Ernest Gallo

Ernest Gallo had the reputation of being the toughest client in the agency business.  Riney once said that in a meeting once, after Ernest had rejected the work, Riney looked up and began to say, ‘You.  Stupid.  (pause) BILLIONAIRE.’

I had worked with Gallo before I had worked with him and Riney.  Ernest had seen a commercial I had shot and liked the look and requested that I direct a spot for a commercial he was doing with, I believe, Wells, Rich, Greene.  The spot had been cast already and I think the agency thought I was just a ‘shooter.’  We had to have a pre-pro in Modesto and we flew up there and the agency rented a tiny subcompact for the several hour drive to Modesto from SFO. We got to know each other well being squeezed together.

The agency asked me to ‘sell’ the cast to Ernest.  I had never worked with them before, but they were a bunch of smug New Yorkers, out of place on the West Coast.  At the meeting, we presented the cast and Ernest and his son, David, disliked the actor cast as the father (as I did).  Ernest looked at me, asking what I thought.  I replied that it didn’t matter what I thought, if he didn’t like the guy, we should cast until we found someone he liked.  End of meeting.

The agency said nothing on the way back to the airport, except for a few snide remarks about Gallo.

Soon after that, I found myself filming presentation commercials for Riney in Napa Valley.  It was spring and we all suffered from hay fever from the pollen and the crop sprays.  I asked Hal why he was actually filming something rather than presenting the stuff in script and storyboard form.  Hal said that Ernest wouldn’t understand the subtle emotions of the scripts in those forms.  He had to see it.

It worked.  Hal got the account and started a lengthy (for Gallo) relationship. I used to laugh at Hal’s tagline for Gallo, “All the Best.”  What client could argue with that?

Hal had a wonderful relationship with Ernest for a while, up through the Bartles & Jaymes stuff, then everything went sour.  We used to have a great time on the Bartles & Jaymes shoots.  We shot over weekends and it was like a family picnic a lot of the time, until one Saturday where Hal was in a foul mood.

‘What’s wrong?’

Hal looks over at a new client type strutting around in his penny loafers, no socks, cavalry twills, and chambray shirt.



‘That has just trashed several scripts, commenting that Frank wouldn’t say that.’

Hal had invented the characters and by this time we may have filmed a hundred commercials with these two characters and Hal knew everything there would be to know about them.

Ernest always hired a bunch of business school types and I never heard of him ever listening to them. Ernest knew what he wanted and he made every decision.  Ernest’s minions were all against the two Bartels & Jaymes characters and wanted to do lifestyle spots.  Ernest overrode them and a bit of ad history was made.

There are a great many gossipy stories out there why Hal resigned the account. Most are petty. Hal told me that Ernest had become impossible and demanded that Hal get to Modesto several times a week.  It became impossible for Hal to properly run his office or pursue new business.  Hal also said that he had started to drink again on these endless limo rides.  Goodbye Ernest.

In the following years I did various Gallo commercials with Mike Koelker, Wieden & Kennedy, Bill Heater, and the infamous Kubrick/Butterfly commercial.  Many of these were terrific but none ever made the Gallo cut.  Riney and Ernest had a Biblical relationship, almost like Noah and Ham, Abraham and Ishmael, others.

Ironically, Riney eventually replaced the lost revenues with the Saturn car account.  Even though Riney received kudos for much of that advertising, it never rose to the standards of Bartles & Jaymes and has to be regarded as a disaster, greater than that of the Edsel.

Ernest suffered the loss of his son and his brother.  I lost touch but always wondered what he was looking for.

In a way, Ernest reminded me of Guy Grand of Terry Southern’s hysterical, THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN.  Grand, a billionaire, tested people constantly.  He had a city block surrounded by a wall, then filled the lot with a mix of fecal matter and money and loved watching people humiliate themselves groveling for the money.  As I remember, there was always a line of agencies at Ernest’s door.