Ill Will, Cheap Wine, Nasty Lawsuits! It’s the Gallo book review!

Blood and Wine: the Unauthorized Story of the Gallo Wine Empire
By Ellen Hawkes, Simon and Schuster 1993
This is not fiction. But a lot of it does claim to be fact. Who can tell? The witnesses forgot a lot of info‚– especially in court.
Getting through this book was a labor, and not of love. More like picking grapes in the Central Valley late summer. The writing style is journalism at its most dry. Dates, places, people. Just the facts. But it is the facts that kept me grinding away. Once the author gets to The Feud (chapter 11) the facts become essential to telling exactly who is getting shafted in which ways by whom.
I forgot how much I already knew about Gallo, including how, like every decent UC undergraduate of the ‚’70s, I reviled the company and their products (they did not move into making fine wine as we know and review them until the 80s). We sneered at the Gallo name. We supported the boycott of Gallo wines in support of Cesar Chavez’ farmworkers union. We drank Boones Farm Apple wine at parties not realizing this was one of Gallo’s extended line of products that included Thunderbird (#1 cash cow), Night Train, Carlo Rossi wines, Ripple, Andrè, Cold Duck, Eden Roc and Bartle & James along with a list of so many other silly blends. Ernest and Julio had the last laugh profiting enormously ($2.8B) from the so-called “misery market”.
For my protesting, hypocitical part it was easy to miss the Gallo name on the label of these “street wine products” since Gallo removed their name in the early 70s when marketing surveys they contracted for revealed the public generally regarded their products as pond scum (seems apropos to bring out the best of the old 70s and 80s capitalist slurs).
The “modern” history Ernest_and_Julio_Gallo_lg.jpgof Gallo — as in 1960s through the 1990s — acts as a focal point for the history of those “turbulent times”. Gallo men served in the military. One died in Nam. Ernest Gallo, the maniacal genius who drove the company to become the nation’s #1 wine producer (millions upon millions of gallons annually of SUB-PLONK dreck), defeated Cesar Chavez in an extended court battle fought by legions of attorneys. In the process the Gallo label became even more strongly characterized as a rapacious corporation without heart or sympathy, willing to do anything to make billions. When Ernest died in March of 2007 he was among the 400 richest Americans.
The book has several narrative branches. Two captured my attention. The origins of the Gallo family and label, and the 1980s reckoning which, IMHO, seemed an inevitable reckoning given the earliest family history replete with betrayal upon betrayal including a mysterious murder-suicide. This karmic cauldron could only bring on the agony played out in the crippling lawsuit pitting brother (Joe the baby) against brothers (E&J). The Ernest and Julio history claimed they inherited the winery from Papa growing it into a corporate juggernaut from nothing. Nice story but Hawkes lays on the under-oath testimony from a stack of lawsuits started by Ernest. The “truth” is a story of greed, revenge and ruthlessness without bounds. E&J marginalized baby brother Joe over the course of 40 years until finally attempting to destroy Joe, his business and his family. Joe drew the line, assembled his own attorney brigade and went to war.
The second story line is the lawsuit Joe Gallo brought against his brothers in the mid 80s in retaliation for the suit the brothers brought against his cheese farm he dared to name Joseph Gallo Cheese. The courtroom drama and the preliminaries play out in blessedly rapid narration. The author crisply describes how Joe and his NoCal attorney team got beat by Ernest’s SoCal lawyers. Their secret ingredient was considerable local legal networking that stacked the deck against Joe. If you like lawsuits this is a primer on how even the best cases on paper can go wrong if the “connective tissue” is stronger for the other side.
Among the more interesting “facts” I took from the book:
1. The three tier system that places the broker between the producer and retailer originates with Prohibition.
2. Ernest’s and Julio’s parents died mysteriously in a murder-suicide after Ernest repeatedly failed to convince Papa to let him in the business.
3. The Gallos made and marketed wine like it was soda pop with a 20% kick, a commodity to be made in bulk, without any threat of contamination. Their facilities were state of the art then and now, but their products were bottom of the barrel.
4. They made their fortune selling the worst fortified wine products in the most vulnerable neighborhoods, twisting cold-hearted ghetto exploitation into the “old country”. They were no different than the other gargantuan scale California wineries, e.g., Italian Swiss Colony.
5. You can assume that all California winemakers broke the law during Prohibition; some more than others and Uncle Mike Gallo was one of the biggest and baddest, including time served in San Quentin.
6. Joe lost.
7. Ernest always won.
Among the less interesting “facts” that others might enjoy, I would include:
1. Ernest was a ruthless marketer who, along with a couple trusted executives, wrote the book on how to take over retail sales including moving competitors’ products to the shelf bottom and breaking the screw tops so the other guys’ wines went bad.
2. The various marriages, Moms, grandkids and ill will in the large and extensive Gallo family are
3. The contentious relationship between Ernest and Julio, where Ernest is the bad cop and Julio the good one, is supposed to tell the reader something about the men. I missed it.
A worthwhile read if you want to know wine industry history in California. Before there was Napa there was Modesto, Fresno, Lodi. French Colombard and Thompson formed the basis of many wines. Along with pear and apple juice, too! That is correct sir. The inclusion of pear and apple juice in wine were among the best secrets of the Gallo formula. Here is the book they had written to counter the book I am reviewing. How Ernest!
Molto bene!
I found this NY Times link to an obit on Ernest Gallo if you want to read a little more. Notice how much attention little brother Joe gets! Ernest makes the rules all the way to the end.

1 Comment

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    Dionysus says:

    It always produces a double take when I see two people linked by something other than a cause of death who die within two weeks of each other. While Ernest passed away in March, it was actually an encore to Joseph’s passing one month prior.

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