When you think of E.&J. Gallo, does “green and sustainable” come to mind? Well, it should, because size does matter and the larger the holdings or land area involved, the more impact on the environment overall. And E.&J. Gallo has had a significant impact on the direction of sustainability in California, not just due to its size but also because of its leadership in the wine industry. And this isn’t just a recent phenomenon but it has been trailblazing and is long-standing in nature.
It was Julio Gallo who had the insight, decades ago, that any farming depended on nurturing and caring for the land, while he also had a deep appreciation for the relationship between place, practices and quality. His innovative approach in Sonoma County was known as the “50/50 Give Back” plan, which continues to this day. For every acre that is planted, at least one acre is set aside to help protect and enhance wildlife. That initial vision has evolved into viticultural and sustainable leadership in the coastal regions under Jim Collins, chief viticulturalist, who is of and for the land and thinking about future generations.
A graduate of California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, Jim grew up on a farm where he developed a boyhood and lifelong passion for farming. For Jim and the Gallo team, sustainability means “preserving natural resources in the long run without compromising quality.” It takes all facets into account, including social, environmental and economic, versus organic and biodynamic, which focus primarily on the environmental alone. Before enumerating the specific practices, it should be noted that Gallo was the first winery and vineyards in the United States to receive the International Standards Organization’s ISO 14001 Certification, designed to assist companies throughout the world in reducing their impact on the environment and committing to environmental stewardship.
Those practices, just to cite a few, include all elements of the wine industry, not just the viticultural aspect. The sustainable growing practices include: installing predatory bird boxes throughout its California vineyards to control rodent pests or starling populations; promoting and maintaining populations of predatory insects to reduce pesticide use; planting five natural weed control systems; using sheep and goats to reduce soil compaction, energy and labor costs; significantly assisting in the survival of the endangered Aleutian geese by designating 2,000 acres of land as part of the San Luis Obispo National Wildlife Refuge, where there is a major winter migratory route; restoring original river courses and wetlands, thereby protecting wildlife habitats to benefit indigenous plants, fish and animals.
Additionally, Gallo’s strong commitment to minimizing use of synthetic chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers, recycling and reusing processed wastewater, developing innovative solutions to reduce green waste and landfill use by, among other practices, developing a composting facility for community use, led them to taking the lead in drafting, collaborating with the Wine Institute and the California Association of Wine Growers, and implementing the Code of Sustainable Wine Growing Practices.
Jim oversees 22 different vineyard sites, from Santa Barbara to Lake County, with 6,200 planted acres and 22,000 acres of land. His team includes 39 management team members and 450 seasonal employees. In my interview with Jim, I asked him about other pest management practices and challenges he faced. His answer cited the sustainable practices above and more. His biggest concern as it relates to pest management is the problems that are not planned for. In the past few years, California has been affected by the more recently introduced pests and diseases, such as the vine mealy bug, grape vine moths and red blotch-associated virus.
His approach is that farming cannot be “cookie cutter-like.” While 70 percent of California vineyards use VSP trellising, that is changing quickly because the site should determine what type of trellising should be used. He views his viticulturist role as “farming sunlight” to achieve “the ideal combination of sun exposure and air circulation, all the while keeping in mind what is on the ground floor.” Also, not only do varieties match their terroirs but selected clones are site-specific, as are many other viticultural practices such as row spacing.
When I asked Jim which vineyards were special, he answered, “I know that it sounds cheesy, but I think all of our vineyards are special, each for varying reasons.” He believes that one of Gallo’s greatest strengths is that they have figured out where varietals are best suited to grow. He spoke of how Monte Rosso Vineyard and Snows Lake Vineyard create ideal locations to grow red grapes “packed with flavor.” He mentioned that the MacMurray Ranch, the historic Laguna Ranch in the Russian River Valley, and Olson Ranch in Santa Lucia Highlands draw maritime influences from the Pacific Ocean for perfect cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. However, he notes that within each ranch there are “soil differences, sunlight aspects and other variables that make exceptional wines, each with their own personality based on the vineyard.”
To draw specifics, he cited that the Two Rock Ranch at the southern tip of Russian River Valley provides a Chardonnay with an almost Chablis-like minerality, whereas the Chardonnays from Laguna Ranch achieve a more “rich, caramel apple flavor.” The Edna Valley Chardonnay from the cool San Luis Obispo County has “balanced notes of citrus, butterscotch and tropical fruit due to its long hang time.” The Monte Rosso, on the other hand, combines iron-rich volcanic soils and steep terraces on higher elevations to create “some of the most flavorful grapes I’ve ever tasted.” Additionally, Jim believes that Frei Ranch is special with “its Dry Creek bench land location that leads to grapes with dark, jammy flavors.”
When asked how his viticultural team interacts with the winemaking team, Jim noted the paradigm shift at Gallo in the past 10 years, with his team working hand-in-hand with the winemaking teams so that it is now symbiotic. He believes that it is “a rare occasion that the wines don’t mirror the vineyard in which the grapes were grown. This is largely due to the collaborative efforts between viticulture and winemaking. I truly believe we produce true expressions of our vineyards in the bottle, so much so that I always say, ‘when walking through a vineyard, what you taste there is what you should taste in the glass.’” The vineyards Jim’s team oversees supply the grapes for such brands as Frei Brothers Reserve, Louis M. Martini, William Hill Estate, MacMurray Ranch, Gallo Signature Series, Ranch Zabaco, Ghost Pines, Edna Valley Vineyard and Bridlewood.
So when tasting one of these Gallo premium brands, think of Jim Collins and his teams and their careful nurturing of not only the grapes for these wines but also of the land, and the philosophy behind such human attentiveness. And don’t accept the silly notion that small is always better and more natural because frequently, it is those with the necessary resources who impact us in the most beneficial ways and give us wines that are not only delicious but sustainably made.