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Joseph Gallo, 87; California dairy magnate lost legal fight with his winemaker brothers

February 22, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Joseph Edward Gallo, who built a dairy empire apart from his wine baron brothers despite losing an acrimonious legal battle with them over the right to use the family name on the cheese he produced, has died. He was 87.

Gallo, who had been in declining health for several years after a stroke, died Saturday at his home in the San Joaquin Valley city of Livingston, announced his company, Joseph Gallo Farms. He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for more than a decade, said John Whiting, his lawyer and close friend.

While managing Ernest and Julio Gallo's vineyards in Livingston, southeast of Modesto, for more than 20 years, Joseph accumulated his own holdings. By 1967, he had struck out on his own with a cattle ranch and vineyards. The first of his five dairies in Merced County followed in 1979.

After establishing a cheese-production company in 1982, he began selling the product to consumers under the label Joseph Gallo Cheese.

His older brothers sued him -- claiming trademark infringement -- and denounced the cheese as an inferior product that could damage the winery's reputation. The lawsuit also referred to him as an unknown cheese maker, and the charges infuriated him, Whiting said.

"I have only got one name," Joseph told reporters outside the courtroom in 1988. "I don't know how I'm supposed to look for another one."

The federal judge ruled that using the Gallo name confused consumers, leading them to think that the cheese was connected to the winery. He ordered the name changed on the package. Now sold under the Joseph Farms label, it is the largest-selling retail-brand cheese produced in California, according to the company.

Joseph countersued, arguing that his brothers had used their parents' estate to launch their E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto. He claimed that they owed him a third of the business, which had grown into one of the world's largest wine-making operations.

Dismissing the suit, the hearing judge lamented that the best witness -- the Gallos' late father -- "was out of the reach of the court's process," The Times reported in 1988.

The legal battle drove a permanent wedge between Joseph and the brothers who had raised him since the age of 13 after their parents died in a murder-suicide.

The Gallo family's history was documented in "Blood & Wine," a 1993 book by Ellen Hawkes that comes squarely down on Joseph's side in the legal feuding. She contends that the sibling tensions began soon after Joseph was born Sept. 11, 1919, in the Bay Area city of Antioch.

The youngest brother by almost 10 years, Joseph was not only their father's namesake but also his favorite child, Hawkes says. As such, he escaped the hard physical farm work that Ernest and Julio were forced to do as boys, and they may have resented him for that, she writes.

Their Italian immigrant parents had a stormy relationship that ended in 1933, when the senior Joseph killed his wife, the former Susie Bianco, and then turned the revolver on himself.

Six weeks after their parents died, Ernest and Julio invested $5,700 to form the E. & J. Gallo Winery, according to the 1988 story.

During high school and while attending Modesto Junior College, Joseph worked with his brothers to help establish the winery, according to Joseph Gallo Farms.

He entered the Army Air Forces during World War II, first serving as a gunnery instructor and then in the Philippines and Korea.

Upon returning in 1946, he became ranch manager for his brothers and had three children with his first wife. One son, Peter, was killed in action in the Vietnam War in 1968.

Joseph Gallo Farms traces its beginnings to the late 1940s, when Joseph began acquiring raw land and developing its grape-growing potential. He later expanded to growing other crops and raising cattle. The 4,000 acres of vineyards he amassed made him one of California's largest wine-grape growers, his family said.

In 1995, Successful Farming magazine recognized Joseph Gallo Farms in Atwater, just east of Livingston, as the nation's largest farm, according to the family. By then, he had more than 37,000 dairy animals and an operation that milked more than 17,000 cows.

He had an affinity for the outdoors -- he liked to hunt and fish -- and had established wetlands and wildlife programs on his property, his family said.

"He was a very optimistic person and very hard-working," said his son, Michael, who took over as chief executive officer of Joseph Gallo Farms when his father retired. "He believed in leadership by example and would literally work right alongside his employees."

In addition to Michael, Gallo's survivors include his wife of 41 years, Patricia; daughter Linda; stepson Sam Gardali; brother Ernest; and six grandchildren. His brother Julio died in 1993.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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