One of the most storied wine companies in existence today is the family-owned and operated E&J Gallo wine conglomerate, founded in 1933 by brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo.
By the end of Prohibition — the period when federal law prohibited the sale, manufacture and transportation of all alcoholic beverages — in 1933, the brothers were already seasoned winemakers and grape-growers, having worked for their father in the illegal wine trade throughout Prohibition.
As young boys, they were required to perform heavy farm labor by their abusive father, Joseph, who brutalized their mother and his young sons. A younger brother, Joe Jr., was born much later.
Prohibition allowed wineries to continue making sacramental wines. It should be noted that production of such wines increased exponentially during this period. Further, individuals were allowed to make 200 gallons of wine per year for personal consumption.
The Gallo family managed to keep their family business going during Prohibition by making sacramental wines and shipping grapes and grape concentrate by rail to Chicago.
The Chicago grape syndicate was controlled by Al Capone. Joseph Gallo may not have been a close personal friend of Capone, but he had dealings with this gangster. While still in his teens, Ernest was commandeered by his father to make train trips to Chicago, escorting grape shipments and collecting monies owed from the likes of Capone.
Both Julio and Ernest were well positioned to start a legitimate wine business when Prohibition ended, but their parents, Joseph and Susie, did not live to see the end of Prohibition. They were both found shot to death on June 21, 1933.
The coroner ruled their deaths a murder-suicide. Joseph had been abusive to his family his entire married life, but mystery still surrounds their grisly deaths.
Ernest and Julio assumed guardianship of their younger brother, who was 13 years old at the time of his parents’ deaths.
Later, the older brothers’ relationship with their younger brother would become very acrimonious. The older brothers would prevail in court when they sued their younger brother to prohibit his use of the family name on the cheese he produced. They also prevailed in the younger brother’s lawsuit asserting the older brothers effectively cheated him out of his inheritance from their parents.
Ernest and Julio parlayed what they alleged to be a minimal inheritance from their parents into a viable legitimate wine business. Julio was the creative brother, taking on the task of overseeing winemaking, while Ernest was the hard-nosed business and marketing brother.
Together they amassed a fortune by constantly buying up land from failed wineries and making huge quantities of sweet plunk sold in large bottles.
The empire the two brothers built continues to grow under subsequent generations of Gallos. They, like their ancestors, have continued to enlarge the Gallo empire by acquiring popular brands like Frei Brothers, Louis Martini, Barefoot, J Vineyards, LaMarca Prosecco, Mirassou and Orin Swift Cellars — all the while tweaking their own Gallo Brands and making vast land acquisitions in Napa, Sonoma and Washington State, while maintaining their headquarters in Modesto, Calif.
Because Gallo is privately held, information about net worth and profitability is not forthcoming, but the family has consistently made the list of America’s wealthiest families. In 2018, they ranked 25th on the Forbes list of the top 200 wealthiest families in America.
Last week came word Gallo is buying 34 additional wine and spirits brands from rival Constellation Brands for $1.7 billion.
Joining the more than 100 existing Gallo brands will be popular brands Clos du Bois, Black Box, Ravenswood, Estancia, Franciscan, Toasted Head, Hogue Cellars, Wild Horse, Rex Goliath and a host of others.
The deal will add about 700 employees to Gallo’s existing 6,500 employees.
According to winebusiness.com, this latest acquisition will give the world’s largest wine company a 22 percent market share by volume. It is estimated that Gallo shipped 83 million cases last year, and this latest acquisition will add 22 million to 24 million cases to their annual production.
Julio and Ernest made tons of money from big jug wines and sweet wine plunk, but the younger Gallo generation, with Gina Gallo as their spokesperson, has moved into fine wines. The younger generation is also more acutely aware of land use and is now a leader in sustainable farming.
As you make a wine selection at your local wine source, there is a good chance you will leave with a Gallo wine. The bottle many not say “Gallo,” but if you leave with one of the wines mentioned above or one of a host of others not mentioned, you are contributing to the Gallo coffers.
This is not a bad thing. Gallo still makes cheap sweet stuff, but the company has many of America’s favorite brands in its portfolio.
Pat Kettles writes about food, wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org