Strange Brew 

Will there ever be a cure for alcoholism? And why is wine tycoon Ernest Gallo spending millions trying to find out?

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If you believe Ellen Hawkes, author of Blood and Wine: The Unauthorized Story of the Gallo Empire, Thunderbird caught on with a little help from Gallo's marketing luminaries. According to Hawkes, Gallo salesmen threw empty bottles of Thunderbird in the gutters of skid row to increase product awareness in the ghetto.

The notoriously reclusive 92-year-old vintner doesn't provide much insight as to why he helped launch Emeryville's Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center with a reported $6.5 million endowment in the early '80s. [Even Gallo's spokesman, Lou Friedman, refused to answer any questions for this story.] In the 1994 book, Ernest & Julio: Our Story, Gallo briefly mentions his donation to the cause after ranting about teetotalers he condemns as "neo-Prohibitionists." "The neo-Prohibitionists would have people believe that a drink is a drink -- and therefore bad," Gallo grouses. "I'll bet that no one has ever gone into a bar and ordered a double-shot of Cabernet. Wine historically has been a beverage of moderation to be enjoyed with food. It still is. The dangers of alcoholism have been common knowledge for centuries. It is possible, however, that progress can still be made toward the prevention and cure of this disorder." To that end, Gallo goes on to say, he magnanimously chose to establish his cutting-edge clinic where scientists would use "space-age techniques" to cure alcoholism.

The idea that Gallo would have an altruistic motive for starting the center strikes alcohol industry critics as transparently absurd. Andrew McGuire, who chaired the failed 1990 Alcohol Tax Initiative that Gallo opposed, dismisses Gallo's generosity as a PR ploy. He points out that although Gallo has tried to increase his company's snob factor, the winery still produces Thunderbird and Night Train, fortified drinks not usually enjoyed with a plate of veal parmigiana and garlic bread. Those drinks, he says, are aimed squarely at the ten percent of the adult population that qualify as alkies. Gallo doesn't want to lose those alcoholic customers -- they mean money, McGuire argues.

In her book, Hawkes notes that Gallo established the research center at a time when consumers had become more health-conscious. Ernest had also become more conscious about his company's lowbrow image. The famous "All the best from Ernest and Julio Gallo" ad campaign soon followed. "Whether he was trying to improve his image or was acknowledging the new attention to health with which the wine industry had to deal ... [it] was one of the few major charitable contributions of the Gallo family that was publicized."

Researchers at the Gallo Center are aware of the criticism, of course; they have gone to great pains over the years to establish the legitimacy of their work. Although it is technically an independent nonprofit entity, the Gallo Center operates under the auspices and direction of UCSF's department of neurology; the program boasts two Nobel Prize winners on its scientific advisory board, and any research findings the center publishes are submitted to normal scientific peer review. And although Gallo scientists have assisted on at least one study showing the positive health benefits of moderate drinking, the Gallo Center's undisputed focus has been on the physiological roots of problem drinking.

Dr. David Smith, the president and founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, regularly interacts with Gallo Center director Dr. Ivan Diamond. Smith agrees that the center's scientific reputation is beyond reproach. "I believe it's the top alcohol research facility in the nation," Smith gushes. As for Gallo's involvement, Smith says that doesn't bother him because the winemaker isn't dictating the research. Gallo Center genetics expert Wilhelmsen agrees. "The fact is," Wilhelmsen says, "there are no restrictions on anything we publish. There are no restrictions on anything we say. They [Gallo and company executives] might have control in the sense that they could say, 'We're not going to support you as well,' but in fact people from this institution have said alcohol is bad for you."

Whatever his motives, the businessman behind Thunderbird could also go down in history as the businessman who helped revolutionize medical treatment for some of his best customers. But will it actually result in a cure?GGallo was indeed right when he said in his book that we've long known the dangers of alcoholism -- perhaps we've always known them. But our understanding of alcoholism has steadily and dramatically evolved over the hundred years.

In the early part of the 20th century, mainstream society oscillated between viewing compulsive drinking as a character flaw, and viewing it as a mental illness. Drunks often found themselves coming to in the morning strapped down to beds in sanatoriums. It was then that Bill Wilson (himself a regular at his local nuthouse) and Dr. Bob Smith forever changed the way people think about alcoholism when they founded Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s. In the "Big Book," the AA bible, they described alcoholism as both a mental obsession and a physical allergy. More importantly, the two sober drunks pioneered the concept of alcoholism as a disease.

Characterizing chronic alcohol abuse as a disease removed the stigma that had humiliated so many wake-and-drinkers. A disease was something beyond human will -- it was a fact of life. And like other diseases such as diabetes, alcoholism could be treated, Wilson and Smith suggested, if not actually cured. The treatment they prescribed was the now-famous twelve-step model in which newcomers admit their powerlessness over alcohol and turn their lives and will over to God or a Higher Power. After that, one just had to "let go and let God" and stay sober one day at a time. There simply is not, the AA founders insisted, an "easier, softer way."

Though AA popularized the notion of alcoholism as a disease, the program didn't spawn much research into the actual physiology of the body's "allergy" to alcohol. (In the sixty years after AA was founded, the Food and Drug Administration approved only one drug specifically for the treatment of alcoholism. That drug, which hit the market in 1948, was called antabuse, and it worked by making drinkers violently ill.) Addiction experts blame a variety of factors for the lack of research into the physiology of alcoholism: that deep down, policymakers and the public in general still deemed alcoholism a personality disorder; and that pharmaceutical companies were not willing to take the risk of trying to develop a drug general physicians were not treating. Nonetheless, over the years the body of evidence continued to steadily grow, suggesting that alcoholics were born, not made (or at least both born and made).

In the early 1970s, Danish scholars released a study that examined adopted kids with alcoholic biological parents, who were raised by adoptive parents without drinking problems. Their research showed that children with the hereditary link were at least three times more likely to become alcoholics than kids with normal biological parents who were also raised by nonalcoholic parents. Other studies of twins raised separately also strongly suggested a genetic component to alcoholism.

Soon scientists like Dr. Ivan Diamond, a neurological specialist at the University of California at San Francisco, were taking it as a given that genes and other biological factors played a crucial role in whether someone becomes a problem drinker. The challenge for Diamond and other researchers has been to find exactly which genes, cell signaling pathways, and neurotransmitters were involved. With that knowledge, scientists might finally be able to develop something to treat or even prevent alcoholism.IIt was sometime around 1980 when Diamond first met Ernest Gallo. As the story goes, the two began discussing alcoholism and the need for more study of the disease so drug treatments could be developed. "[Gallo] told me that as far as he is concerned, [alcoholism] is a blight on his industry," Diamond would recall several years later in an interview with the Modesto Bee. "He didn't feel this kind of research was being addressed anywhere."

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