the company had no wines outside the U.S.
"They were looking for some Italian product to import into the United States," Gatto told me. "Pinot Grigio was very small at the time. Everything was Chardonnay. The only two Pinot Grigios on the market were Santa Margherita and Cavit."
At the time, American white wines were heavily flavored with oak, but Gatto did not want to make an oaky Pinot Grigio.
"It was very difficult to explain to people, to journalists, to consumers, to restaurants, that we had no oak," Gatto said. "They would ask, 'Why don't you use oak chips?' It was out of the trend at the time. The good thing Gallo did was leave me free to do what I like."
I have heard that story from existing wineries that Gallo has bought: that the company, which once had a reputation for ruthlessness, believes in staying out of the way of established winemakers. But this still surprised me, as Ecco Domani was Gallo's from the start.
However, they couldn't have made it without Gatto, who had the connections they needed to buy the grapes. He had worked as an academic enologist in northern Italy, doing vinification experiments with 1,000 native varieties, so he knew all the co-ops. In Italy, connections matter.
"We work with 20 different co-ops in Friuli, Trentino, Alto Adige and the Veneto," Gatto says. "Each co-op has 500 to 1000 growers, so we work with 20,000 growers."
At first Gatto could be selective of the grapes because not many companies were buying Pinot Grigio. It's hard to believe now that it's the 4th-best-selling variety in the U.S., but in 1998 Pinot Grigio was a minor, regional grape.
"We started with 20,000 cases," Gatto says. "We took what was the best grapes in the best areas. Now Pinot Grigio is on fire, but the prices haven't changed because it was expensive (for us) from the beginning."
Ecco Domani had some growing pains. The last time I tried it, more than 10 years ago, it wasn't very good -- that was at a time of rapid expansion. I hadn't had it since and just assumed I wouldn't drink it at lunch; I would politely taste it and try not to make a face.
I asked Gatto how he has managed to make the wine tasty despite scaling up the production. He uses the passito method, in which overripe grapes are dried on straw mats before being fermented, on about 10% of the grapes in Ecco Domani to increase the ripeness and body.
The grapes hang on the vine for one month longer than usual, and Gatto says, "that was difficult to introduce to the growers. Waiting one month, worrying about the rain. We were lucky to (be able to) do this because Gallo paid in advance. Now we have a line of people who want to sell their grape to us. The co-ops have 500 different varieties, but half their grapes are Pinot Grigio. We don't need to have a contract with them or nothing. They just need to grow the grapes as they did two centuries ago."
Gatto says that sourcing from different regions allows him to avoid bad vintages, a necessity when chain restaurants have your wine permanently printed on their laminated menus.
"In 2014, it's not considered a good vintage," he says. "We ended up with 1 gram more of malic acid and that's it."
Ecco Domani is a wine meant to be drunk within a year of bottling, Gatto says. That's a challenge with the U.S. distribution system, but Gatto says, "We produce the big blend around December. We want to keep the wine on the lees as long as possible." The wine is bottled monthly, rather than all at once, to keep it fresher longer.
As we part, he's off to Modesto to get drunk at Gallo's annual meeting of its farflung worldwide winemakers, while I take home the Korean leftovers. But there isn't any tofu: he finished it. You know what's good with tofu? Pinot Grigio.