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Californian wine pioneer Ernest Gallo dies

Ernest Gallo, who, with his brother Julio, helped build the American wine industry, died last week aged 97. Ernest Gallo was the co-founder of E & J Gallo Winery, the company that virtually put Californian wine on the map.

Ernest started the business in 1933 after both his parents died deeply in debt, brought down by the Depression in America. He saw an opportunity with the impending end of Prohibition and, with less than $6,000 and the help of Julio, he set out to create an empire.

In its first year, with the brothers often working round the clock, the winery was in profit. Ernest looked after sales, marketing and distribution and Julio the winemaking. The launch of the cheap fortified wine Thunderbird in the fifties escalated their business. In the mid 1970s they entered the premium wine market.

The company continued to grow, acquiring vineyards and expanding its wineries, storage and distribution facilities, as well as building its own glass plant and establishing a research laboratory. When the home wine market started to stagnate in the 1980s, Gallo also turned to the export markets, particularly Britain, promoting its wines heavily. By 2000 the company was selling around 50 million bottles of wine to the UK a year.

Today, Gallo employs more than 4,600 people and markets its wines in more than 90 countries. It’s grapes are grown throughout California’s wine-growing regions from Napa to the Central Valley.

Julio died in an accident in 1993 but Ernest continued to be active in the business well into his nineties and retained control until his death last week in Modesto, California. He was one of the country’s wealthiest men, listed on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest Americans with a family worth of $1.3 billion.