Change Agents

The Cheap Wine That Turned Americans on to Fine Wine

Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy changed the way Americans thought about wine

Roger Morris By September 7, 2021
Photo illustration by Pix

Julio Gallo was still not satisfied. Neither was his older brother, Ernest.

The two had emerged from Prohibition in 1933, 30 years earlier, with big ambitions. Just barely out of their teens, they were first-time wine producers from a family of grape growers, with Julio making the wine and Ernest in charge of marketing. Yet the second-generation Italian Americans from California’s Central Valley had made steady progress in their bid to overtake neighboring wineries — families better financed and with prior winemaking experience — for the title of America’s largest wine producer.

And what helped them achieve that aim was a wine that did something new: pitch a well-made table wine to ordinary drinkers. Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy helped turn Gallo into one of America’s largest wine companies — and also set the scene for the explosion in wines from California.

From Prohibition to popularity

During Prohibition, the Gallos had travelled east by train with their father, Joseph, to Chicago and New York to sell their grapes to home winemakers in marketplaces set up in railway yards, as their neighbors were doing. Post-Prohibition, sweet, high-alcohol wines were the rage across the country, and the Gallos competed by launching brands like White Port. In the late 1950s, they launched a fortified, citrus-flavored wine called Thunderbird, which was 20% alcohol by volume and 80 cents a quart. The advertising jingle went: “What’s the word? Thunderbird!” Targeted at poorer inner-city populations, it later became known as a bum wine.

While the Gallos made cheap wines, they were also innovators, keeping up with contemporary wine companies like Italian Swiss Colony, Guild, and Cresta Blanca with superior technology. They built a modern winery, got rid of bacteria-ridden oak and redwood tanks, installed epoxy-lined steel tanks, introduced aluminum screw caps to replace leaky corks, and even built their own glass factory to produce wine bottles. Today, it’s the world’s largest.

But success, unlike their wines, had often been bitter. Uncle Mike Gallo, Joe’s brother, served time in prison for bootlegging. In 1932, their parents, Joe and Susie, suddenly and mysteriously moved from the family home to a rundown farm, where a year later both were found shot dead. Even more devastating was the death in 1958 of Julio and Aileen’s youngest son, Phillip, who shot himself in his bedroom.

Now it was the mid-60s, and Julio wanted to do something his neighbors and competitors had not done first — make a decent table wine most Americans could afford. At the time, there was no fine-wine industry in America, and most people who drank wine did so for its alcoholic content. The brothers became convinced American adults were ready to have wine with their food. What they weren’t sure about, however, was how to give it to them.

“Some winery executives were allowed to order cases of wine at no charge for their personal use, and Ernest noticed that those who seemed to have more sophisticated tastes requested Gallo’s robust reds,” wrote Ellen Hawkes, author of “Blood and Wine: The unauthorized story of the Gallo wine empire.” But even those wines were anemic compared with what the emerging Napa Valley was producing at higher prices.

Julio set to work, buying expensive grapes from Napa and Sonoma to blend with Central Valley Petite Sirah and his favorite variety, Zinfandel. He also started blending back heartier, more-tannic press wine to give added body. To emphasize the change, the wine was named Hearty Burgundy, even though it tasted nothing like Burgundy’s Pinot Noirs.

Instant success

Launched in 1964, Hearty Burgundy quickly captured America’s palate, offering fruit-forward berry flavors, just like Napa’s Bordeaux blends, but with a sweeter, less-tannic finish. Although the Gallo family does not report sales figures, author Peter Quimme wrote in his 1975 “The Signet Book of American Wine,” that Hearty Burgundy was already selling two million cases annually within ten years.

Better still was the critical reaction. In 1970, five years after its launch, Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Lawrence Balzer, the Robert Parker of his day, compared Hearty Burgundy, 89 cents a bottle, with Burgundy’s Romanée-Conti, $20.95. Noting “each is of exceptional value,” Hearty Burgundy, Balzer wrote, claims “to nothing more than being a wine ‘pour le soif’ — a thirst-quenching dinner wine of remarkably reliable virtue.”

The crowning tribute to Julio’s winemaking and Ernest’s business acumen was a 1972 Time magazine story, “American Wine: There’s Gold in Them Thar Grapes,” with the brothers on the cover as label art for a bottle of Hearty Burgundy. In the article, one of the early winemaking icons of Napa Valley, Joe Heitz, said, “Ernest Gallo has done more for the industry than any individual alive.”

Hearty Burgundy is very much alive today, although no longer dominant, and few wine critics ever taste it. It sells for $9 for a 1.5-liter bottle, and, “Yes, the wine still has some Zinfandel and Petite Sirah in the blend always!” says Gallo spokesman Lon Gallagher.

Julio died in a vineyard accident in 1993, and Ernest passed on in 2007. In 2014, both were commemorated during the 50th anniversary of Hearty Burgundy. Many wine-sophisticated baby boomers reported it had been their parents’ table pour. And Ernest’s granddaughter, Stephanie Gallo, one of 15 Gallos employed in the family business now worth about $10 billion, paid tribute: “This was Julio’s favorite wine the one he was proudest of.”