Remembering Tony Terlato

The industry legend helped build the modern wine business.

(Photo by Shannon Sturgis)

Anthony “Tony” Terlato, who devoted his life to bringing great wines to American consumers as a retailer, distributor, importer, and winery owner, died on June 29. He was 86. “My brother John and I learned everything we know from our father; he taught us so much,” said Terlato Wine Group president and CEO Bill Terlato. “We were fortunate to have him for 86 years. We only wish it could have been more.”

As founder and chairman of Terlato Wine Group—a Chicago-based importer that markets top producers including Gaja, M. Chapoutier, Piper-Heidsieck, and Nino Franco—Terlato spent decades introducing Americans to high-quality wines, particularly Italian wines, and almost single-handedly put Pinot Grigio on the map.

In the 1990s, Terlato’s company became a wine producer as well, purchasing California wineries such as Rutherford Hill, Chimney Rock, and Sanford, establishing brands like The Federalist and Seven Daughters, and partnering with Michel Chapoutier on wineries in France and Australia. In 2004, Terlato was awarded Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award for his philanthropy and the incredible mark he made on wine.

“Tony Terlato did so much for the wine world,” said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Market Watch. “He knew every aspect of the business, and everything he touched he made better. Tony and I met more than 40 years ago and he, and his family, became important people in my life. He led by example and will be greatly missed.”

Terlato was always working hard and striving to innovate. He was passionate about food and wine, often cooking for clients, and practiced great philanthropy, serving on the board of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. Terlato was also a family man who passed increasing responsibility to his children and grandchildren in recent years.

Discussing the philosophy that drives him and his company in a 2004 interview with Wine Spectator, Terlato said, “There’s no glut of Gaja. There’s no glut of wines like Pétrus or Mouton[-Rothschild], no glut of Roederer Cristal. No matter what you’re doing, if you’re not making decisions for quality reasons, you’re going backward. Quality is the only thing that endures.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Terlato was 21 when his family moved to Chicago in 1955 and his father Salvatore opened a wine and spirits store. Wines like Bolla, Lancers, Blue Nun, and Mateus dominated the industry in the U.S., but Terlato’s interests lay elsewhere: the quality wines of Bordeaux his father stocked from leading châteaux.

In 1956, Terlato married JoJo Paterno, and within a few years he joined his father-in-law’s business, a large Chicago bottling company that handled bulk California wine, selling it regionally. But that business was fading, and Terlato saw that the company’s future was in wine wholesale. From the beginning, Terlato was an innovator. In those days, Chicago restaurant wine lists were mostly limited to four or five wines from the same producer, printed on the back of the menu. “If you were willing to pay for the cost of printing the food menu, you could get your wines on the back,” said Terlato. He began supplying restaurants with leather-bound lists and didn’t require that all the wines come through his distributorship. Restaurants embraced the new lists and stocked plenty of Terlato’s wines.

By the early 1960s, Terlato’s company was doing business with industry pioneers such as Alexis Lichine in Bordeaux and importer Frank Schoonmaker, who specialized in Burgundy and Germany. Terlato traveled to Italy extensively, looking for quality wines at a time when Italian wine meant “cheap” to most Americans. In 1979, he was eating alone at a restaurant in Portogruaro in the Alto Adige region of Italy. Charmed by the local white, Pinot Grigio, he ordered all 18 bottles on the restaurant’s list. One wine—Santa Margherita—stood out. Terlato visited the winery and signed a deal to import the wine. Neither the producer nor the grape were well-known in the U.S. at the time. By the time the two companies parted ways in 2016, Terlato was selling more than 600,000 cases of Santa Margherita in the U.S. each year.

In 2002, Terlato sold the distribution division of the company to focus on marketing, importing, and production. Today, his company owns seven wineries in California and is a partner in four wineries in Australia, Italy, France, and the U.S. Terlato’s ambition was rooted in his optimism. “We’re only on the threshold of people enjoying wine,” Terlato said back in 2004. “I look back and think this is where I was in 1955 and this is where we were in 1967 and now today.”