Ernest Gallo: the 'Smartest Tyrant'

Hal Riney Looks Back at His Relationship With the Legendary Winemaker

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When I was just getting started in advertising, Ernest Gallo was already providing some lessons about the business that would become my career. It was the '50s. I was a junior art director at BBDO, and Gallo was one our clients.
Hal Riney
Hal Riney Credit: Doug Goodman

BBDO was the largest agency in San Francisco at the time, serving a major share of California's largest businesses. But no client received the attention Ernest did. At least twice a week, the account men would stuff their portfolios thick with layouts and make the four-hour round trip to Modesto, only to return rejected and dejected, with orders to start all over again.

Approvals, which seemed to occur only once or twice a year, were a cause for celebration. Not only did an approval mean that something might actually appear in print or on the air, but now the agency would finally get paid.

Every once in a while the advertising trade press would "rate" clients, listing the best and the worst. The Gallo Winery consistently headed the list of the worst, for good reason.

Among other things, Ernest embraced the agency-compensation system of that time; that is, for our efforts, we'd be paid 15% percent of the media money our clients spent. Ernest thought this was eminently fair, because to him it meant that until he saw something he liked and was willing to put into print or television, he didn't have to pay a cent.

Some agencies worked for two or three years without producing any work Ernest deemed acceptable. Which of course meant that the agency had worked those two or three years for nothing.

And then there was "The Committee." At each meeting, Ernest would surround himself with his marketing henchmen, arranged according to their seniority to his right and left -- the most senior sitting next to Ernest in the middle of the conference table, with the newest members of the group at the end, or even in chairs against the wall.

There were usually about 20 members of the advertising committee, each charged with finding something wrong with anything an agency presented.

According to the story, one of the agencies -- I heard it was Y&R -- eventually complained about having to sit for two or three hours, receiving nothing but abuse. Ernest said he sympathized, and suggested the agency excuse itself during the committee's deliberations.

Instead of having to suffer through the meeting, the agency folks were allowed to await their fate in the winery's parking lot, where, in the summer heat, Modesto temperatures could reach 110 degrees.

So I already had some personal experience, along with our business's legendary Gallo stories, when someone from the winery called me in 1980. No longer a junior art director, I was starting a new agency in San Francisco for Ogilvy & Mather, from scratch.

The caller asked if I'd be interested in considering doing some work for Gallo. I said no, even though our billings at the time were probably less than $10 million dollars. When asked why, I said I assumed the only reason they were calling us was that Gallo had run out of agency options. Over three decades, they'd hired and fired virtually every agency in existence; we were the bottom of the barrel.

They persisted, and eventually I began to see Gallo as a challenge. Despite all logic, and everything I knew and had heard, I thought that just maybe we could find some way to do some good work for them. So I agreed to make a presentation.

Over the next several weeks, we learned the wine business. We interviewed people at UC Davis, the ultimate authority on winemaking. We spoke with boutique winemakers who'd made their bones working in Modesto. We talked to the Napa Valley farmers whose grapes were used to make Gallo wines. And over those short months we found that Gallo, for all its success, was due a respect the company had never enjoyed.

We decided Gallo's story was too complex and in many ways too interesting to be limited by the brevity of TV. So we created a number of elaborate and lengthy magazine ads, telling the story of Gallo's history in the wine business, and their commitment to making the best and the most widely accepted wines of any winery in the world.

We presented our creative work to Ernest and his committee. I'll never forget his response: "In just three months, you've learned more about us and our wines and our business than any agency who ever worked for us."

But then he told us he didn't believe anybody ever read print advertising, much less long-copy print advertising. Still, though, he'd be happy to see anything else we might come up with.

Ernest Gallo was a television guy. He didn't read magazines, and he didn't think anyone else did either. His early advertising success had come from TV, with a matinee idol riding a white horse in a vineyard, singing in operatic tones, "Come with me to the wine country!"

Eventually, we found a direction Ernest liked. I wrote some spots about Gallo wines, most of which dealt with Gallo's (surprising) success in international wine competitions. And we offered the winery a theme: "All the Best." Within a year, Ernest dismissed his other advertising agencies, and gave us all his business.

Ernest Gallo was the most dedicated, most focused man I have ever known. He was obsessive about his winery, his products, his associates, and his employees -- expecting all to be "all the best." He had no patience with anyone who didn't share his passion.

