At 80 years old, wine icon Anthony Terlato is more inspired than ever as the patriarch of one of the world's most powerful wine companies.
Anthony Terlato with his sons, John and Bill, and his granddaughter Jo.
Entering Tangley Oaks, the 61-room Tudor Gothic–style home in Lake Bluff that serves as the Terlato Wine Group’s corporate headquarters, one is immediately transported to Europe. A lively group of guests gathers in the ornate parlor, and like the parting of the Red Sea, they make way for a dapper, broadly smiling man who recently turned 80 but appears at least a decade younger. Still at the top of his game, Anthony “Tony” Terlato is the chairman of the family-run Terlato Wine Group and Terlato Wines, and he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
With a global portfolio of more than 60 brands from a host of world-class producers, including Gaja, Chapoutier, and Bollinger, TWG currently markets more than one out of every 10 bottles of wine priced over $14 and sold in America. Its collection has garnered more than 700 90-plus ratings from top wine publications—more than any wine company in the world.
Terlato isn’t one to dwell on past successes, though. He grows animated when discussing the recent initiatives taken by his sons—Bill, TWG’s president and CEO, and John, its vice president—to expand the company’s portfolio with the new spirits division Artisan, featuring brands like the super-premium French vodka Tigre Blanc. “No matter what we do, my only demand is that if we make changes, quality always comes first,” says the senior Terlato. “We want to maintain this standing with this new line of spirits.”
Known as the “Father of Pinot Grigio” for discovering and bringing Santa Margherita to the US 30 years ago, Terlato has worked in every tier of the wine industry since 1955, as retailer, importer, marketer, distributor, winery owner, vineyard owner, and wine producer. His vast portfolio of wines—which also includes Kracher, Il Poggione, and Lapostolle—has been called the world’s greatest wine list. No shabby feat for someone who began his career in the modest surroundings of his father’s liquor store, Leading Liquor Mart, on the city’s North Side, before joining his father-in-law’s wine-bottling firm, Pacific Wine Company.
Terlato points to an old sepia-tinted photograph taken of him at the liquor store. “Look, I remember when wine was 49 cents a bottle, and a top-of-the-line Lafite could be had for under $3.98—now worth upwards of $1,000 a bottle. Wine back then was not at all part of the dining culture. My good friend Robert Mondavi said years ago, ‘One day, there will be a wine bottle on every restaurant table—you’ll see.’ Of course, it turned out to be true.”
After nearly 60 years in the business, Terlato has amassed a wine portfolio that’s been called the world’s greatest.
Terlato’s vision early on was to expand and diversify. What began as a company focused on marketing and distribution evolved into one with investments in vineyards and joint ventures in wine production. In addition to purchasing Rutherford Hill (located in Napa Valley) in 1996, the company owns Chimney Rock (Stags Leap, Napa Valley), is a majority owner of Sanford Winery (Santa Barbara), and has a joint venture with M. Chapoutier in Australia.
Once Terlato began to make his own wines, he felt intense pressure to produce wines as good as those he’d been marketing. He recalls a dinner several years ago with renowned Italian winemaker Angelo Gaja. “After we drank a bottle of his wine, he asked to try a bottle of my wine. This particular varietal was only a few years old, and I said, ‘No, not yet.’ But we did anyway, and Gaja said, ‘Tony, you learned fast!’ That was my greatest compliment.”
In his long career, Terlato has received accolades aplenty. Wine Enthusiast Magazine named him its 2002 Man of the Year, crediting him with “changing the way Americans drink” by bringing quality Italian wines to the US; in April 2006 he received the Horatio Alger Award, which honors the achievements of outstanding Americans and whose past recipients have included Maya Angelou, Bob Hope, and Leonardo DiCaprio; and last year came the award of which he may be proudest: In the San Francisco Chronicle’s annual Wine Competition (the world’s largest contest among American wines, with a field of 5,500 from all over the US), the 2010 Terlato Family Vineyards Pinot Noir won the title “Best of the Show.”
For Terlato, the drive to succeed is simple. “All of this is for my family,” he says. “I want them to possess the same love and passion that I do—that’s the heritage I give to my children.”