Guiseppe (“Joe”) Gallo was a moody, violent man. He’d owned a saloon until Prohibition put him out of business. Since prohibition still allowed individuals to bottle 200 gallons of “non-intoxicating cider and fruit juices exclusively for use in the home,” Gallo shifted his business to growing wine grapes, which he sold all over the country to thirsty home winemakers. Most of his buyers, however, were bootleggers, making a lot more than the legal allotment.
Joe’s oldest sons, Ernest and Julio, were drafted into working long, thankless hours on the family grape farm. their younger brother, Joseph Jr., wasn’t old enough to help, and was able to enjoy the childhood that his older brothers had never had. Like his biblical namesake, Joseph was heartily resented by his brothers, and he paid for his favored position later.
Meanwhile, Joe Sr.’s brother, Mike, was finishing up prison time he’d served for bribery and fraud. When he was released in 1918, he opened the San Pablo Bottling Shop in Oakland as a cover for an alcoholic distribution system. In addition to growing Mike’s grapes, Joe was hired to supervise his production of brandy and wine. In 1922, Joe was arrested for running an illegal brandy still. Mike made a few calls to friends in high places and the charges were mysteriously dropped.
In 1925, Joe had accumulated enough money to move to Modesto and build an $8,000 home on the edge of 70 acres of prime vineyards he paid for with cash. He began shipping grapes on a much larger scale. He also apparently continued winemaking: one night in total darkness, young son Joseph woke up to find his father digging a wide, deep hole with his tractor for a 32,000-gallon underground liquor-storing tank.
By winter of 1929, Big Joe was doing well enough to buy 160 more acres across the street from his house, this time paying $25,000 in cash. Julio and Ernest, full of late-teen contempt for their father, graduated from high school and went to work for him full-time, arguing with him over their $30 a month pay and for shares of the business. In 1933, anticipating the end of Prohibition, Ernest applied for a license to open a bonded wine storeroom in San Francisco, but his application was turned down because he didn’t own a winery – it was all in his father’s name.
That changed suddenly the next day. His parents were found shot to death on the family farm. After a hasty inquest, in which Ernest testified that maybe they’d had a financial reverse or something, their deaths were ruled a murder-suicide.
The three brothers were supposed to inherit equal thirds of the business, but Ernest immediately began maneuvering, according to author Ellen Hawkes in his book Blood and Wine. “While his two brothers mourned . . . Ernest received permission from the probate court to continue his father’s business.” He applied for a winery permit twelve days after his parents’ death in the name of himself and Julio, effectively cutting their younger brother out of his one-third inheritance. Little Joe essentially became their employee. He was soon chastised and fired for “an unwillingness to work hard” after he took a week’s vacation.
Neither brother knew much about making wine, so they learned what they could from a “how to make wine” pamphlet they found at the Modesto public library. Julio took over wine manufacturing and Ernest the marketing. “Ernest is the embodiment of the Hobbesian view of the world,” one ex-employee was quoted as saying: “Nasty, brutish and short.” Ernest had a favorite saying: “Remember, people aren’t led – they’re driven.”
The Gallo brothers built a successful company using hard-nosed competitive tactics. Its sales force was notorious for sabotaging the competition with tricks like counter-screwing their bottle caps tightly so that they couldn’t be gotten off, or puncturing the caps with ice picks so the wine would go bad, or spraying light oil on the bottles so dust would collect, making them look like they weren’t selling. They deliberately littered ghetto neighborhoods with empty thunderbird bottles to “advertise” the brand.
Building on empire on a foundation of cheap, flavored alcohol-fortified wines deliberately designed to appeal to heavy drinkers in low-income neighborhoods, the Gallo company eventually moved up the class chain to $60 Cabernets. Their winery factories in Modesto and Livingston are the size of oil refineries, pumping out 40 percent of all wine made in California, one-quarter of all wine sold in the United States – and about 70 million cases a year.
Years later the two brothers successfully sued Joseph Jr. for using his own last name on a line of cheese. Joe sued them unsuccessfully for a percentage of the Gallo winery. The judge, who had been a partner in the Fresno law firm that represented Ernest and Julio, ruled that Joseph hadn’t actually proved that his brothers had overtly defrauded him out of his inheritance.