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Ubiquitous Gallo has many guises

Does it sometimes seem that half the wines on your grocery store or wine shop shelf are from Gallo? It's even truer than it seems. A good number of the new wines showing up recently are from Gallo, even some that don't say so on the bottle.

They include some of the prettiest new labels: Turning Leaf, Gossamer Bay, Zabaco, and, pretty soon, Indigo Hills.

All Gallo. Your clue? Look on the back label where it says it was made in Modesto, Calif. Gallo is the only major winery in Modesto.

Gallo has dominated American wines for decades, starting in the 1930s with sweet sherries and ports, introducing us to better, drier wines in the '70s with its ubiquitous Hearty Burgundy, a well-made beverage that was a starter wine for a whole generation of wine fans.

Recently, Gallo has been changing again. In their final days, the founding brothers _ Julio, who died at 83 in 1993, and Ernest, almost 88 _ decided they wanted to leave a personal legacy of top quality wine, friends say, so they shocked the wine world by putting out two "Northern Sonoma Estate Bottled" Gallo wines, a $30 chardonnay and a $45 cabernet sauvignon, that repeatedly scored 90 points or more in blind tastings against California's best.

How did they do it? For decades, Gallo had gotten most of its grapes from California's Central Valley, hot, fertile, producing mammoth crops of healthy but not particularly distinguished fruit, but as early as 1938 the Gallos also bought a few grapes from more prestigious Sonoma County, where cooler weather and poorer soils create conditions for top-quality wine grapes.

Later, Gallo started buying land in Sonoma, and today has a surprising 7,000 acres there, with 2,000 of it bearing and another 1,000 soon to follow.

This enabled Gallo in 1994 to replace its old $7 line of "Reserve Cellars" wines made of grapes from all around California with a new, $10 to $12 "Gallo Sonoma" series _ chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel_ made entirely of grapes from their own vineyards in Sonoma County.

Now Gallo is introducing a new, $14 series of single-vineyard "Gallo Sonoma" wines _ a Stefani Vineyard Chardonnay, a Frei Ranch Vineyard Zinfandel, a Chiotti Vineyard Zinfandel and a Barrelli Creek Vineyard wine called Valdiguie, a French synonym for the Napa Gamay grape better known for the Beaujolais Nouveau style wines it usually makes.

These are excellent values, intensely flavored, supremely fruity, nicely balanced, made at a newly remodeled, 50,000-barrel Gallo winery in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg.

Gallo, now bursting with grapes from its 2,000 Sonoma County acres, 6,000 more acres in two Central Valley vineyards and countless tons from long-term contracts with private grape growers that Gallo declines to detail, is spreading its reach even farther.

Today Gallo makes a pretty new label called Turning Leaf, featuring a sweetish $7 to $7.50 chardonnay, zinfandel and fume blanc from grapes purchased all over California, plus an even newer, well-made $10 Turning Leaf Reserve series of pinot noir, zinfandel, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay fume wines of grapes from various Sonoma County growers.

It also makes Gossamer Bay, the one with a butterfly label, with white zinfandel, sauvignon blanc and zinfandel at $6, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon at $7 _ of grapes purchased from growers all around the state.

Also new from Gallo is a series called Zabaco Vintners of Sonoma, playing on a pioneering name for a portion of northern Sonoma County. It includes $11 chardonnay and zinfandel and a $9 sauvignon blanc, made of grapes from Sonoma County growers.

By April, Gallo will have yet another line _ Indigo Hills, a $10 chardonnay, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and, later, zinfandel, of grapes purchased from growers in Mendocino and other North Coast California counties.

Why not just call them all Gallo?

"Like a lot of other wineries, we want to reserve our own name for our best wines," says Gallo spokesman Carmen Castorino.