Out of the Bottle : BLOOD AND WINE: The Unauthorized Story of the Gallo Wine Empire<i> By Ellen Hawkes (Simon & Schuster: $25; 464 pp.) </i>
Back in the 1960s, a couple of college students could make themselves a pretty decent dinner for about a buck-and-a-half--49 cents for a pound of ground beef or a package of chicken thighs, 49 cents for some lettuce or potatoes and 49 cents for a screw-top bottle of good old E. & J. Gallo Hearty Burgundy. It was the wine that made the meal, of course. Maybe you couldn’t afford to dine out at Maison Gerard that quarter, and maybe you weren’t going to hitchhike across France in June; but, by God, you were drinking vino with your victuals.
The fact that it wasn’t great wine didn’t matter. It was pleasantly full-bodied and contained about the right amount of alcohol, and the price was right. You could make all the jokes you wanted to about Gallo’s other wines--Red Mountain or Boone’s Farm, say--but, for that 49-cent bottle of drinkable plonk, you had to love those guys.
The E. & J. Gallo Winery of Modesto, California, is a phenomenon, not just of the wine trade but of American capitalism. Founded in 1933 (in its present form, at least; this is a matter of some dispute) by the sons of an Italian immigrant, and still a family-owned business, Gallo has grown into the largest wine-producing entity in the world. Outselling its next three competitors combined, it utilizes roughly half of the total annual California grape harvest, and pours an estimated $800 or $900 million worth of wine a year (the winery does not release sales or production figures) into the marketplace, under such labels as Thunderbird, Night Train Express, Ripple, Boone’s Farm, Carlo Rossi (as Red Mountain is now known), Tott’s, Andre and Bartles & Jaymes, as well as E. & J. Gallo itself. Gallo owns its own glass factory, its own trucking fleet, a 25-acre warehouse, a 265-million-gallon tank farm and--according to this book, anyway--about 17,000 acres of land under various family and corporate titles. It has also, through both its production methods and its sales and marketing techniques, revolutionized the American wine business.
There’s a dark side to the Gallo story, though. Rumors about the family have been common in wine circles for years--tales of a bootlegging uncle, of suicides and a probable murder, of troubled offspring a few grapes short of a bunch. Then there were the professional dirty tricks: Gallo’s sales staff, went the gossip, used to hide competitors’ bottles on retail shelves, puncture their caps so they’d spoil, and give away their “wino wines” to poor, alcoholic, urban blacks, to create “brand loyalty.” Ernest Gallo himself, meanwhile, was said to be an egomaniac who compared his family to the Kennedys, and who once claimed that his wine was better than Chateau Lafite, on the grounds that “It’s more sanitary!”
Ellen Hawkes, the author of “Feminism on Trial,” doesn’t mention the Lafite story in “Blood and Wine,” but she documents the deaths and places them in context, and at the very least lends credence to the other tales, and tells many more besides.
Behind its melodramatic title and garish dust jacket, this is a serious study, impressively researched and almost excessively detailed, of what can only be called (though not without irony) a great American family. Unfortunately, the protagonists of the tale, Ernest and Julio themselves, and particularly the former, often sound more like soap opera villains than the heroes of some great dynastic saga. Take their relations with the third Gallo brother, Joe Jr. The youngest of the three, Joe was not only their father’s namesake but also his favorite. As such, he escaped the hard physical farm work that Ernest and Julio were forced to do as boys, and they may well have resented him for that. They certainly never let him join the club. Though he was employed by their fledgling winery for a time, and later became a contract grape grower for them, Joe remained an outsider to the family business. According to Hawkes, Ernest and Julio kept Joe in his place, telling him what to do, invoking “family” if he questioned them--and repeatedly turning aside his requests to be taken into the firm. When Joe built up a business as a cattle rancher and then started making cheese under the Joseph Gallo label, Ernest and Julio sued him--claiming trademark infringement but also denouncing the cheese as an inferior product that could damage the winery’s reputation.
The Gallos had previously sued other users of the Gallo name, including Gallo Salame--which settled out of court by agreeing to sell its brand name to the Gallos and then lease back the right to use it--and, rather risibly, the ancient organization of Chianti Classico growers called the Consorzio del Gallo Nero. They also successfully forced a tiny winery in Italy’s Veneto region, Gallo Stelio--which had exported an estimated 150 cases of wine a year to the U.S.--to change its name. Hawkes suggests that Ernest Gallo might have been even more concerned than usual about the Joseph Gallo label, though, because he has both a son and a grandson named Joseph, either or both of whom might one day wish to market a Joseph Gallo product of his own.
In response to their suit against him, Joe filed a countersuit against his brothers, claiming a one-third interest in the winery. “Blood and Wine” is built around these lawsuits; even much of the historical material about both family and winery is drawn from court documents and testimony at these trials, and at earlier court actions which were newly examined in their preparation.
Joe lost both cases; Hawkes seems to vindicate him.
The book’s obvious flaw is that, though Hawkes interviewed Joe and his family extensively, neither Ernest nor Julio would speak to her, beyond a brief courthouse conversation she had with the latter during Joe’s trial. (Ernest is reportedly writing a book of his own about his family and winery.) On the other hand, she quotes extensively from newspaper files and interviews with peripheral family members and with winery employees and associates both past and present, and she provides some 53 pages of notes. That many of her sources requested anonymity is unfortunate--but, under the circumstances, perhaps understandable.
Obvious questions of interpretation aside, an occasional minor factual error does sneak into the book. For instance, the Carignane grape, planted by Joe Sr. in the 1920s, isn’t “a hybrid varietal developed from the Carnelian grape.” Carignane is an ancestor of Carnelian, not the other way around. And Carnelian, developed only in 1973, is not a hybrid but a cross (there’s an important difference) between Carignane, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache.
Whatever Joe Sr. may have planted, though, it is Ernest and Julio sons who cultivated and nourished the immensely profitable mass market for California wine. They virtually created an industry, and have held it to, comparatively speaking, high standards of product quality. The Gallo brothers’ ultimate tragedy, though, may be that success isn’t enough. Apparently, they want a kind of respectability that sizzling sales figures can’t provide. Stars of their own soap opera, they now want to play Hamlet. Producers of alcoholic soda pop and good mass-market wines, now they itch to be taken seriously as vignerons, to make (as they announced not long ago) a $30 Chardonnay and a $60 Cabernet Sauvignon.
The irony, as Hawkes points out, is that no matter how fine a wine they might produce or what price they might attach to it, anything Ernest and Julio make will remain, for better or worse, a Gallo product. That is, it will remain inexorably linked, by both blood and wine, to Thunderbird and Hearty Burgundy, to Skid Row highs and student dinners. And Ernest Gallo can’t take that one to court.