What’s the word? How’s it sold? Good and cold. What’s the jive? Bird’s alive. What’s the price?
Thirty twice. —1957 radio jingle Maverick, Silver Satin, Triple Jack: may you rest in peace. Hai Tori, Cherokee, Super Chief: we honor your memo ry. Of all the vividly-named screw-cap wines (or bum wines, if you prefer) that were born in the 1950s, only a handful survive to this day. The mightiest of them all, indeed, “The American Classic” as its label proudly boasts, is Thunderbird, a creation of the E & J Gallo Winery of Modesto, California.
Gallo today is the second-largest wine producer in the world and dominates the California wine market. According to Fortune magazine, a quarter of all wine sales in the U.S. Are Gallo products.
But it was Thunderbird that put Gallo on the map and paved the road to empire. The Gallo operation started out as a mom-and-pop outfit, quite literally. Joseph Gallo Sr. And his wife, both Italian immigrants, founded a grape farm in 1906, which seemed to prosper until 1933 when Joseph shot his wife to death then killed himself. Exactly why may never be known, and the Gallo family has had little to say about it in the years since. The farm passed to their two elder sons, Ernest and Julio. (A third son, Joseph Jr., was excluded from ownership, resulting in a nasty lawsuit years later).
With Prohibition over, the brothers converted the farm to a winery. Gom Player Full Version. Ernest proved to be a shrewd businessman, and Julio showed a flair for designing wines. The winery grew and prospered. Still, by the 1950s, they were just one of many California winemakers in the marketplace, profitable enough but of no particular note. But in 1954, the game changed entirely. In that year, according to Thomas Pinney’s “History of Wine in America,” federal law regulating the definition of wine was relaxed, allowing vintners to add “natural” flavors to their wine.
This change revolutionized the wine industry. Coincidentally, it was at about this time that two of Ernest Gallo’s sales managers brought him some interesting information. Their salesmen observed that in inner-city neighborhoods, white port wine was a big seller, and store owners were in the habit of positioning bottles of lemon juice and packets of lemon Kool-Aid next to the wine. Customers added the lemon juice or powder to the wine to get the flavor they desired. You can almost see the light bulb popping over Ernest Gallo’s head. He ordered Julio’s team of winemakers to concoct a lemon-flavored wine ASAP.
They did so, and Ernest took the new product out into the field, to inner-city bars in African-American neighborhoods, offering free samples. The locals, though suspicious of these well-dressed white guys offering free drinks, claimed to like the product. Ernest also invited the citizens of Modesto to the winery for free samples in exchange for feedback. A few unfortunate incidents involving vehicular damage to the grounds and fisticuffs convinced Ernest to limit the taste-testings to bars far away from winery property. At last, with enough customer input, the Gallo brothers hit on the mixture they were sure would become a big seller. All they lacked was a name. It was a Gallo sales manager named Albion Fenderson, an amateur scholar of Native-American folklore, who hit on the perfect name: Thunderbird.
“That’s it!” Ernest reportedly cried out when he heard it. The name had everything he wanted. It was uniquely American. It projected strength and power. And, last but not least, it was exactly the same as Ford’s hot new sports car introduced in 1955. Gallo spent lavishly on a media blitz announcing the rollout of Thunderbird.
Actor Cesar Romero, famous as The Cisco Kid (and later as The Joker on TV’s “Batman”), pitched Thunderbird in television commercials. The ads were filmed at the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas. Best Wireless Network Watcher more.
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Thunderbird, the ad implied, was the drink that movie stars and high-rollers asked for. The radio spots, featuring the now-famous “What’s the word?” jingle, played in every major market in the country. For live promotions, a girl in a skimpy Indian outfit, billed as “Princess Thunderbird,” schmoozed with retailers and handed out free drinks. Gallo didn’t neglect any potential market niche, including the homeless who were not likely to be reached by television, radio or Princess Thunderbird.
According to Ellen Hawkes, author of “Blood and Wine: The Unauthorized Story of the Gallo Wine Empire,” Gallo salesmen deposited Thunderbird empties in the streets of skid-row neighborhoods, to build brand awareness among the wino population. It all paid off. Gallo salesmen reported that they knew Thunderbird was a hit when it quickly acquired the street nicknames of “Pluck” and “Chicken.” Illiterate street people peeled the labels off empties to show retailers what they wanted to buy. Ernest Gallo told and re-told a story about driving through Atlanta and spotting a man drinking on the sidewalk. “What’s the word?” Gallo called out.
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