CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I have an abiding interest in all aspects of wine, particularly the historical and cultural components that make drinking the stuff all that more pleasurable. I am especially interested in how the wine industry developed in the good old U.S. of A.
There were several wine pioneers in the industry who really provided the impetus for the breadth and quality of the products that we enjoy today. Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant and a self-proclaimed "count," established the first premium winery in Sonoma in 1857, and Buena Vista Winery continues to make excellent wine today.
Since that time others, including Charles Krug, Karl Wente and Jacob Beringer helped establish the Northern California wine appellations before Prohibition, and were followed by more recent wine entrepreneurs such as Robert Mondavi, Joseph Heitz and a whole bevy of others who put California (and American) wine on the world map.
But I count Ernest and Julio Gallo as the most influential individuals in transforming wine from a mysterious, elitist beverage into something that began to be accepted by just about everyone. Ernest and Julio not only knew how to make good and affordable wine, they were master marketers who changed the way we viewed the product.
I first tasted the wines as a college student decades ago, discovering the pleasures -- on numerous occasions -- of Gallo Pisano and Hearty Burgundy. According to my fuzzy recollection, the Gallo wine portfolio of the '60s and '70s consisted primarily of 1.5-liter jugs that were produced from grapes grown on thousands of vineyard acres in California's San Joaquin Valley.
While that area was not known as a great wine appellation, the fertile vineyards produced millions of cases of drinkable, inexpensive wines. In the late '70s and early '80s, the Gallos focused on developing a market for inexpensive "fighting varietals," such as sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. At $3 to $5 a bottle, these varietals created a whole new generation of wine drinkers, who could afford to trade up from the jugs and from that frothy stuff.
At about that same time, the family began purchasing vineyards in Northern California's Sonoma County. Quietly, the Gallos began acquiring huge vineyard tracts all over the county in such appellations as the Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander valleys.