Harvesting the American Dream

Written by Karen Richardson
Review by Katie Stine

This novelized biography of winemaker Ernest Gallo reads like a populist fairy tale. Starting five years after his birth in 1909, the Gallo story tells of a poverty-stricken, grape-picking Ernest and younger brother Julio from childhood through their adulthood, and finally, to Ernest’s triumph with an extensive, vertically-expanded wine empire. Plagued by his immigrant father, who worked hard but was inept and volatile, Ernest endured abuse (along with the rest of the family), while his long-suffering mother gave him and his brother emotional support. The tragedy of this book lies at the heart of the family, which is repeatedly told to us, but never felt. The violent end of Ernest’s parents should be the central pivot of this story, and indeed, it tries to be so with an oddly detached prologue, but every event in this book is given the same page time, whether it is a make-believe story told by a grandfather who cares for Ernest and then abruptly disappears from the book, or the grisly murder-suicide that drove Ernest into public silence.

Biographies are tricky creatures. While the book expressly told me that Ernest valued family, hard work, and honesty over all else, I have no more sense of what it would be like to sit down and have a glass of wine with him than before I started reading. Much of the book feels either like plot summary, or mea culpas for making products like Ripple and Thunderbird that catered to the poor. Events do not necessarily build to a conflict, but instead seem like a list of things that should be mentioned. Perhaps the most interesting sections are Ernest’s detailed business plans for expansion; after building a successful vineyard, he goes on to a distribution center, then a bottling plant, then a glass-making factory. No grain of sand goes untallied here.