In June, I conducted an in-depth interview with Tony Terlato, chairman of the Terlato Wine Group. Lots of the interview made it into one of my Grape Collective columns.
While going through some notes, I came across the full transcript of our conversation — and realized that it’s a fascinating read. Terlato has spent nearly 60 years in the wine industry, so has an endless number of stories to share.
Check out the interview below!
David White: Let’s go way back in time. In 1955, you were working for your dad in his wine shop. A year later, your future father-in-law invited you to join his wine bottling and distribution company. Did you ever have a choice — or did you feel like you had to follow in the family footsteps and join the wine industry? You were being pressured on both sides!
Tony Terlato: It was intriguing when he asked me, but I was friends with Guy Armanetti. You know the chain of liquor stores? He was my handball partner. My thought in my mind was to do the same thing that Armanetti did, open up maybe 8 or 10 stores in different parts of the city. I liked the retail business. It was a lot of hours and 7 days a week, but I liked it and I liked the idea what we were doing.
We had a big wine section. It was 80 feet on one side with all the bottles lying down, 4 shelves high. Top shelf was standing up, bottom shelf was standing up with gallons and stuff and the three middle shelves were all wines lying down. I started in 1955, so I had the benefit of ’47, ’49, ’53 and the ‘45’s. I had the benefit of some marvelous wines that we were selling in the store and I liked that.
My father-in-law was a wine bottler and he would buy wine. At that time, he was buying wine from Gallo and bottling it in Chicago. We were selling gallons of the stuff — it used to sell for 79 cents per gallon! A fifth of Italian Swiss Colony was 49 cents per gallon at that time. I was hesitant to go join my father-in-law, because that wasn’t what I wanted to do. But my father suggested I try it, since it was an opportunity. My father-in-law only had two salesmen working at the time for him at the time, so I became the third.
After I told my father-in-law I would join his team, Bob Mondavi called me because we took our honeymoon to his winery in Napa and I then learned that he was the one who told my father-in-law to get me out of the store!
But when you decided to work in wine, you were more interested in the retail side than the bottling side?
Right, because of the quality of the products that we were selling. At the store, we were selling single malts. My father had 70 imported beers. It was 1955! We were a center for imported beers. People would come from 20, 30 miles away because his selection was so large. The wine section was equally as impressive, all things that were high-end.
Did you fall in love with wine?
We attracted the premium customer of that time. I liked it, selling gallons on Madison Street, pushing guys who were sleeping on the floor in the liquor stores out of the way to get my order. I wore a tie and a shirt and a jacket. When I was in those neighborhoods, I looked like a flying milk bottle, the way I was dressed. But I wasn’t happy there, so told my father I needed to get out.
Let’s talk about that trip to Napa and when you fell in love with wine. You’re working in this retail shop, so you’re tasting ’47, ’49, ’53, some of the greatest Bordeaux vintages ever. Then you go to Napa on your honeymoon. Was that decision made because you were in love with wine?
No, not really. I came from New York — so I didn’t need to go back to New York for my honeymoon. I spoke to my wife and asked where she wanted to go, and I’m sure she said California. I had never been there, so that sounded great. When Bob Mondavi found out — I think he might have even been at the wedding, and I guess my father-in-law told him we were going to be in California — he said we had to go spend some time with me.
So on our honeymoon, I’d get up at 6:00 in the morning and go with him and Peter [Mondavi] and we would taste wines. Of course, you spend time with Bob, he makes you fall in love with quality. He was doing Charles Krug at the time.
What was Napa Valley like back in the ‘60s? Read the rest of this entry »