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Soft Soil, Black Grapes

Soft Soil, Black Grapes: The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California

Simone Cinotto
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Soft Soil, Black Grapes
    Book Description:

    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 Italianin 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-1739-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. VII-X)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-23)

    Italians have played a major role in shaping the California wine industry, as is clear by the profusion of vowel-ending names among the state’s wineries. In fact, many of the Italian American wineries that now dot the map of California’s wine regions are third-generation immigrant operations whose heritage goes back to men and women who left Italy for the Golden State at the turn of the twentieth century. Italian grape growers and winemakers have not been alone in making California wine a quintessentially immigrant industry: when they first started arriving in the 1880s, they joined already established German, French, and...

  5. CHAPTER ONE The Success of Italian Winemakers in California and the “Pavesian Myth”
    (pp. 25-45)

    March 12, 1881, provides a convenient and definitive start date for the history of the Piedmontese immigrant presence in the California wine industry. On that day, the Italian Swiss Colony was incorporated in San Francisco, with its premises to be established on the gently sloping hills of the Russian River Valley, eighty-five miles north of the city. The idea for the enterprise had been hatched among the Italian immigrant merchant elite of San Francisco as an ethnic utopia; a community-bred company that could both provi3de jobs to Italian immigrant workers with experience in viticulture and reward its ethnic financial backers...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Producing Winescapes: Immigrant Labor on California Land
    (pp. 47-59)

    The sense that individuals and groups have of a place, the meanings they attribute to what would otherwise be indeterminate space, are cultural formulations. Perception and human experience selectively define landscape and territory, which are in turn influenced by the ways specific places are represented—laid out in maps, described in novels and travel diaries, glorified by poets, reproduced in paintings, photographs, and films, or, as has occurred more recently, designated as historically relevant by state-run programs of heritage valorization and landscape preservation.¹ Indeed, the paradigmatic Californiaequals-Piedmont equation set out by Cesare Pavese and traditionally used to explain the success...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Culture and Economy of Wine in Italy and California
    (pp. 61-91)

    The tragic experience of Joe Gallo clearly challenges the notion that Piedmontese winemakers succeeded in California because of a wine culture they brought with them from the Old World. The idea of a painless transplantation of former knowledge and skills undervalues in fact the various ways Piedmont-born immigrants distinguished themselves in the world of California winemaking, a trade with origins dating back to the colonial Spanish period.

    By the time the Piedmontese exodus to California began in the late nineteenth century, Piedmont vied with Tuscany for the title of most illustrious Italian wine region. These were the only two italian...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR One Nation: The Importance of Ethnic Cooperation
    (pp. 93-105)

    In addition to the Pavesian myth, which emphasizes the traditional winemaking skills of Piedmontese immigrants and California’s optimal environmental conditions for their transplantation, another strong case has been made to explain why Piedmont-born winemakers were so successful on the Pacific Coast. The historian Sebastian Fichera, who chronicles San Francisco’s Italian community, attributes this success to the winemakers’ participation in an ethnic economy that integrated fellow Italian entrepreneurs, financiers, workers, middlemen, retailers, and consumers. According to Fichera, winemakers benefited in particular from privileged access to financing as members of an upstanding circle in which Italian banks granted plentiful credit to Italian...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The Spirit and Social Ethics of Ethnic Entrepreneurship
    (pp. 107-113)

    While the widespread cooperative behavior in the Italian American business community and the privileged ethnicity-based access to credit, were not the sole reasons for the success of Piedmontese winemakers in California, these entrepreneurs were heavily affected both by the mobilization of social networks inside and outside the Piedmontese community as well as by their status as immigrants. Were their financial endeavors facilitated or complicated by the ideals, attitudes, and values included under the umbrella of their “culture”? This chapter aims to unwrap a few analytical categories—ethnic entrepreneurship, ethnic economy, social capital, and cultural capital—which are relevant to address...

  10. CHAPTER SIX The Ethnic Edge: The Economy of Matrimonial Strategies and Family Culture
    (pp. 115-127)

    This chapter and the following two examine how Piedmontese winemakers Pietro Carlo Rossi, Secondo Guasti, and the Gallo brothers attempted to create and then dominate a mass wine market in the United States by investing in various family, community, and ethnic relational networks and by exercising sensibilities, expectations, and visions of the world that were rooted in their ethnic heritage. These immigrant winemakers had little choice but to accumulate such social and cultural capital, and use their imaginations to make the most of it, due to their late arrival on the California wine scene and their lack of significant startup...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN White Labor and Happy Families: Race, Social Capital, and Paternalism
    (pp. 129-149)

    The flexibility and pragmatism Piedmontese winemakers showed in adapting their family culture to economic circumstances similarly characterizes the way they used their ethnic origins to help them develop profitable social relationships. Indeed, it has already been noted that a common cultural identity activated crucial channels of solidarity between people from the same town or region: the Piedmont-born Giuseppe Ollino presented Pietro Carlo Rossi to Sbarboro; Secondo Guasti found partners among the tight-knit circle of Piedmont natives in Los Angeles to support his idea of transforming a desert wasteland into a vineyard; and the intractable Joe Gallo freed himself from manual...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Italian Winemakers and the American System
    (pp. 151-181)

    During the late nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, Piedmontese winemakers operated under unique conditions dictated by the U.S. wine market. Not only was the industrial production of alcoholic beverages shadowed by the moral and religious condemnation of American politics and society, but Italian winemakers also rarely hired non-Italian workers or sold their products to non-Italian customers. Yet despite all this, or perhaps precisely to counterbalance the fact that they traded in a product that was so disputably “American,” Piedmontese winemakers earnestly embraced the dictates of U.S. capitalism and the mass market. They constantly innovated and mechanized their methods...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Wine and the Alchemy of Race I: The Social and Cultural Economy of Italian Regionalism
    (pp. 183-205)

    Notions and practices of race played a decisive role in helping Piedmontese immigrants achieve more success in the economic niche of California winemaking than anyone else—fellow immigrants and U.S. natives alike. In fact, race was a major factor in both “modes of incorporation” that substantially explain their emergence as leaders in the trade: their self-segregation from other Italian immigrants and their flexibility in adapting to the segregation imposed on them by the stigma and risks of wine production itself, which caused competitors of other nationalities to flee the industry.

    Piedmont natives developed such responses and practices out of the...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Wine and the Alchemy of Race II: Prohibition
    (pp. 207-226)

    As a moment of profound caesura in the history of California winemaking, Prohibition also had distinct racial implications, pitting as it did a largely nativist, Protestant, and rural America against an ethnic, urban, and Catholic one. In fact, the Eighteenth Amendment would establish the image of winemaking as one in which Italian immigrants indulged in particular, adding to it the stigma of illegality. At the same time, it would also provide these recent arrivals with new and unexpected opportunities, which came as a result of their near monopoly of an industry that had taken on a semi-criminal status.

    The origins...

  15. Conclusion: Work, Social Capital, and Race in the Experience of Italian Winemakers in California
    (pp. 227-236)

    The story of Italian winemakers in California presents an interesting case for historians of ethnic entrepreneurship and immigrant work in the United States. The “Pavesian paradigm”—the discursive notion according to which Piedmontese immigrants came to the United States already possessing a wine culture that could then blossom in ideal environmental conditions under a placid Californian sun— is a convenient but misleading shortcut to explain why such a small number of immigrants from a single Italian region emerged as key protagonists in the modern history of American wine. Being from Piedmont did not automatically mean one had knowledge of the...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 237-260)
  17. Index
    (pp. 261-266)
  18. About the Author
    (pp. 267-267)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 268-268)