Soft Soil, Black Grapes: The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California (Nation of Nations)

Soft Soil, Black Grapes: The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California (Nation of Nations)

Simone Cinotto

Language: English

Pages: 278


Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Winner of the 2013 New York Book Show Award in Scholarly/Professional Book Design

From Ernest and Julio Gallo to Francis Ford Coppola, Italians have shaped the history of California wine. More than any other group, Italian immigrants and their families have made California viticulture one of America’s most distinctive and vibrant achievements, from boutique vineyards in the Sonoma hills to the massive industrial wineries of the Central Valley. But how did a small group of nineteenth-century immigrants plant the roots that flourished into a world-class industry? Was there something particularly “Italian” in their success?


In this fresh, fascinating account of the ethnic origins of California wine, Simone Cinotto rewrites a century-old triumphalist story. He demonstrates that these Italian visionaries were not skilled winemakers transplanting an immemorial agricultural tradition, even if California did resemble the rolling Italian countryside of their native Piedmont. Instead, Cinotto argues that it was the wine-makers’ access to “social capital,” or the ethnic and familial ties that bound them to their rich wine-growing heritage, and not financial leverage or direct enological experience, that enabled them to develop such a successful and influential wine business. Focusing on some of the most important names in wine history—particularly Pietro Carlo Rossi, Secondo Guasti, and the Gallos—he chronicles a story driven by ambition and creativity but realized in a complicated tangle of immigrant entrepreneurship, class struggle, racial inequality, and a new world of consumer culture.


Skillfully blending regional, social, and immigration history, Soft Soil, Black Grapes takes us on an original journey into the cultural construction of ethnic economies and markets, the social dynamics of American race, and the fully transnational history of American wine.

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Winescapes United States, attracted more by the image of gold mines and the associated economy than some bucolic ideal.19 It was only when the prospects of getting rich quick on the mining frontier proved to be an illusion and the idea of staying in California took definitive shape that young, unaccompanied male immigrants like him decided to embrace agriculture as a second choice.20 For Joe, farming was actually a third choice: he had quit his work as a miner as soon as he could to become a

Francisco’s North Beach with just the “equipment” of a bathtub, where Joe and his brother would press the grapes, a bag of whole cane sugar, and some recycled casks. That wine would eventually end up on the market in Little Italy.8 The third long-term consequence of the wine boom in 1870s and 1880s Piedmont, besides the mounting international prestige of Piedmontese wines and the improvement of local winemaking knowledge, was the emergence of a large-scale capitalist winemaking industry, complete

California, the Gallos’ story shows there were also significant exceptions. Perhaps of greater note in Fichera’s citation above, then, is the date of 1910, which he notes in passing as the year when the Italian leadership in California winemaking really took off—the same year the clouds of Prohibition began threatening their descent on the American wine industry. The fact that Italian Americans, and especially Piedmont natives, emerged collectively at the head of the wine trade just as it began

address this question. Immigrant entrepreneurship and ethnic economies have recently attracted much scholarly attention. Ethnic entrepreneurs are defined as business owners or managers whose membership in a group is tied to common origin or cultural heritage and is recognized as such by nonmembers of the group. Central to the concept are the intrinsic ties these entrepreneurs have to specific social structures that 107 108 The Spirit and Social Ethics of Ethnic Entrepreneurship influence

spoke little to no English or 136 White Labor and Happy Families because they had recently arrived in the United States, but also for purely racial reasons. In fact, “in some wineries Italians are considered better as ‘common laborers’ and ‘cellarmen’ because they are satisfied with much of the work which is distasteful to natives and north Europeans. . . . On the other hand, other employers prefer the ‘miscellaneous white’ because they are considered the more temperate and also the more

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