Monday, November 21, 2011

Gallo beats its neighbors and consumers, again

I can't wait for the Russian River Valley versions of these fine Gallo wines
In Sonoma County, E. & J. Gallo Winery is like a rich, heavily armed neighbor who likes to store old cars on blocks in the front yard. Gallo -- which makes Thunderbird, a longtime favorite of derelicts -- devalues everyone's property, and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Gallo won another legal victory over fellow Sonoma County grapegrowers and consumers last week, expanding the Russian River Valley appellation away from the Russian River itself -- but conveniently toward its 350-acre vineyard.

I was one of many people who made a public comment for the TTB, the federal bureau in charge of the appellation process, opposing the move. I don't have a monetary stake in the issue; I'm just a wine lover, and specifically a Russian River Valley wine lover.

But the TTB deferred to Gallo and made a formerly great Sonoma County appellation less meaningful.

It isn't the first time.

Some of my favorite wines from the entire American continent come from the extreme western part of Sonoma County. And there's an appellation called "Sonoma Coast." However, the TTB, in an effort to include big company vineyards far from the coast, gerrymandered the Sonoma Coast appellation map so ridiculously that the name on a wine label is meaningless. In fact, I'd seriously like to see a subappellation petition for the Coastal Sonoma Coast, although no doubt Gallo would find a way to get its inland vineyards included in that one too.

I will point out that Gallo makes some very good wines, usually at very good prices. I don't expect Gallo to start making utter crap and selling it with a Russian River Valley label: not under the Gallo of Sonoma label, nor under its other brands like MacMurray Ranch, Frei Brothers, Rancho Zabaco or Night Train Express. That's not the point.

The point is, Gallo's RRV wines, good as they might be, will not have the same terroir as true RRV wines. It's just like with the Sonoma Coast: Starting with the 2012 vintage, you'll have to ask if the wine comes from the river valley part of the Russian River Valley.

And not just for Gallo-made wines: there's no reason for the neighbors not to buy cheaper grapes from plantings in the expanded area. Fortunately the RRV subappellation Green Valley hasn't expanded, although if Gallo buys vineyards right around it, I wouldn't bet against it.

Gallo has always had a complicated relationship with the American wine-drinking public. Ernest Gallo, aggressive marketer, and Julio Gallo, quality-driven mass producer, helped build a market for wine in the 1940s and '50s, but Ernest also did everything he could to undermine rivals. And Gallo's lab has long been a place of innovation which has been mostly a force for good, in that Gallo has helped make spoiled wines a thing of the past.

However, those same lab scientists have never respected the idea that a wine should taste like it comes from a particular place -- why would champagne need to come from Champagne? Gallo has been so influential in this country that it deserves much if not most of the blame for America's continuing resistance to the concept of terroir.

I like grape grower Nick Leras' quote in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat: "When something like this happens, we just have to accept it." That's the consequence of living next to a wealthy, aggressive boor.

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Ed Masciana said...

Never been a big fan or Russian River wines as I have found most of them lacking acid. Terroir is a word for vineyards that have soil that makes a difference. I haven't found much difference between RRV wines, Sonoma Coast or most of the cooler areas up there. Santa Rita is one of the few places in California that really has a distinctive terroir.

W. Blake Gray said...

Oh, Ed, I think you're exaggerating. Lots of places in the area have distinctive terroir when the wines aren't overripe. Rockpile, for example. But also Dry Creek Valley and Anderson Valley, as well as Cab hubs like Stags Leap District, Rutherford and Oakville.

Anonymous said...

While I also find this a hard pill to swallow, I must say the real problem was the initial expansion in 2005. I think that the TTB allowing the expansion in the first place set the standard of pushing defining boundaries. The RRV is a huge appellation with many different mesoclimates in the valley and I think adding the extra acreage is not going to take away from the RRV's typicite. So much diversity already exists! The locals refer to certain parts of the RRV like middlereach, sebastopol hills, freestone, laguna ridge, etc. in order to pinpoint there mesoclimates within the RRV due to the diversity.

I think the better way to approach this identity crisis in the RRV & Sonoma Coast is to start chipping away at the Sonoma Coast with new AVAs. I know there is a petition for a Petaluma Gap and Fort Ross AVA, so let's focus on those in order to define that large geographical area of the Sonoma Coast!

Adam Burck said...

Blake, I think you're off-base on this one. Sure, Gallo is in the wine business, and they will do things that help to grow that business. For some, that is enough to make them a punching bag. But this AVA expansion is not a reason to bring out the boxing gloves. First, the area of the expansion is pretty similar to the general climate and soils of the RRV AVA, certainly more so (as other commentators have pointed out) than the warm northern section of the RRV. Second, Gallo has been driving consumer awareness of AVAs and their role in influencing wine style for many many years. I recall selling Gallo's single-vineyard wines over ten years ago and using them to show how one producer can make very different wines from the same varietal all within the various AVAs of Sonoma County. The impact we had on educating the market was pretty significant because we had the reach to educate a lot of people who wouldn't have otherwise heard the message.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: You make a good point. The Russian River Valley AVA was already compromised. I just don't like compromising it further.

Adam: I'm sure you can tell from this post that I have a lot of respect for Gallo, especially when it comes to making affordable, quality wines. But come on, man, throwing its weight around like this is awful, and I could cite other examples if I want. I'll just give one: Certified Sustainable wines. Should I go there?

Anonymous said...

I am not so sure Adam gets what you are talking about here. He seems to be the typical big business type that sees no need for silly things like defined AVA's, just do what big corporate America needs to shove more mediocrity down our throats.
His type are all about creating brands and marketing.
His company probably has some interest here since his LinkedIn page shows minimal wine interest and that is a Gallo group and some wine marketing groups.
Typical shill for mega winery slop that dumbs down the American palate and keeps it grovelling in sugar soaked and oak chipped mediocrity!

Anonymous said...


You are 100% CORRECT on this topic. No if, and's, or buts....they are master marketers and kings of duplication, never innovation...if box wines and jugs were still hot, that would be the category all of their money, time, marketing, and energy would go into...I don't always agree with you, but this time you are SPOT ON...thanks for a great read

Anonymous said...

Once again California has its appellations compromised. And yes, Gallo doesn't innovate when it comes to quality, they imitate and twist things in a way that they can piggy-back on others' hard work. Not sure whay anybody has any respect for them.