Days Of Wine And Neurosis


Ellen Hawkes

Simon & Schuster x 464pp x $25

Ernest and Julio Gallo, who produce roughly one in four bottles of wine sold in the U.S., have spent hundreds of millions promoting brands such as Bartles & Jaymes, Andr Champagne, and, recently, upscale varietals. But when it comes to public relations, they have long made it clear that they have no interest in giving interviews--or even in helping with simple fact-checking. The Gallos' fortresslike complex in Modesto, Calif., has no identifying sign and offers no tours or public tastings.

Industry insiders generally blame the company's siege mentality on corporate mastermind Ernest Gallo's loathing of most outsiders, as well as his desire to control his family's business and reputation. In addition, a hefty share of Gallo's sales come from cheap "street" wines, such as Thunderbird, whose buyers aren't swayed by glowing mentions in the press.

Now comes Ellen Hawkes's Blood & Wine: The Unauthorized Story of the Gallo Wine Empire. A past that Ernest, 85, tried to bury, even rewrite, has been exhumed in intriguing and malodorous detail. The family history Hawkes traces is laced with larceny, fraud, wife- and child-beating, even murder. That past, in her portrayal, made Ernest a vindictive control-freak who built an empire but whose cant of "family comes first" rings hollow. The company says it considers that portrayal beneath comment.

Hawkes reports that during Prohibition, the Gallos' father, Joseph, was a bootlegger with his brother Mike. The two abused their wives and often ran afoul of the law, she writes. Joe Sr., a heavy drinker, failed at several businesses and ran an illegal still. After he bought vineyards, he worked Ernest and Julio like dogs, beating them regularly. Eventually, the parents died in an apparent murder-suicide.

This hellish history indelibly marked the sons. Ernest vowed early to succeed at all costs, and as an adult, Hawkes writes, he rules by humiliation and fear. He handles business and marketing while Julio, two years younger, has responsibility for the vineyards and wine-making. Hawkes depicts Julio as weak and perpetually cowed by Ernest.

Hawkes delved into all this because of a 1986 suit the two brought against another brother, Joseph Gallo Jr. They wanted him to stop marketing "Joseph Gallo Cheese," which they alleged was of poor quality and a threat to their brand image. Hawkes suggests that Ernest and Julio had long resented Joe, who, because he was a decade younger, had been spared the work and abuse their father had lathered on them.

In preparing Joe Jr.'s defense, his attorneys uncovered documents that convinced them Ernest and Julio had defrauded him of his rightful inheritance of one-third of the winery. Among the most serious charges: that Joe Jr. had never signed--or even seen--a settlement agreement supposedly executed when he was a young man. While Ernest and Julio have long said they inherited just $5,900 and learned wine-making from a pamphlet, Hawkes says documents show they inherited an estate and an operating wine business worth close to $100,000 in 1933.

Ultimately, Joe Jr. lost the trademark suit, and the court decreed there was no basis for his counterclaim. Hawkes's effort to paint this seemingly well-meaning but simple man as a tragic victim fails, but that doesn't derail her book. Blood & Wine's frankly sensational value is its chronicling of a fascinating family enterprise where, as Joe's son Mike puts it: "Wine is thicker than blood."

Certainly this is an unlikely text for would-be wine titans. In Hawkes's telling, a pervasive attitude of "Do anything it takes to accomplish the Gallo goal" was no small part of the winery's success. To launch Thunderbird, a wince-producing blend of wine and lemon juice, market preparation included strewing empties in skid row gutters. And unnamed former employees told Hawkes that they carried spritzers of oil into stores and sprayed rivals' bottles so they would collect dust and look unpopular. They would pierce the tops so air would enter and ruin the wine, even stuff in cigarette butts or mouse feces. But, writes Hawkes: "Whether Ernest knew about these practices is unclear."

If Hawkes's assessment of Ernest's sons is even half right, this dynasty's days may be numbered. She says the elder, David, is eccentric, famous for sliding paper clips under his eyelids and spilling food and drink on himself, while Joey has been publicly ridiculed by his father for years.

The winery has issued an indignant dismissal of Hawkes's "lengthy rehash" of Joe Jr.'s failed claim on the winery and calls her portrait of the Gallo family "so obviously contemptible and despicable as not to merit any comment." But Hawkes bolsters her account with 53 pages of detailed notes on her sources, which include a remarkable number of on-the-record interviews.

One interesting tidbit from the trial: The Gallos can't seem to shake their "street" image. Despite $70 million in promotion, their varietals haven't been successful. After reading this book, you won't feel sorry for them. Hawkes notes that even as the brothers became multimillionaires, their Uncle Mike spent his last years destitute, in a rusted-out trailer. She quotes a Gallo executive who was charged with visiting him regularly and supplying him with cases of wine--in Hawkes's opinion, to keep him quiet and out of sight. After this book, that looks like one insurance policy that backfired.

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