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Dublin, Ireland
Hi, I'm Dermot Nolan, and I became a Master of Wine (MW) in 1997, and resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2023 after being an MW for exactly 26 years. I opened a wine shop in DĂșn Laoghaire, Ireland, called The Wine Library, which closed in 2018, and this is my personal wine blog. I will do my utmost to be fair and responsible in my posts – please read my Who Pays article in re the ethics of wine trips and writing. I have worked in wine education, retail, and consultancy since 1990. I was a Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) from 2008 to 2014 and was also a member of the Events Committee, founder of the Trips Committee, and member of the Governance Committee. Having had problems with potentially libellous comments from unidentifiable posters, I now require that if you post a comment, you must identify yourself properly or it won't be published. Please note that I do not review products or services on request so kindly don't ask. I value my independence and I believe my readers (few that they may be) do so also.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Livingston, I presume?

Ask anybody in the trade have they ever visited Gallo and the most likely answer is "no" (which often doesn't stop them from bad-mouthing the wines, by the way). If they say "yes" then most likely they visited the Frei Ranch facility in Sonoma, which I visited on my first ever MW trip in 1999. But today, I achieved a minor landmark in my time in the wine trade: I got to visit the biggest winery in the world - Gallo's crush facility in Livingston, California.
Back when I was an MW student, we were given a tasting question which involved tasting two inexpensive wines and, as part of the question, we had to choose one for a bistro. The wine I chose (blind, remember) was the preferred choice of almost all present and turned out to be Gallo Dry Red - a £2.99 bottle of juicy, yummy wine. I learned a lesson that day - just because a wine is made by a big company that doesn't mean it can't be good or enjoyable.
And Gallo is big - last year, they were the biggest wine company in the world, an accolade they lost some years ago to the now imploding Constellation group. At Livingston, the smallest tank hold 50,000 gallons - that's 189,250 litres of juice. Their biggest tank can hold 700 tons of fruit! Their bottling facility in Modesto has 18 bottling lines, their Barefoot Pinot Grigio alone is a 1,000,000 case wine! Not brand, but one wine within the brand - that probably makes them the biggest producer of pinot grigio in the world.
The visit was fascinating, fun and informative, although much of what I learned was just techie stuff but we tried some interesting tank samples. I was shown around by Jamie Arevalo, part of the international winemaking team, Debbie Jurgenson (DJAY) who is one of the wine makers at Livingston and Ally, one of the assistant winemakers there as well. From tank, we tasted a range of this year's Fighting Varietal merlot, all from the same grower but treated differently. The basic, standard wine was a nice red fruit and plummy merlot, slightly firm tannins, good weight and a good wine for its $7 price. One tank had been fermented at much higher than normal temperatures, getting up to 32 Celsius and was really round, yummy and soft. Another had had a double rack and return, with seed removal, and was firmer then the second but also somewhat more "serious" - same basic fruit but a very different style. Another had had a more aggressive than normal pump-over regime and, although good, was not quite as enjoyable as either the rack and return wine or the high temperature wine. There was one which had been cold-soaked which, though good, wasn't quite as good as the high temperature wine. The final merlot was from the "west side" - of the winery, that is, where the presses are old-fashioned screw presses. These tend to make the wine slightly harsher in tannin terms as they are not that gentle with skins and pips, and it showed in the wine. We also tried a superb zinfandel (which could sell at the same $7 price) and an absolutely stunning Lodi cabernet sauvignon which had only just started fermenting.
DJ reckoned that better presses (pneumatic) would make a big difference to quality, even though the basic quality is pretty good. Indeed, world wide fruit quality is pretty good nowadays but wines are often ruined by poor tannin balance so I understand her point and find it really interesting. She mentioned that each year Gallo invests in various improvements and that the presses will be sorted out soon.
Overall, I really enjoyed the visit and it was really interesting to see the old winery in Modesto (a small ivy-covered cube (on D street and 6th, I think) in contrast to Livingston. I have a lot of time for Gallo and I think they make some pretty good wines, at a good range of quality levels. So, why not give them a try?

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