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Wine Spectator Exclusive: The First And Only Interview Footage With Industry Legend Ernest Gallo

March 18, 2022

In 1999, Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken traveled to California wine country to interview the famously private wine industry legend Ernest Gallo, who with his brother Julio largely created the modern wine market in America over the course of the 20th century.

A towering figure in the wine world, Gallo was celebrating his 90th birthday. He never gave interviews, but in this unscripted conversation he opened up and revealed a side of himself seldom seen by those who knew him well, let alone the public.

What follows is a Q+A with Shanken on the genesis of that extraordinary interview, the full video of which has now launched on WineSpectator.com, offering a new generation of the wine trade and consumers the opportunity to hear from the master himself.

SND: How did the interview with Ernest Gallo come about?

Marvin R. Shanken: Ernest Gallo was the Henry Ford of the wine business. He created the wine market through his sales and marketing skills, along with Julio’s incredible winemaking skills, putting out in large quantities high-quality wine—widely distributed, at affordable prices—for millions of Americans. When they started, wine was not part of the culture in America. They helped make it so. Ernest, Julio, and Robert Mondavi are the titans of our world. When Ernest was in his 80s, heading to his 90th birthday, I kept asking him every year if I could interview him, and he would say no. And I would say why? And he would say, I don’t want to discuss it. And I would say, it’s not for you. It’s for your children and your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They need to have this. And that’s why I said to him that I never intended to publish it, and that it was just for him. I did it as a labor of love for a man that I have the utmost respect for, and who I became very good friends with.

SND: Did you have a rapport with him before you did the interview?

Shanken: Yes, and he was an incredible person. Ernest would always tell me what to do. His wife Amelia would always say, ‘Be nice to Marvin. He’s such a nice boy.’ That always made me laugh, and I can still hear her saying it. But Ernest still told me what to do, as though I was an employee of Gallo. I’d say, ‘Ernest, maybe you forgot. I don’t work for you.’ So we always had this give-and-take, but I learned a great deal from him.

SND: What became of the tape of the interview after you conducted it?

Shanken: After I did the interview I gave Ernest 35 copies, for his family and Julio’s family, and I learned in 2008 that he took those 35 copies and put them in a vault, and never shared the interview with anybody. That’s the way he was.

SND: But it didn’t end there…

Shanken: No. In 2008, the Gallo winery had their 75th anniversary get-together in Las Vegas at the MGM, where they invited all their key employees, all their distributors, and had something like 1,500 people there for a few days. Joe Gallo, Ernest’s son, and company president, asked me to speak. I told him that I didn’t speak at individual company events, only industry events on rare occasions. Lo and behold, Joe and his wife Ofelia flew out to my summer home in Bridgehampton, New York, to spend the weekend with me. Well, Joe didn’t come because he wanted to play tennis or golf. He came because he wanted me to know how important it was to him that I speak at the anniversary gathering, and so I agreed to do it. Longtime Gallo executive Roger Nabedian was extremely helpful to me in putting together the speech where I talked about many of the things that went down between Ernest and me. He was a recluse, but there was another side to him that’s very funny, and that comes out in the interview and my speech.

SND: What circumstances led you to release the video of the interview now?

Shanken: Something happened a few years ago. I interviewed Michael Jordan for Cigar Aficionado magazine’s 25th Anniversary issue. I taped the interview and never expected to release it. Then he was on the cover of Cigar Aficionado. And then last year ESPN and Netflix did a 10-part series called “The Last Dance” on Michael Jordan. It ended up with something like 80 or 100 million viewers. Given the immense interest, I launched on the Cigar Aficionado website, and ultimately on YouTube, my interview with Jordan. The first week it had over a million views, and over the last year or so it’s had 4 or 5 million views and growing. After that, I wrote a letter to Joe Gallo, and said I would like to share the interview with Ernest with the readers of Wine Spectator. Because Gallo is so private, I had no idea whether they would allow it or not. But they wrote me back and said, ‘You have our permission.’

SND: Why are you releasing it today?

Shanken: Today, in fact, is Ernest’s birthday. I can’t think of another day that would be more appropriate.

Without further ado, here is the video of that 1999 conversation between Shanken and Gallo.

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