The Wine Giant: How Ernest Gallo Got His Start

Ernest Gallo was not your typical billionaire. Up until the day he died, he insisted on keeping his home number listed in the public phone book; he wanted everyone to be able to find him. But it is exactly traits like that which continue to make this winemaker stand out. Today, the business he started with his brother back in 1933 with just $6,000 in capital remains the leading exporter of California wine, producing some 2.64 million bottles of wine every day.

Ernest Gallo was born on March 18, 1909 in Sierra Nevada, California. He was the eldest of three boys born to Italian immigrant parents. His father, Giuseppe, was in the grape-growing business and taught his sons the art of making wine. But few of his father’s ventures would ever be very successful, forcing the family to move from place to place in search of new land.

“My first-grade teacher told me I was the dumbest student she ever had,” recalled Gallo of his early school years. “She did me a favour. If she told me I was very smart, I wouldn’t have tried to improve.”

Gallo might not have excelled academically, but he found a natural talent in salesmanship. At the age of 17, Gallo persuaded his father to send him to Chicago with a railcar full of their family’s grapes. Gallo was on a mission to sell as many as he could before returning home. Haggling on the streets, Gallo finally discovered something that he was good at. By the end of that trip, Gallo had sold more than $17,000 in grapes, far more than his father had ever expected.

As a young boy, Gallo had once gone to visit his Aunt Tillie in San Francisco. She was a fortune teller who enjoyed looking into her young nephew’s future. After reading his tarot cards, she told Gallo that he would go on to become successful in business. She was not sure exactly what his future profession would be, but she knew it would involve fluid – either oil or wine.

Gallo’s future looked bright, that is until 1933, when tragedy struck the family. It was the time of Prohibition in the U.S., and Gallo’s efforts to start a winery were being crushed. Matters got worse one night when his father shot and killed his mother, Susie, and then turned the gun on himself.

His parents now dead, Gallo was left to pick up the pieces of his father’s vineyard. Together with his brother, Julio, Gallo decided to get serious about the business. The wine market in America was as of yet still relatively small, but he saw the potential for future growth.

Armed with that belief, Gallo set out to dominate the industry. He obtained a $5,000 loan from his mother-in-law and combined it with $900.23 – Julio’s entire life savings – in order to get started. He took care of the business side of operations, while he gave his brother the task of looking after the harvest. Gallo’s goal? To become the “Campbell Soup company of the wine industry.”

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