He also had no patience with "presentations." If an account person dared hold up a chart, Ernest would simply leave the room, claiming he had to speak to the president of the United States, or at least some senator. During his lifetime, Ernest Gallo had undoubtedly seen and heard more agency presentations that any client in our industry. All he wanted to see was the creative work.

He was also immensely possessive -- and furious with the idea that once we'd taken on his business, we might also create advertising for someone else. Once when I was in the East on a recruiting trip, I was called to a restaurant phone.

"What are you doing in New York, Hal, instead of being back here working on Gallo?" Despite my protests that I was there on business, he insisted I come back immediately. He said he had plenty of money to spend on advertising, and because I hadn't recently given him any advertising he cared to spend it on, that money was just "sitting uselessly in the bank."

Ernest finally insisted that we refuse take on any other clients. I told him if were we to do that, we'd be so afraid of losing his business that we'd no longer dare tell him the truth. He accepted my argument, albeit grudgingly.

Despite his reputation, Ernest had a subtle and sly sense of humor. On rare occasions, he twinkled. I remember a conversation concerning a theme line he'd suggested (I don't recall exactly what it was). I told him that while it was a fine theme, it wasn't grammatically correct. "Hal," he said, "who's going to know that but you?" And he laughed.

Eventually, Ernest Gallo came to accept at least some of my advice. I was even asked to review any new labeling Gallo created. Once, after being shown a variety of designs, Ernest asked which I preferred. I told him as politely as possible that I didn't care for any of them. But Ernest, as usual, wasn't to be denied. He thought about this and then said: "Well, Hal, if you did like any of them, which one would you like best?"

When the winery decided to get into the wine-cooler business, I was asked how they should do it. Eventually, I presented Ernest with the most preposterous approach anyone might imagine: two old guys sitting on a porch and a name more suitable for a Madeira than a wine cooler.

I don't think Ernest ever really appreciated the understated humor of Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes. He told me what he liked about that campaign was that it reminded him of how he and his brother, Julio, got started in the wine business.

Over the years, I tried to live up to his Ernest's trust. I told him I had one rule for the agency: We would never do any work that would embarrass either Gallo or us. In the meantime, Gallo's billings allowed my agency to thrive and grow. And the attention we received from the advertising community ("How in the hell can these guys do something good for Gallo?") put our small company on the national advertising map.

Ernest Gallo was one of the most feared and respected businessmen in the world, but I don't think he had much respect for most people himself. Still, we became friends.

I resigned the Gallo business in 1988, even though it represented half of our agency's entire billings and most of our income. I did this reluctantly, especially since Gallo had been main foundation of our success. But our people were tired after 194 trips to Modesto and the relentless criticism from the committee. The last straw was when some committee members insisted on writing their own Bartles & Jaymes commercials.

And besides, my son had just been born, and I no longer had 18 hours a day to commit to creating a new ad campaign every week for Gallo.

Even after our separation, Ernest and I continued to talk occasionally, but typically only when he wanted something. One day he called to ask my advice about who he might choose as a master of ceremonies for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his marriage to his wife, Amelia.

He was putting on a big show at his home in Modesto, with a stage, tents, orchestras, dancers, and a multi-million dollar musical depicting his and Amelia's life together.

He asked if I could also suggest someone to narrate the musical, mentioning that his people were considering, among others, Bing Crosby, Chevy Chase, or maybe Henny Youngman.

"What do you think, Hal?" I suggested Hal Holbrook or Garrison Keillor, who were both good storytellers. He hadn't heard of either one, he said, but wondered how much someone like that might cost for that one night.

I didn't know, but I imagined maybe 100,000 bucks. Ernest hesitated; even with all his millions, every dollar was important. Then he asked, "How much would it cost for you to do it?"

I replied that narrating musicals wasn't really my thing, but if were I to do it, I'd probably do it for nothing.

Another pause. Then: "Why don't you do it, Hal?" The price was right. So I became the narrator and the master of ceremonies for Ernest and Amelia's wedding anniversary.

We were Gallo's only advertising agency for just seven years, but I've been told that's still an industry record. During that time, I grew to respect and care more for Ernest Gallo than almost any client I'd worked for.

And I came to believe what Ernest always said: that Gallo, despite its reputation for making cheap wine, was in fact the greatest winemaker in the world.

In fact, yesterday, not yet having heard of Ernest's death, I brought home a bottle of Gallo's Sonoma cabernet for dinner.

I'll miss Ernest Gallo. Yes, he was a tyrant, but the smartest and best tyrant I've ever known. He was also a good friend, and a legend.
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