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Q&A: Gina Gallo, Winemaker
By Tina Caputo
Sep 25, 2012
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If you think you left Gallo wines behind when you moved on from Hearty Burgundy, you may be in for a surprise. Gallo is behind a slew of premium brands these days, including Frei Brothers, Louis M. Martini, MacMurray Ranch, Rancho Zabaco, William Hill Estate and many others. The 79-year-old company also makes some impressive wines under the Gallo Family Vineyards label, including the Estate, Single Vineyard, Sonoma Reserve, and now, the Signature Series offerings.

Consisting of high-end Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines produced in tiny quantities, the Signature Series was conceived as a showcase not only for the family’s best estate vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Monterey counties, but also for the vision of third-generation winemaker Gina Gallo, granddaughter of Julio Gallo and grandniece of Ernest Gallo.

Gina literally grew up in her family’s wine business. She started tending the gardens with her father and grandfather at age 10, and spent her high school summers working at the winery. Knowing that she wanted to join the family business but unsure in what capacity, she went off to study business and psychology at Notre Dame de Namur University, then returned home to join the Gallo sales team.

Because she felt that expanding her technical knowledge of winemaking would help in her sales role, Gina began taking extension courses in enology at UC Davis. And like many unsuspecting students before her, she stumbled onto her true passion.

Once she knew that her real place within the family business was in the cellar, Gina became an apprentice winemaker at Gallo’s experimental micro-winery in Modesto, learning the ropes from her grandfather and veteran Gallo winemaker Marcello Monticelli. Today she’s Gallo’s senior director of winemaking, although Gina prefers the simple title of “winemaker.”

In 2009 she married Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Boisset Family Estates, a Burgundy-based family winemaking operation that also owns DeLoach Vineyards, Raymond Vineyards and Buena Vista Winery in California. Together, Gina and Jean-Charles form one of the California wine industry’s most powerful duos.

With all she’s got on her plate – including raising 16-month-old girl twins – it’s a wonder Gina has time to get dressed in the morning. Yet she somehow found time to serve as a judge in the International Women’s Wine Competition in Santa Rosa, where I caught up with her for a chat between rounds.

WRO: When you were growing up, did you feel pressure to join the family business?

Gina Gallo (GG)
: No, it was really up to me. Growing up in our family, we lived by both grandparents, and around the table there was a lot of talk about our family winery and the business, so I did feel a deep-rooted connection to want to be a part of that.

: How did your sales job with the winery lead you to winemaking?

GG: I went into sales because it was a great way to learn about all the family wines, the competitors’ wines and the wines of the world. I was in sales for about a year and a half, and about three months into it I decided to go to UC Davis to study winemaking. I understood the farming aspects, but I really didn’t know the technical winemaking side.

WRO: What was it about your Davis experience that drew you in?

GG: There were two courses that I adored. One was sensory evaluation with Ann Noble, which was extremely interesting for me. In our family growing up, you weren’t swirling, sniffing and dissecting the wines – the food was almost more important than the wine, and it was really about people coming together around the table. So I really enjoyed that class, because it brought depth to what all the different varietals actually contribute, and all the different flavors.

The other class was a science course with Dr. Linda Bisson. I just loved the complexity of the science behind wine, and I loved the dynamics between the artistry and the science.

WRO: How did you get your start as a winemaker at Gallo?

GG: My grandfather told me, “We could really use some help in the Pilot Plant,” which is what they called our experimental winery. He said I’d get my feet wet and really learn winemaking hands-on, from the ground up. And I did, and I loved it. We got to make wines from all over the Valley, all over the North Coast, the Central Coast – hands-on, single-case lots. That background was very good in putting in a foundation for me.

WRO: What was Julio like as a boss versus a grandpa? What guidance did he give you on the job?

GG: He was always strict, in general, but also very loving in a lot of regards. He was very straightforward – what you saw was what you got. He told me, “Be true to yourself,” and don’t ever try to candy coat things. If you don’t know, say, “I don’t know, let me get the answer and get back to you.” The other thing with my grandfather was to never stop asking questions. Once you feel like you have no more questions to ask or you stop experimenting, hand over the baton to someone else. Otherwise, how can you excel, how can you improve? I think that my inquisitive mind came from my grandfather and my father. 

WRO: What’s your role in the family business today? 

GG: I’m very focused on winemaking. I obviously travel and do a little bit of promoting out in the market, but primarily I’m focused on the wines. Marcello, who I adore – he’s been with us for 37 or 38 years now – he and I oversee whatever wines are going out the door. I’m always involved on all levels with the wines, but more in inspiring our young, up-and-coming winemakers, and being a resource for the history of the wines, along with Marcello.

WRO: Are there any wines that you pay particular attention to?

GG: I get very serious about all the wines with our family name on them, for sure, and then the Pinots. I adore Pinot Noir, and I think there’s still so much we can do with it. I’m definitely more intricately involved with a lot of our Pinot programs. 

WRO: What’s the idea behind the Signature Series?

: The Signature collection is a little bit different – it has a little bit more of my thumbprint on it. Our upper-tier, high-end wines have always been about Sonoma, and I started seeing that we also have some beautiful fruit in the Santa Lucia Highlands and in Napa. So the collection is really about picking fruit from our portfolio of sustainably farmed estate vineyards and expressing the style that I wanted to see come from these vineyards.

WRO: How would you describe that style?

GG: I wouldn’t say it’s that far off from what my grandfather and my father did on the original wines that they were making. My grandfather really believed in balance, he believed in having oak, but not having it dominating the wine, he believed in not having high alcohol – more in the European style. I share that thread a lot.

: When you and Jean-Charles are relaxing at home, what wines do you drink? Burgundy or California?

GG: We drink a lot of bubbles – mostly Crémant from Burgundy – and then Pinot Noir, whether it be domestic or Burgundian. And then we do older Bordeaux.

WRO: Other than the ones your family produces, which California wines do you like?

GG: I’ve always admired Dehlinger in the Russian River – I love their Pinots and Syrah. I also like Rafanelli Zins. For Chardonnay I love Hanzell – they’re true to themselves, they want a wine that’s going to age, but is still absolutely gorgeous. For me you’ll never find a Napa Chardonnay on the list – I’m blinded by Sonoma Coast and Russian River.  And I love a good cold beer once in a while.