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Out of the Bottle : BLOOD AND WINE: The Unauthorized Story of the Gallo Wine Empire By Ellen Hawkes (Simon & Schuster: $25; 464 pp.)

April 11, 1993|Colman Andrews | Andrews is a former wine and spirits columnist for Los Angeles Magazine, and the author of "Everything on the Table: Plain Talk About Food & Wine" (Bantam).

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.

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