Gina Gallo of Gallo Sonoma
by Stewart Dorman
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.5
So I get this call from my editor the other day and he says, “How about interviewing Gina Gallo?” And I say, “Gina Gallo. Hmm… Maybe she’ll like me.” So my editor says, “So that means yes?” And I say, “No. It means I’m desperate for anybody to like me.
So my people talk to her people and we set up the interview. To make things interesting we decide to go mountain biking. The location for this romp is the Gallo Sonoma property in California’s Dry Creek Valley. I thought it’d be a good idea to get into shape for the interview, so I joined the gym… to get down to my fighting weight, so to speak. I was taking no chances on looking like some girly man that couldn’t hack it on the mountain. I was gonna go the distance. Get the eye of the Tiger. No pain, no gain. Feel the burn. Get ripped… You get the idea. So I pulled out my secret weapon: the Rocky soundtrack! Not those wimpy sequel soundtracks. The original! Because the only surefire way to get into shape is to crank Gonna Fly Now and hit the gym every day. (I thought about buying Richard Simmons’ Sweatin’ to the Oldies, but it wasn’t in the sale bin at Best Buy.)The day of the interview finally arrived. I looked like a Navy SEAL fresh from day care (or something like that). I picked up our photographer, Jason Silverek, who’s an excellent mountain bike rider. He was nice enough to bring an extra bike for me… his girlfriend’s bike. Great. That’ll impress Gina. Anyway, I brought my headphones and a copy of the Rocky soundtrack just in case. Jason and I met up with Gina in the vineyards as planned. The interview went something like this.
Wine X: (Kissing Gina on the cheek) Gina, nice to see you again.
Gina: (Quickly wiping her cheek) We’ve met before?
Wine X: Stewart Dorman.
Wine X: Wine Brats?
Wine X: The guy who spilled red wine all over your shoes at a tasting in San Francisco last summer?
Gina: Oh, right. Sure. Stewart. You know, I had to throw the shoes away.
Wine X: Well, fashions come and go, so… Ready to hit the trail?
Gina: You ride much?
Wine X: Oh yeah. Every day.
Gina: Really. Where?
Wine X: (thinking) Around.
Gina: What kinda bike?
Wine X: (stalling) Mountain…bike.
Jason: Here ya go, Stew.
Gina: That’s a woman’s bike.
Wine X: You know, it takes a real man to ride a woman’s bike.
Gina: I can see that.
Wine X: Let’s go for it.
We mount our machines and head toward the hills. I feel confident. Strong. In command of my bike. I’m sure… sure that if I live through this experience I’ll never do it again.
Wine X: Do you mind if we start the interview?
Wine X: When did you decide to become a winemaker?
Gina: After studying physiology in San Francisco, I took a basic wine appreciation class at U.C. Davis and fell in love with the art of winemaking. After about six months I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I told my dad, who promptly said ‘Go tell your grandfather.’ So I walked down the street to talk to my grandfather, Julio Gallo, about becoming a winemaker. I was young and had no idea what’d he say.
Wine X: Having Julio Gallo for a grandfather and wanting to be a winemaker must’ve been pretty intimidating.
Gina: I was scared to death.
Wine X: And his reaction?
Gina: He was excited about the idea and very supportive. What a relief. From that point on all I had to do was learn.
Wine X: And you’ve been making wine now for…?
Gina: Officially, three years. I have my decoder ring now and have learned the secret handshake.
Wine X: Wait. There’s a secret handshake? I’m a winemaker. No one’s showed me that.
Gina: I’m kidding.
Wine X: Ring, too?
Gina: Ring, too.
Wine X: I knew that. I’m not stupid, you know.
Gina: Why would I think that?
Wine X: What’s it like growing up in a wine family? More specifically — the Gallo wine family?
Gina: Well, we’re a typical Italian family. Very strong. Very loving. And I’m one of seven kids, right in the middle, kinda like Jan Brady… but without Alice and the wood-paneled station wagon. You okay?Wine X: I thought it’d be a little less hilly.
Gina: We’re still in the parking lot.
