The names of Ernest and Julio Gallo, owners of the world's largest winery and producers of the best-selling wines in the United States, have appeared for decades on the bottles produced by their E. & J. Gallo Winery. Little else is known about the publicity-shy brothers; the two have been able to escape personal attention for most of their lives.
But even less is known about the third Gallo--younger brother, Joseph E. Gallo Jr.--although his name also has appeared on products he makes.
Now, however, Joseph Gallo and his two brothers face the kind of public scrutiny that they have so diligently sought to avoid. A legal dispute over the use of the name "Joseph Gallo" on cheeses has escalated into a family conflict involving hundreds of millions of dollars, furnishing press and public with a drama that is hardly as steamy as television's "Falcon Crest" but with characters, despite their indrawn manner, nearly as contentious.
Still Wants Privacy
The intensity of the dispute recalls the upheaval early this year within another, if much more visible, family enterprise--Sonoma County's Sebastiani Vineyards. In that episode, the Sebastiani matriarch, Sylvia, abruptly replaced her elder son, Sam, as head of the business with his brother, Don, a Republican assemblyman.
Despite the bitter lawsuit pitting Joseph Gallo against his decade-older brothers--who served as his legal guardians after the death of their parents when he was 13--Joseph, now 66, is determined to retain as much privacy as possible. He agreed only reluctantly to receive a visitor last week to the century-old landmark farmhouse here that serves as headquarters of Gallo Cattle Co., a partnership he directs with his 35-year-old son, Michael.
Seated behind his desk in a spacious, second-floor office, in which nothing challenges the view of surrounding farmland, Joseph Gallo quietly but firmly declined to allow his comments, however mundane, to be quoted directly. Attentive and unfailingly polite, but seemingly perplexed at the public interest in his business, he nonetheless agreed to sketch, in general terms, the agricultural enterprise he has built in Merced County since 1955.
Like his wine-making brothers, he would volunteer no family or business commentary.
But as the Gallo brothers fight, with Ernest and Julio charging that Joseph's use of "Joseph Gallo" on his cheese violates the winery's Gallo trademark, some details about both the family and the business are inevitably emerging.
Court records reveal, for example, the extraordinary degree of trust that the younger brother had placed in his brothers and one-time guardians. On entering the Army Air Corps in World War II, Joseph Gallo gave his brothers power of attorney to act in his behalf. He rescinded that authorization only last month as a result of legal research prompted by the litigation.
On Joseph Gallo's discharge from the Army in 1946, he took over management of E. & J. Gallo Vineyards while accumulating holdings of his own, which now cover an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 acres of Merced County. In 1955, he struck out entirely on his own, establishing the Joseph Gallo Vineyards and the Gallo Cattle Co. as limited partnerships. Michael, who has worked for his father since age 11, now is general partner, raising grapes, hogs, dairy cattle and feed grains, along with general farming and making cheese.
Six years ago, the partners built a dairy behind the headquarters by Bear Creek, a tributary of the San Joaquin River, and began producing bulk cheese. Like many market-oriented producers, the partners soon realized that they needed more control over distribution and sales to increase profits in an era of rising costs and falling prices for farm commodities.
Their answer was to produce cheese for the retail market under the name they had used for years in the vineyard business and the cattle company--Joseph Gallo.
But the brothrs' winery, meanwhile, was seeking to establish a proprietary stake in the name "Gallo." After a year's negotiations between the two businesses failed to persuade Joseph Gallo to cease using his name as a brand on cheese, the winery last April filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit--and in terms that particularly stung the younger brother. The lawsuit portrays Joseph as an unknown cheese maker. And it referred to recent cases of deadly bacterial contamination of cheese before concluding that the Gallo Winery's reputation would be at risk should Joseph Gallo brand cheese face such problems in the future.
"There was nothing that rubbed his nose in it" like those statements, said John Whiting, a Merced attorney associated with Gallo Cattle Co. for more than 20 years. Ironically, he noted, contamination of Italian and Austrian wines--and not cheese--was in the news at the time.
Couldn't Understand Objection