%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:CAGK103-082102; AUDIO:%)

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ Grape growers from across California's Central Valley picketed an E. & J. Gallo Winery to protest the low grape prices offered this year by the world's largest winemaker.

About 50 growers from Merced to Bakersfield blocked trucks loaded with wine grapes for about 30 minutes on Wednesday, carrying signs that read, ``Gallo wines made with growers' blood.''

Growers say they can't survive on the $65 per ton Gallo offered for this year's Thompson grapes, the most common grape grown in the valley. Gallo and other wineries offered $75 per ton last year, and between $115 to $150 per ton in 2000, depending on the variety.

Growing the grapes costs about $90 to $180 a ton, growers said.

They say Gallo's size _ $1.1 billion in sales last year _ makes it such a dominant force in the market that it effectively leads a price-fixing conspiracy. Other San Joaquin Valley wineries often wait to hear what the Modesto-based Gallo is offering for grapes before making their own deals.

``The government should do something about it,'' grape grower Marvin Horn said. ``You can't have all the other wineries follow suit behind it. It's a disgrace for the free enterprise system.''

Even more frustrating for San Joaquin growers, who provide about 60 percent of California's wine grapes, is that they have been offered just $100 per ton for chardonnay grapes, while growers in the more prestigious Napa Valley receive about $2,500 a ton.

Gallo said the company is a ``very minor factor in the pricing of Thompson seedless grapes,'' and all California grape growers are facing a severe surplus and reduced demand.

``We sympathize with the plight of all California grape growers, but the problem is really beyond our control,'' said Milo Shelly, a vice president.

Wine industry experts say one reason prices are low is oversupply. Growers will harvest 3.3 million tons this year, 8 percent more than 2001, according to the state Agricultural Statistics Service.

Wine industry analyst Eileen Frederickson said the valley also grows more grapes used in boxed wines rather than higher-end wines, such as merlot or chardonnay, which have better sales now.

``The problem in the valley is not Gallo. The problem is that there are too few wineries that make the kind of wine for which the San Joaquin Valley traditionally has been known,'' she said.

With 500,000 acres of wine grapes, California is the fourth largest wine producer after France, Italy and Spain, according to the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

___

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ Some of the biggest stars in Hollywood are urging Gov. Gray Davis to sign a bill that would make it easier for farm workers to negotiate union contracts with growers.

The letter, which was scheduled to appear in full-page ads Thursday in two entertainment industry newspapers, the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety, was signed by more than 40 celebrities, including Warren Beatty, Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand and Jack Nicholson.

The bill would authorize the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board to use mediation and then binding arbitration to break contract stalemates.

It passed both houses of the Legislature, but Davis hasn't taken a position on it. It's strongly supported by labor unions and opposed by growers, both of which have given campaign contributions to Davis.

To increase pressure on Davis, farm workers are marching from Merced to Sacramento and plan a rally at the Capitol on Sunday.