Know Your Labels: The Stories Behind 5 California Wine Brands


As holiday parties approach, so does the specter of sipping from a small plastic cup of inexpensive wine as you make small talk. Ever wonder where the names on those bottles came from? Here’s the background on a few familiar California brands. Feel free to use these stories to spice up boring holiday party chitchat.

1. Ernest & Julio Gallo

Ernest & Julio Gallo formally founded what’s now the world’s largest family-owned winery in 1933, but they had already tasted some success during Prohibition. While selling wine was illegal in those days, there was no law against selling grapes and everything else you needed to make wine at home. Thanks to this loophole, the Gallo family wine empire was turning a profit before the Gallos ever really started making wine.

After their parents’ death in a grisly murder-suicide, brothers Ernest and Julio began making and marketing their own wine. Julio spearheaded the wine production and proved to be a wizard at cranking out giant batches of wine that maintained a consistent flavor profile. Ernest, on the other hand, worked on the business side and showed a knack for talking retailers into carrying his brother’s wine.

The brothers weren’t always so nice to other family members, though. After they booted their youngest brother, Joseph, from the wine business, he tried to start a cheese business of his own using the Gallo name. Ernest and Julio successfully sued to block him from using “Gallo” on any of his cheeses. (They were jerks to other people, too; one infamous story about the Gallos involved them dropping cigarette butts into competitors’ bottles, resealing them, and placing them back on the shelves for unsuspecting buyers.)

Family bitterness aside, the Gallos were masterful in building brands. When Ernest died in 2007, reports pegged the company’s output at 900 million bottles of wine each year.

2. Carlo Rossi

The Rossi brand was originally just a regional offering for the California and Nevada markets, but it proved to be so popular that the Gallos took it national in the early 1970s. The brand needed someone with a distinctive voice to narrate its radio ads, and Rossi’s endearingly awkward delivery earned him that job, too. Here’s an early spot of Rossi talking about his wine:

3. Charles Shaw

Charles Shaw’s name hasn’t always been synonymous with “Two Buck Chuck” thanks to the wine’s cheap price tag. Stanford-educated Shaw moved to Napa in 1974 with dreams of developing a Beaujolais that bore his name. Although Shaw’s Beaujolais was pretty tasty, his business plan never really found any traction. Shaw and his wife ended up selling their winery when they divorced in 1991.

Poor Charles Shaw. He just wanted to make Beaujolais, and now his name is synonymous with cheap wine. However, he can take some heart in knowing that Two Buck Chuck has improbably won a few accolades. In 2007 the Charles Shaw 2005 California chardonnay won Best Chardonnay from California at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

4. Sutter Home

Sutter Home Winery often draws sneers from serious oenophiles thanks to its association with white zinfandel, but the winery has actually been around since 1874. Swiss immigrant John Thomann founded the winery, and in 1947 Italians John and Mario Trinchero bought it.

Bob Trinchero didn’t want to waste 500 gallons of perfectly good grape juice, though, so he fermented it, put it in barrels, and figured he’d sell it in the winery’s tasting room as a novelty. When tasters began tossing back Trinchero’s invention faster than he could make it, he decided to bottle the product.

Trinchero originally called the sweet, pink wine Oeil de Perdrix (French for “eye of the partridge”), but ATF regulators told him he would need at least some English on his labels. He responded by dubbing his creation “a white zinfandel wine,” and the sweet elixir quickly became America’s most popular style of wine.

5. Robert Mondavi

Brothers tussling is usually no big deal, but Robert Mondavi later wrote, “When it was all over, there were no apologies and no handshake.” Robert had effectively punched his way out of the family business, so he opened a winery bearing his own name. As you probably know, socking his brother turned out to be a brilliant business strategy for Mondavi. When he died in 2008 at the age of 94, he was mourned as a man who doggedly worked to increase the international profile of California wine and popularized the term “Fumé Blanc.”

Mondavi’s Washington Post obituary even included a happy note on his family feud. In 2005 Robert and Peter Mondavi put aside their differences to make wine together for the first time in four decades. Each brother contributed half of the grapes to a single barrel of a cabernet blend. Wine enthusiasts were more than a little excited about the collaboration; the barrel sold for $401,000 at auction.

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