Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Joseph Gallo Farms

As you travel through the food producing regions of the United States, every farm and food manufacturing business has its own story.  Yet, in the most intensive food producing regions of California, some of these stories seem to have a particularly epic scale, appropriate to the setting.

The story of  Joseph Gallo Farms is like a bottled up distillation of every manner of U.S. food policy issue.

The other week, while visiting the Salinas Valley to learn about the environmental challenges of concentrated animal agriculture in close proximity to large-scale vegetable production, I took these roadside photographs of one of the large-scale Joseph Gallo Farms dairies.

Joseph Gallo Farms produces Joseph Farms California Natural Cheeses.

You may ask, why does this dairy company not produce "Joseph Gallo Farms" cheeses?  Why drop the last name?  Well, now, there indeed is a story.

Joseph Gallo was the younger sibling of Ernest and Julio Gallo, who founded the largest exporter of California wines and one of the wine industry's most famous brands.  To protect the wine brand, Ernest and Julio successfully sued their younger brother to prevent him from using the Gallo name on cheeses at the retail level.

The judge who authored the 1992 court decision clearly got caught up in the operatic narrative and let loose his inner novelist.  Here is just one early section.  If this blog post were a movie, the screen would fade on the current decade and you would see an antique automobile puttering along a dusty dirt California road in the early 1900s.
This lawsuit arises out of a tortuous family history apparently involving sibling rivalry on a grand scale. Because Joseph's counterclaims concern his parents' estates, the relevant facts date back nearly a century.

I. The Rise of the Gallo Family, the Establishment of the Winery, and Ernest and Julio's Guardianship of Joseph

The individual parties to the action, Ernest, Julio, and Joseph, are the children of Joseph Gallo ("Joseph Sr.") and Assunto ("Susie") Bianco, immigrants to Northern California from Italy in the early 1900s. Joseph Sr. and Susie married in 1908. Ernest was born in 1909, Julio in 1910, and Joseph in 1919. Following their marriage until the advent of Prohibition in 1919, Joseph Sr. and Susie operated various boarding-houses and saloons, in connection with which they served and sold wine purchased from other California wine dealers. Evidently they stenciled the family name GALLO on the ends of the wine kegs, although they did not make the wine themselves. Throughout the 1920's, the family purchased a series of vineyards, where they grew their own wine grapes, bought wine grapes from other local growers, and shipped the grapes to the midwest and the east coast, where customers made wine with them for their home use under an exception to Prohibition. Ernest and Julio became involved in this shipping business during the mid- to late-1920s. While Joseph Sr. did have a brush with the law for bootlegging during Prohibition, there is no other evidence that he and Susie sold wine after 1919.

The Great Depression caused the grape business to suffer. Prices dropped; the 1932 season was a financial disaster for Joseph Sr. and Susie. On June 21, 1933, Joseph Sr. took Susie's life and his own.
The court decision goes on to recount that Joseph was raised by his brothers as guardians, his part of the inheritance was used as an early source of capital for Gallo Wines, he sued his brothers and was repaid, and, many years later, they prevented him from using his full name as the brand name for his cheeses.

A layperson may be astonished that Joseph Gallo could not use his own real name as his brand. But, several key features of this particular dispute favored the older brothers. The Gallo wine brand is a "strong" and widely known brand. Because wine and cheese are consumed together, and it is plausible that a wine company could sell cheese, a consumer might really be confused about the connection between the cheese brand and the wine company. Consumer research showed that a written label disclaimer did not suffice to clear up the confusion.

If you buy Joseph Farms California Natural Cheeses in your grocery score, there is more history to that food label than you might otherwise know.

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