What’s the word? Thunderbird!How’s the sold? an excellent and cold.

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What’s the jive? Bird’s alive. What’s the price? Thirty twice.—1957 radio jingle


Maverick, silver- Satin, Triple Jack: might you remainder in peace. Hai Tori, Cherokee, at sight Chief: us honor her memory.

Of every the vividly-named screw-cap wines (or bum wines, if girlfriend prefer) that were born in the 1950s, only a handful make it through to this day. The mightiest of them all, indeed, “The American Classic” as its label proudly boasts, is Thunderbird, a development of the E & J Gallo Winery that Modesto, California.

Gallo now is the second-largest alcohol producer in the world and dominates the California wine market. According to Fortune magazine, a quarter of all wine sales in the U.S. Room Gallo products. Yet it to be Thunderbird that put Gallo on the map and also paved the roadway to empire.

The Gallo operation started out as a mom-and-pop outfit, quite literally. Joseph Gallo Sr. And also his wife, both Italian immigrants, started a grape farm in 1906, which appeared to prosper till 1933 when Joseph shot his mam to death then eliminated himself. Precisely why might never be known, and also the Gallo household has had tiny to say around it in the years since.

The farm passed come their 2 elder sons, Ernest and also Julio. (A third son, Joseph Jr., to be excluded native ownership, leading to a nasty lawsuit year later). V Prohibition over, the brothers converted the farm yard to a winery. Ernest proved to it is in a shrewd businessman, and also Julio verified a flair for creating wines. The winery grew and also prospered. Still, through the 1950s, lock were simply one of countless California winemakers in the marketplace, lucrative enough however of no details note.

But in 1954, the game changed entirely. In the year, according to cutting board Pinney’s “History of alcohol in America,” federal legislation regulating the meaning of wine was relaxed, permitting vintners to add “natural” spices to your wine. This change revolutionized the wine industry.

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Coincidentally, it was at about this time that 2 of Ernest Gallo’s sales managers carried him some interesting information. Your salesmen observed the in inner-city neighborhoods, white port wine was a huge seller, and store owners were in the habit of positioning bottles of lemon juice and packets the lemon Kool-Aid alongside the wine. Customers included the lemon juice or powder to the alcohol to acquire the flavor they desired.

You can nearly see the light pear popping over Ernest Gallo’s head.

He bespeak Julio’s team of winemakers come concoct a lemon-flavored alcohol ASAP. They go so, and also Ernest take it the brand-new product out into the field, to inner-city bars in African-American neighborhoods, offering complimentary samples. The locals, though suspicious of these well-dressed white guys offering free drinks, declared to favor the product. Ernest additionally invited the citizens of Modesto to the winery for complimentary samples in exchange for feedback. A couple of unfortunate incidents involving vehicular damages to the grounds and fisticuffs convinced Ernest to border the taste-testings to bars far away from winery property.

At last, with sufficient customer input, the Gallo brothers hit on the mixture lock were certain would end up being a huge seller. Every they lacked to be a name. It to be a Gallo sales manager named Albion Fenderson, one amateur scholar that Native-American folklore, that hit on the perfect name: Thunderbird.

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“That’s it!” Ernest reportedly cried out once he heard it. The surname had every little thing he wanted. It to be uniquely American. That projected strength and power. And, last however not least, the was precisely the exact same as Ford’s hot brand-new sports automobile introduced in 1955.

Gallo spent lavishly on a media blitz announcing the rollout that Thunderbird. Actor Cesar Romero, famous as The Cisco child (and later on as The Joker on TV’s “Batman”), pitched Thunderbird in television commercials. The ads were filmed at the Thunderbird Hotel in ras Vegas. Thunderbird, the ad implied, was the drink the movie stars and high-rollers asked for.

The radio spots, special the now-famous “What’s the word?” jingle, play in every significant market in the country. Because that live promotions, a girl in a skimpy Indian outfit, billed together “Princess Thunderbird,” schmoozed with retailers and also handed out totally free drinks.

Gallo didn’t neglect any type of potential sector niche, consisting of the homeless that were not likely to be got to by television, radio or Princess Thunderbird. According to Ellen Hawkes, writer of “Blood and Wine: The unauthorized Story the the Gallo wine Empire,” Gallo salesmen deposited Thunderbird empties in the roadways of skid-row neighborhoods, to develop brand awareness among the wino population.

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It every paid off. Gallo salesmen reported the they knew Thunderbird was a hit as soon as it conveniently acquired the street nicknames that “Pluck” and “Chicken.” Illiterate street people peeled the labels turn off empties to display retailers what they wanted to buy. Ernest Gallo told and also re-told a story around driving with Atlanta and spotting a male drinking ~ above the sidewalk. “What’s the word?” Gallo dubbed out. The solution was instantaneous: “Thunderbird!” and also both the wino and the millionaire dissolved into laughter.

By the end of 1957, Gallo’s production level to be ratcheted as much as 32 million gallons annually. Within a year, nearly overnight in market terms, the winery had joined the ranks of the biggest vintners in California.

Gallo’s rivals were compelled to respond to the Thunderbird phenomenon. They submarine the sector with colorfully-named, screw-cap flavored wines: Tom-Tom, Red Rooster, and also Swiss Mist, to name a few. However none the them, as Ernest proudly boasted, “Ever dented Thunderbird’s success.”

