E&J Gallo winery Dark Horse makes a premium gambit with experimental styles

Better known for it’s affordable, everyday wine brand, Gallo, parent company E&J Gallo wineries has a comprehensive portfolio ranging from entry level through to the premium, cementing its position as the leading producer and distributor of Californian wines worldwide.

Forming part of their premium portfolio is Dark Horse, a label which takes its grapes predominantly from the surrounding area of Lodi in California’s Modesto winemaking region, with an MO of making quality, approachable wines which over deliver on price.

Head winemaker Beth Liston was in the UK last week to talk about her bold portfolio, which she infuses with her own irreverent style.

Now on her 14th harvest in the business of winemaking, she refers to the growth of precision agricultural techniques to enable quality, yet affordable Californian wines to reach wider audiences.

“In order to over-deliver, it’s about premium winemaking,” Liston told Harpers. “The technology is available now to scale-up the quality.

It is this, she says, which has enabled her to produce £30 wines for £12 for the UK market, alongside her mantra to “make wines in styles that I really want to drink”.


Premiumisation driving US export growth

Despite the buying power of the pound suffering a slump in the latter half of 2016, revenues to the UK rose to $337million, up from $284million from 2015.

This was a rise of 18%, compared to America’s top-ranking market for value, Canada, where value sales were down 6% to $431million.

Globally, value exports rose by 1%.

The UK is also California’s top export market globally for volume, with shipments to UK ports exceeding 13 million 9-liter cases.


Part of this ethos has been to experiment with grapes varieties and blends, often with a twist on an established style.

The most recent of these explorations is a Provenance-style rose – a departure from the usual ‘Cali’ style which “has a lot more flavour, structure, colour”.

Other challenges include a New Zealand-style Sauvingon blanc, which posed some problems and a delayed initial bottling plans in 2013.

“With the Sauvingon blanc, we were trying to derive green and tropical notes, which are typically flavours we’ve not been able to get in Cali. We didn’t get the style we wanted. We got a Sauvingon blanc, but not a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. In such a competitive market, only have one chance to get it right.”

The Cabernet on the other hand, is a relatively faithful representation of a Californian style.

According to Liston, Merlot presents the opportunity to surprise drinkers.

“Merlot has had a really bad rap in Cali for a long time,” she said.

“It’s hard to make and can have lot of green, vegetal notes. My approach to Merlot is making something that’s different and also better than the ones in the same price range.

“It’s my favourite red of the portfolio at the moment. It has nice, chewy tannins and French oak giving a roasted, coffee note. As people taste through the portfolio, the Merlot is always the big surprise.”

Part of the approach to Merlot is to enhance it with less well trodden grapes, by introducing a small percentage of German grapes such as Dornfelder.

“If you think about the climate in Germany to the central valley of California, it’s not similar at all,” Liston explained.

“But a few years ago we planted a few acres of Dornfelder to experiment, and we love it. It gives you a really dark, inky wine with no tannins.”

“Nothing is 100% Cabernet,” she added. “The percentages are always going to vary from one year to the next which adds another element of variety. It’s a great way to enhance the quality of a Cab or Merlot.”

At the back of Liston’s mind is the nagging voice of commercial viability as she challenges herself to make “new and different wines”.

But worldwide premium growth has opened doors for labels such as Dark Horse, which fills the demand for bold New World propositions on the back of rising US exports.

Of the record-breaking $1.62bn produced by winery revenues in 2016, 90% of those were from California.

As well as the global reach of premiumisation, another positive on Dark Horse’s side is something which she discovered during last week’s whistle-stop tour of Europe.

“People are drinking very similar styles across Europe. This works well when you’re trying to build a brand that works globally,” she said.



Readers' comments (1)

  • As a Northern California resident and wine enthusiast I enjoy Dark Horse wines very much - great value!

    But people from California - in general - outside the rap crowd and millennials - dislike the term "Cali".

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