Wine X: Oh. Guess that explains the cars. What’s the single biggest factor affecting making wine?
Gina: The land. For me the goal of winemaking is to make a great wine that reminds you of where it came from and how it was grown. Not wimping out on me, are ya?
Wine X: No, no. Doing fine. Great.
Gina: Follow me, now.
Gina leads us to the trail, and we’re off. I dodge the moguls, the dips, the bumps. I’m flyin’ now… flying high now! It takes a few minutes, but I catch up with Gina and Jason.
Wine X: Wow. That was great. Thanks.
Gina: That was just the warm-up.
Wine X: It’s not over?
Gina: Come on, girly-man.
Gina takes off with Jason. Shit. I thought it was over.
Wine X: Do you feel like you’re fighting your past, you know, with respect to Gallo’s reputation? And I’m not a girly-man, damn it!
Gina: A lot of people grew up with Gallo on the table. It was good, but not only that, it was affordable. That’s how Gallo was built Ñ by producing value wines with personality and family behind them.
Wine X: In other words, Gallo took wine to the people.
Gina: Exactly. With Gallo of Sonoma, we’re simply taking that concept and expanding into higher quality wines that’re affordable. I think our Gallo of Sonoma program is a great example of quality and value.
Wine X: So Gallo’s history kinda affects the way you approach your job?
Gina: Yeah. I want to give back what I’ve been given in a very positive way. My family’s very supportive, and I want my wines to reflect that positive feeling…and be something I can be proud of. You’re breathing awfully hard. You wanna rest?
Wine X: No. Doin’ great.
Gina: You know, you’d probably save a lot of energy if you’d take your girlie bike outta first gear.
Wine X: This thing has gears?
Gina: Those levers there.
Wine X: I thought they were the brakes. Then what’re…
Gina: Don’t squeeze…those…
Upon coming to (after being hurled over the front handlebars), we continued.
Gina: You sure you wanna go on?
Wine X: The gashes aren’t as deep as they look. And the tourniquet stopped most of the bleeding, so…
Gina: You’re a winemaker, aren’t you?
Wine X: Yeah. My wife Janey and I started a small winery called Adrian Fog. We’re making pinot noir.
Gina: Pinot’s my passion, too. To me it’s the very essence of soil and climate. What more could you ask for?
Wine X: Vicodin? Never mind. I find there’re two winemaking camps when it comes to harvesting: there’re numbers people and then there’re those who go strictly on taste.
Gina: I try not to look at the numbers [Brix and pH] too much. We watch the vines develop; watch the grapes develop. I prefer to harvest by tasting the fruit — the stems and seeds to see how they’ll interact with the juice and wine during pressing and crushing. The more you taste the fruit, the more you can dial in on what you’re looking for in your wine. In the cellar I try to connect with my wine, so I know how I want the finished product to taste. When it reaches that stage, I bottle it and say good-bye, Ôcause there’s no turning back after bottling. You never know if the day you bottled was the perfect time to do so, but that’s part of the excitement of wine — the not knowing.
Wine X: I approach life that way.
Gina: Really. Never would’ve guessed.
Wine X: Is there a 7-Eleven around? I could really use a big grape Slurpee.
Gina: Have you actually interviewed real people before?
Wine X: Depends on how you define real. How do you describe “winemaking” to someone who’s just getting into wine?
Gina: Wine’s kinda like relationships. If you’re really connected to your friends and family, then you get to know what they’re like and what they want. But you also have to be supportive and respectful of them. You have to get involved to understand someone, and to understand wine you have to be out in the vineyard tasting the fruit, getting a feel for the land and being a part of the whole process of winemaking. The more you understand wine, the better you can decide how to make it.
Wine X: A lot of winemakers and wine industry people judge the success of a wine on a few magazines’ ratings. How do you judge the success of your wine?
Gina: When someone you don’t know grabs you and tells you they truly love it. You know? When you’ve touched someone in a positive way. That’s success to me.
Wine X: What do think about the way winemakers are looked upon in this country as being almost God-like? You know, kinda like me.
