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Wine’s 50th anniversary inspires look at impact Gallo has had on industry

I’d like to wish a happy birthday to an old friend. Ernest & Julio Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy turns 50 this year. It’s an icon – and arguably the beverage that turned on the average American to wine.

It’s no highfalutin’, 100-point bottle. But it’s solid – rich, full-bodied and fruity. With red plum, coffee flavors and soft tannins it flirts at the edge of sweetness without crossing over.

It’s not expensive – $4.99 a bottle in supermarkets and wine shops.

When it debuted in 1964, at about $1.50 a bottle, Hearty Burgundy was a major step forward for casual American sippers. We mostly drank whiskey or gin then. Or we drank cheap Italian wine in straw-covered bottles. Or modest California wines from the neutral but prolific Thompson’s Seedless grape, which always was better suited as table grapes and raisins.

Hearty Burgundy was at least from proper grapes – zinfandel, petite sirah and a couple others, from good California vineyards.

It brings me fond memories. It was my first house wine, when I was just learning about the fermented grape, and $1.50 was about what I could spend.

It was also a major step for the Gallo brothers. Sons of immigrants from Italy’s Piedmont region, they had borrowed something over $5,000 to open a winery in Modesto, Calif., in 1933, just as Prohibition was ending.

Their early wines reflected America’s taste at the time. In 1957 they introduced Thunderbird, a citrus-flavored wine fortified with brandy. It contained up to 17.5 percent alcohol. It also earned an unfortunate reputation as the tipple of the down-and-out.

So Hearty Burgundy was a breakthrough. Stephanie Gallo, Ernest’s granddaughter and Gallo’s marketing vice president, speaks of it proudly.

“For the brothers it was a simple vision – to make wines that could be enjoyed by everybody. Wines of great quality at an affordable price that could be enjoyed with the kinds of foods they liked – Italian foods like pasta, sausage.

“This was Ernest’s favorite wine – the one he was proudest of.”

Hearty Burgundy, to be sure, was part of an unfortunate California tradition of calling most inexpensive red wines “Burgundy” and most such white wines “Chablis” – no matter what grapes they were made of. This drove French winemakers crazy. Burgundy, they protested, was a fine French wine made of noble pinot noir grapes in the French region called Burgundy. Chablis was from noble chardonnay grapes, in the French region called Chablis.

Their protests fell on deaf ears.

Hearty Burgundy came at propitious time. America was moving from city to suburb, and backyard grilling had exploded after 1952. Hearty Burgundy was a natural pairing for the great American cheeseburger.

American wine was starting to boom after California pioneer Robert Mondavi in 1966 set up a winery in Napa and began applying French standards and grapes to make world-class wines.

The Gallo brothers saw an opportunity in this, and started producing large quantities of good wines named for the grapes of which they were made – chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and others. By 1992, Gallo was the largest landowner in California’s prime Sonoma Valley, and the biggest seller of American wine.

Today Gallo is the world’s largest winery, with global sales of 80 million cases to 90 countries across 60 brands of still, sparkling and dessert wines. Annual revenue is about $3.6 billion, Stephanie Gallo confirms.

For Hearty Burgundy’s anniversary, Gallo has released a commemorative version – at $9 per 1.5-liter magnum. It’s made of zinfandel, petit verdot, petite sirah and alicante bouschet – not exactly the original blend, but true to its spirit, she says, after consultation with the company winemakers who crafted the 1964 version.

“It reminds us of where we came from, and the role that Gallo wine played in America becoming a wine-drinking culture,” Gallo says.

Fred Tasker has retired from the Miami Herald but is still writing about wine. He can be reached at fredtaskerwine@gmail.com.