Pitching Advertising Services to Ernest Gallo

When I was growing up mine was a "Sebastiani House", rather than a "Gallo House". That’s not to say my mother and father were wine drinkers, but just that the jug of wine my mother always kept on hand was Sebastiani. However, there are some people, many people (millions?) in fact, that were and are "Gallo Homes". I suspect its not just the folks in the wine industry who stopped for a moment of reflection at the news that Ernest Gallo died at the age of 97. I suspect a whole lot of people felt like they lost someone very familiar to them…if only because his name was constantly in their home.

Ninety-seven years old! Do you think it was the wine?

Over the years of being in the wine business I have been in close proximity to Ernest Gallo on a number of occasions. However, I only spoke with him once and this encounter resulted in my only "Ernest Story".

Very early in my career I was tasked with creating and producing a very large "industry-party" for a client that had opened a brand new winery facilty in Sonoma County. I was working at a PR agency at the time and the client was the best known personality I’d ever worked with . Organizing one of these events really amounts to getting the guest list together, creating invitations, taking RSVPs, designing the pace of the event and dealing with vendors. I hadn’t done much of this sort of thing before, but really it’s not brain surgery.

Ernest Gallo was on the guest list. About 2 days before the event a secretary "from the office of Ernest Gallo" calls and says, "Mr. Gallo will be coming to the event and wants to let you know he’ll need to arrive by helicopter. Any patch of concrete or grass on the property can accommodate the helicopter."

Now, one would want Mr. Gallo at your big event. The idea was to have an event that demonstrated that the person giving it was in VERY good standing with industry mucky mucks. Ernest Gallo was Chairman Emeritus of Mucky Mucks. However, I had a vision when the secretary gave me these instructions: A large helicopter invading the party, everyone turning to look and listen to it and the Chairman getting out of the helicopter and making a grand entrance, thereby way overshadowing my client, putting the focus on him instead of my client and me and my firm getting fired.

"I’m sorry, we can’t accommodate a helicopter on the property," I said. There was a bit of silence then, "please hold for a moment." A few minutes later a man got on the phone. To this day I don’t know who it was. He said to me, "Mr Gallo will be at the party and would like to land his helicopter somewhere on the property". It was as though the previous conversation never happened, as though I was mistaken in my response to the secretary and that this mistake only needed to be cleaed up.  "I’m sorry, we can’t accommodate a helicopter on the property," I repeated.

"Thank you". They hung up. Later the secretary called and simply said, Earnest Gallo is RSVPing for the party.

I really didn’t like saying no to Ernest Gallo. You have this idea if you can do something for someone like Ernest Gallo maybe it will pay off in the future so you want to accommodate them. But, I thought keeping the client was more important.

Later at the party all was well. I was simply mingling, walking, keeping an eye out. I finally spied Ernest Gallo. He was standing outside on the landing of some stairs, holding a plate in his hand putting food in his mouth like everyone else. He was alone too. I thought I may not have another chance so I walked straight up to him and introduced my self.

"Mr. Gallo, my name is Tom Wark. I just wanted the opportunity to introduce myself to you," and I extended my hand. The expression on his face was nearly a blank.

No shake.

"What do you do, Tom," he asked without putting any expression on his face.

"I work for Gracelyn & Burns. It’s a small firm that provides public relations and advertising to the wine industry."

Nothing. No expression. Then he said, "Hmm. Advertising. We do a little bit of advertising."

I didn’t know if he was being sarcastic or that’s just how he tended to describe multi-million dollar advertising efforts. I assumed he was being sarcastic and realized this wasn’t going well for me. So I decided to go for broke: "And I’d love to talk to you about your advertising." That’s when he finally cracked the smallest of smiles.At least I think it was one. The last word I heard from him before he slowly walked away from me and toward another old gentleman was, "Hmmmmm".

So when people asked if I knew Ernest Gallo I always tell them, "Know him? I had a private meeting with the man to pitch him on advertising services."

It’s a lie, of course.  But there’s a half truth to it.  Maybe an 1/8 truth.

No matter what you think of Gallo wines, the Gallo way of doing business or Ernest Gallo the man it’s hard to argue with the fact that this was a person of enormous importance to the American wine industry and American culinary history. Hopefully you’ll find others writing about their experience with Ernest. The stories abound.


4 Responses

  1. Randy - March 8, 2007

    Good story, though it lacks that “David winning over Goliath” aspect that plays so well. Can’t you tweak the ending a bit so our hero (i.e. you) lands the big advertising account?
    Seriously, I might have approached him and asked, “Excuse me, who are you?”
    THAT probably would’ve gotten a bit further, but then we’ll never know…

  2. Ryan F - March 8, 2007

    Great story Tom. Do you think he recognized your name as the guy who denied his grand entrance? Hmmm…. I think your biggest mistake was when you said “And I’d love to talk to you about your advertising.” You should have said something like “We should put together an advertising campaign to reach into new markets.” Maybe that would have peaked his interest. Better luck next time. ; )

  3. John Lopresti - March 10, 2007

    I have less contact with wine now than earlier in my life, so, have wondered a lot recently what the jugwine producers are bottling in their new upscale labels. Likely, it is competitive at the pricepoint, even if a trifle overlaced with chemical additives. I consider this in the framework of a Sonoma county ranching life where folks in the next valley over, the one now with its own AVA, Dry Creek, in the early 1980s resisted the conversion of the Frei ranch to a Gallo factory for jugwines tankered in bulkwise for processing and bottling. Now that facility again is cajoling county planners to permit many more millions of cases per year production onsite, most of which certainly will have to be sourced out of region, but carefully blended to stay inbounds so the labels will be honest. I think letting that kind of invasion occur is unconscionable; but I continue to wonder what the $30. bottle of Gallo family cab from the Frei ranch tastes like. I think E+G became a corporate construct; but, the nonagenarian before departing this world left us some appetizing questions to answer in the aftermath of his turbulent times.
    Some of my early cellaring experience incidentally happened to be with some good winemakers who had scrubbed barrels at Sebastiani when August was there meting out discipline and waxing eloquent about the art of enology.
    The foremost oldtimers left some worthwhile heritage; but this is a business with its less than photogenic sides.
    I liked the newsphoto of RAMondavi looking philosophically at Ernest only a few years ago at a public event each with wine in glass, though Ernest’s a white. If I recall accurately, Robert’s sommellier’s apron appeared to have some Hindu embroidery in that photograph, a difference in garb, a disparate school of winemaking thought. Rest in peace.

  4. Ron - June 15, 2007

    Nice Story!!!!!

Leave a Reply