Gina: I don’t understand why. I don’t think the general public even knows what we do. They know what teachers do and what farmers do, but what do winemakers really do?
Wine X: I’m not sure we even know what we do some of the time.
Gina: That’s what’s so interesting. We still don’t fully understand what’s happening in a lot of the winemaking process. And that’s what makes for the fascination and mystique of winemaking, I think.
Wine X: For consumers, also?
Gina: Yes, if we present winemaking as a down-to-earth art or craft, not as some magical, elistist privilege. Yeah. And as for you, I think you need a little less time in the sun. Maybe a good long rest and some close observation by caring professionals.
Wine X: Thanks for the advice. Do you experiment at all? Or are things pretty much a set formula?
Gina: I keep an open mind; continually look at alternative methods of making wine. I’m always looking to bring out the best in my wines. So do I use a certain type of fermenter, like a rotary or upright fermenter? Certain strain of yeast? Right now I’m playing with these ideas to make better chardonnay.
Wine X: So you wanna stay state-of-the-art yet keep with Gallo tradition.
Gina: Exactly. Are you going to restate everything I say?
Wine X: Makes me sound like I’m paying attention.
Wine X: Huh?
Wine X: What do you consider a truly great wine?
Gina: Do you watch a lot of Charlie Rose on PBS?
Wine X: Is he the guy with the hand puppets?
Gina: No. A truly great wine is one that keeps getting better after being opened. Flavors expand and evolve over time with wine, and great wines just keep on getting better and better. Red wines can take being opened longer than whites, but both should get better after time. Wine is alive!
Wine X: What’s your most memorable bottle of wine?
Gina: A Chianti in Italy, the day after my wedding. It was the combination of that day, the day before and everything leading up to drinking that Chianti that made it so memorable. We were outside, overlooking the countryside. It was incredible. If we hadn’t opened a bottle of wine, we probably would’ve looked at the countryside without enjoying its beauty, and moved on to the next thing. Wine slows you down and allows you to get more out of the experience.
Wine X: I’d kinda like a glass right now.
We scream down an embankment. Okay, I scream. They just ride. We reach the bottom. Thank God I’m alive. I think.
Gina: That was fun, huh?
Wine X: Blast.
Wine X: Your father’s involved in the business?
Gina: Robert Gallo, my father, Julio’s son and right hand man is involved with Gallo, yes.
Wine X: But you make all the winemaking decisions.
Gina: Yeah, I make the decisions and, consequently, the mistakes.
Wine X: Ever get followed by someone who thought you were a celebrity? Considering all the advertising you’ve been featured in?
Gina: No. Unfortunately I only get followed around by guys on girls’ bikes.
Wine X: How annoying.
Gina: Actually, I was recognized once. There was this elderly woman in a hotel that I was staying in, and she said to me, “You’re that wine girl on TV aren’t you?” And that was pretty much it for my fame. So now I’m the famous “wine girl on TV.” Probably not the hot story you were looking for.
Wine X: No. But I’ll spice it up with a few juicy bits and use it anyway. Can we take a break by the pond? I’m exhausted.
Gina: I usually don’t stop for a another couple of hours or so, but that’s fine.
We stop. Dismount. Sit.
Wine X: On the lifecycle at the gym I can go over two miles without stopping. Sometimes I put on two pairs of socks for extra weight. So then it’s more like three miles.
Gina: That’s very… impressive.
Wine X: Thanks. So what’s your favorite band?
Gina: The Gypsy Kings are pretty cool. And Andrea Bochelli has a voice on him that could make you cry.
Wine X: I like Andrea, too. Not that I, you know, cry like a girl when I hear his voice or anything. And even if I did, that doesn’t mean I’m less of a man. I don’t have to put up with this, I’m a professional you know.
We pop a bottle of Gallo Sonoma chardonnay. Sit back and take in the beautiful day. Okay, I fell asleep for a while. But Gina didn’t notice, so…
Wine X: Huh? Oh. Hey, Gina, thanks so much for the ride.
Gina: My pleasure. You know, you might want to stay outta the sun. You don’t look so good.
Wine X: Don’t worry. I always look this way.