Off-topic: how Gallo helped free me from the shackles of wine branding.

We are all victims of a brand-oriented culture. We almost always judge a book by its cover, and while brands help us filter and choose and overcome the despair of infinity that today’s plethora of product creates, sometimes we pass up something that could be truly great because it either is not a brand we know of, or it is but we perceive it to be not something we want to spend our hard earned money on.

In my opinion – and speaking from experience – the wine market is one of the most brand-oriented on the planet. And by brand I mean everything from the maker, to the varietal, to the vintage, to the origin, to the price, to the seal (screw cap or cork). If any one of these things isn’t up to snuff, the true wine snob turns up his nose before ever deigning to sniff or, god forbid, sip.

I was once a true wine snob. I read the Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate. I also subscribed to Burghound. For me, the only word worth a damn was the word of these so-called experts.

Over the years, many events have served to mellow my wine snobbery, with the most dramatic being my brain injury. I can’t explain it, but after whacking my cerebellum in 2006, I simply stopped caring about wine. I still drink it, I still enjoy it, I’m still picky, but I don’t read about wine anymore, and when I buy it, I either get it from my friend Toby’s winery (which is a GREAT winery, by the way!) or I ask the guy who runs a wine store near me and who has grown to know my tastes.

But perhaps my brain injury is not the sole reason for my emancipation from wine brands. Maybe Gallo is up there, too. Let me tell you why:

Last night, for Valentine’s Day, I opened a special bottle of wine. If you’re a wine snob, you will no doubt first scoff at the label. “Gallo!” you splutter. “Where does this guy live? De Moines?” I get it. No way, no how could Gallo, of Hearty Burgundy yore, ever make a wine worthy of a truly special occasion, unless that occasion were drinking before going out drinking. Wrong.

In Ernest and Julio’s waning years, the duo decided that jug wine was not an appropriate legacy. So they took advantage of their being one of the largest landowners in Sonoma and set to planting grapes. But this was just the beginning. They also bought the earth moving equipment used to build the Alaska pipeline and used it to shape the contours of their land in order to create microclimates matched to varietals. They also invented (I think it was Gallo) a new kind of press, as the existing “technology” was designed to squeeze all the juice out of the grapes, and E&J wanted only the best juice for their legacy. The wines were first marketed under the name Earnest & Julio Gallo Signature (pretty sure about this but not 100%), then the name was changed to Gallo of Sonoma Estate. Despite glorious reviews, the wines were a complete flop, and to my knowledge, were not produced after 1997. Folks just couldn’t get past the brand, especially for a retail price north of $60.

I tried my first bottle of these wines, a 1996 cabernet, on a trip to Canada with Catherine. As I perused the wine list, I saw the name Gallo and mused to myself that I might like to try a bottle. I knew a bit about how the wines were made, because I had worked on pitching the Gallo account at my first ad agency gig, and the story was compelling, to say the least. But, c’mon, we were on vacation and the Canadian dollar was cheap. I wanted to splurge, dammit. Then I saw the price. Sixty bux, CANADIAN. I had to try the Gallo. The wine steward didn’t laugh, he fetched the wine, opened it, poured, I sniffed, a sip and HOLY S—T! (That’s a very technical wine phrase.) I asked the wine steward whether anyone else had ordered the stuff. He sighed and said no. He had three bottles, now two, and couldn’t sell ‘em to a drunk.

After that fateful night, I kept an eye out for the wine, smug in my knowledge that it was an amazing deal, and fully intending to buy more, but no one carried it. I came across a few bottles in Virginia Beach, of all places, bought them, and came across a few more elsewhere, bought them, too. Over the years, Catherine and I have drunk almost all of my small stash. The 1996 went first, and I confess, the last bottle had not aged very well. Last night I opened the very last of my Gallo cabernet, a 1997, and it was incredible. Truly, one of the greatest wines I have ever had. Catherine and I drank every last drop.

And while I am still in thrall to numerous brands, I know I should not be. I mean, what else am I missing? What other Earnest and Julio Gallo cabernets are out there? Hmmm… something to think about over a glass of wine.