Carbonated wines showed up at about the exact same time as strengthened flavored wines, many thanks to the same alters in commonwealth law. When again Gallo led the way, with a product referred to as Ripple, the alcohol so beloved by Fred Sanford. In 1961, Gallo introduced Boone’s Farm, which eventually replaced Ripple and became, for a time, the best-selling alcohol in the U.S.

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And yet, in the midst of every this success, the Gallo brothers to be not completely happy with the company’s direction. Its success was built practically entirely ~ above Thunderbird, through an help from the carbonated “soda-pop” wines; the traditional table wines castle had always produced were nearly ignored through the public. The Gallo name, castle feared, was becoming synonymous through cheap, low-class street liquor.

Thunderbird, it was decided, necessary to it is in made respectable. To that end, identified British gibbs James Mason was hired to perform a TV point out pitching Thunderbird. First airing in 1964, the advertisement has become quasi-legendary, a precursor come Orson Welles’ self-degradation for Paul Masson. “I choose the unusual flavor the Thunderbird wine,” Mason insists together he pours self a glass native a bottle displayed on a silver- tray. “Thunderbird has an unusual flavor every its own, no quite prefer anything I’ve ever before tasted.” Mason wrote the manuscript himself, a problem he to be granted due to the fact that his compensation (a just $10,000) was so meager.

Not surprisingly, this misguided effort at respectability failed. Thereafter, Gallo disassociated itself from Thunderbird by merely removing the Gallo surname from the Thunderbird label.

Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, Thunderbird was disowned and abandoned by its creator and also left to operation amok on its own. Gallo turn its attention to the sector for much more respectable table wines, and also in 1971 produced Gallo Pink Chablis, which came to be America’s favourite table wine for a while in the 70s. In 1972, the Gallo brothers to be pictured top top the sheathe of Time magazine. Yet the monster rampaged on, racking up the sales the helped money the farming Gallo empire.

Then, suddenly, the monster was laid low.

In hindsight, it was a phenomenon very similar to the tide that lifted Thunderbird (and the Gallo Winery) come its biggest heights that would drive the once-popular monster into the cobwebbed corners of fortress-like inner-city liquor stores, unlikely to ever before re-emerge.

The 1980s had dawned, and the 80s to be the te of the alcohol cooler.

It was a time of health and wellness fads (bread bowls, frozen yogurt, the Beverly Hills Diet) and also a decade-long fitness eight that experienced the likes of mrs Fonda and also Richard Simmons turn right into workout-video superstars. Sales of all alcoholic beverages decreased nationally, throughout the board. The market struggled to develop brand-new “light” drinks that would entice the health and fitness conscious to imbibe again.

Enter the “California Cooler,” a low-calorie wine punch, not much different from sangria, conjured increase by two California entrepreneurs. Sales were phenomenal and also soon everybody leapt into the brand-new wine cooler market. Through 1985, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune, at least 125 different brands of wine cooler to be available.

Gallo gotten in the industry with Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, right distinguishable from their competitors however backed by an additional clever heralding campaign. Television ads featured the fictional personalities “Frank Bartles” and also “Ed Jaymes,” 2 kindly old men so honest and down-to-earth they finished each point out by thanking viewers “for your support.”

The ads to be a substantial success. Soon Bartles & Jaymes was outselling Seagram’s golden Wine Cooler (pitched on TV through Bruce Willis) and also California Cooler itself, racing to the top spot the a really crowded field. Gallo arised bigger and also stronger than ever. And also Thunderbird was forgotten. The heyday the the screw-cap fortified wines was over, put to remainder by their lighter, hipper offspring.

Then, in the 1990s, Thunderbird’s image, such as it was, took one more grievous hit. In 1991, notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the “cannibal killer,” was apprehended. In the media circus the followed, People magazine and also a variety of tabloids derived some old picture of Dahmer. The most renowned showed the passed out, completely clothed, v a bottle of Thunderbird crib in his arm, the label clearly visible.

By 2003, according to an post in the Los Angeles Times, Gallo was selling just 300,000 instances of Thunderbird a year, one-tenth the what it sold in the barren industries of the 1990s. It is no much longer advertised, existing as a “call item,” sold just to the grasp of retailers who specifically ask for it.

In 2014, Thunderbird quiet lingers on—you can buy it virtual if girlfriend don’t great to undertaking into the type of locations it’s sold over the counter—but the Thunderbird of today is not the same as the original. Julio Gallo long earlier admitted in a deposition the Thunderbird, initially made native white grapes, is currently made with pear or to apologize juice. The alcohol content is likewise lower now, 17.5 percent contrasted to 21 percent once it debuted.

Then again, the Thunderbird legend was never primarily around flavor. The was around providing drinkers cheap booze through a kick. The was around using clever marketing to convince civilization it to be somehow much better than the cheap booze the other male was selling.

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So does that qualify together an “American Classic,” as its brand insists? there is no a doubt. For all its faults and faded glory, throughout its heyday Thunderbird to be a true trailblazer and also a gaue won powerhouse that played a crucial role in structure what is America’s biggest-selling winery. In the annals the hoochology and 20th-century popular music culture, this good American standard will constantly have a special place.