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.While Ernest and Julio are now gone, the Gallo empire has expanded even more by purchasing wineries all over California (and the world) and has taken a quantum leap in quality while still maintaining very reasonable prices. Today, Gallo is the largest winery in the world.Spearheading the Gallo portfolio of wines is a third generation of the family, Gina (winemaker) and Matt (her brother and grape grower). Today, they are responsible for producing Gallo's line of premium wines, most of which are available statewide.I recently tasted three of the Gallo Signature Series wines from the premium appellations of Napa Valley, Sonoma's Russian River Valley and Monterey County's Santa Lucia Highlands. Here are some tasting notes for the wines.2010 Gallo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40). This round, rich and robust red has just a touch petit verdot and is a blend of grapes from three different vineyards in Napa. A nose of teaberry and mocha with just a hint of vanilla is followed by flavors of black raspberries, cola and chocolate. Pair this wine with a pan-seared and oven-roasted double cut pork chop that has been rubbed with sea salt, green peppercorns and rosemary and stuffed with herbed goat cheese.2011 Gallo Russian River Chardonnay ($29). Two thousand eleven was a cold and rainy year, but this wine is none the worse for it and, in fact, displays Burgundylike balance. Crisp pear and citrus highlight the taste components that are rounded out nicely by soft oak notes. Excellent balancing acidity make this a tasty accompaniment to sautéed Chilean sea bass seasoned with ground fennel, a touch of garlic and lemon.2011 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($35). Earthy and ripe black cherry flavors highlight this spicy pinot noir from vineyards in the mountains overlooking the Pacific in Monterey. Nicely integrated oak gives the wine a floral nuance on the nose and complements this earth- and fruit-driven pinot. Try it with grilled king salmon that has been dusted with cumin, brown sugar and chili powder.For more on the art and craft of wine, visit John Brown's Vines & Vittles blog at thegazz.com.