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

New York and London, New York University Press, 2012, pp. 277, $ 31.50

One morning, sometime during the Prohibition Era, government agents surprised my family and seized my Nonno’s barrels of «beautiful, beautiful wine» that had been hidden in a shed. The agents unceremoniously dumped all of it into the family orchard (our family were fruit farmers in Gilroy, California), while the entire clan of Sicilian immigrants including my mother watched in horror at the weird and mean-spirited behavior of «the Americans». The agents had been tipped off, according to my cousin Betty Zambataro because «one of the neighbors [also a Sicilian immigrant] squealed», apparently out of spite over a real estate dispute. Sunday dinners at Nonna’s house always included gallon jugs of wine, homemade of course, but also those produced by Gallo, Sebastiani, and other winemakers from «The Italian Swiss Colony». As Sicilians, even we children shared glasses with the adults (mixed with water), and understood that this «bought» wine was the wine of the aristocracy, made by the northern Italians whom we also disdained.

Wine is central to Italian American family culture, regardless of region of origin. Yet, what is less well known or appreciated is how the cultural practice of wine-as-essential-to-a-meal came to be a fundamental part of American culture too. Simone Cinotto does a brilliant job of constructing the story of wine production and marketing strategies in America in his superb book, Soft Soil, Black Grapes: The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California. The title belies the breadth of analysis, which places this story firmly in the context of recent scholarship on migration that brings together race relations, racial and ethnic identity formation, gender, capital accumulation, and class all in global context.

Cinotto focuses on three wine-making dynasties – the Rossis, Guastis, and Gallos – to puncture the myth that these emigrants from the Piedmont region of northern Italy arrived in California in the 1880s with farming expertise as well as connections to banking and capital, and were fully prepared to recreate the grape-growing, wine-making industry they had left behind. Rather, Cinotto demonstrates, they were completely ill-equipped for life in California and had no connections to capital or banks whatsoever.

They also did not know how to farm, with sometimes disastrous results. «Not only was his [Joe Gallo’s] first piece [of land] in Antioch completely infiltrated by clay…but [he chose] the wrong grapes to cultivate» (p. 58). Instead, it was their flexibility and an «extreme culture of work» enforced on sons and daughters that led to success. Italian winemakers purposefully educated the second and third generation in the best schools to become technologically savvy and innovative in everything from growing grapes to production to marketing, nationally and internationally. Travels to the Piedmont region by the second and third generations reinforced their strategy of innovation as they looked with disgust at Piedmont laborers stomping grapes with dirty feet in conditions that invited contamination.

Cinotto is at his best when he discusses how perceptive and shrewd second-generation Italian winemakers became in influencing American markets and policy, overcoming the country’s puritanical strain against alcohol dating back to the temperance movement of the 1830s. They could not prevent the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment, but they understood that although wine may have been connected to Italians (reviled in American consciousness as anarchists and criminals), «unlike beer [or other alcoholic beverages, wine] hardly depended on the saloons, where little of it was served» (p. 213). Whereas closing saloons in urban America became the focus of the Prohibition movement, Italian winemakers promoted wine as part of a private family meal, rather than something one drank in order to become intoxicated.

Italian winemakers learned to become active politically in ending Prohibition, and afterward, in supporting state and local politicians such as Congressman Alan Cranston who passed favorable legislation, particularly tax policies that benefited the winemakers and their descendants. They invented new products (such as Thunderbird wine to appeal to African-Americans) and became astute and sophisticated in penetrating the American market.

Cinotto’s chapters on the role of ethnic ties between employers and employees and race relations in California are excellent, although he would do well to make comparisons to other Italian enterprises outside of San Francisco. Most Italian migrants to California settled outside cities because there was more opportunity for them to own property and to develop industries in smaller towns. For example, women’s connection to capital through family ties, «the ethnic edge», and their own shrewd business management made the difference between success and failure in winemaking. I found the same process at work in my study of the fishing industry in Monterey, which developed at the same time as the wine industry (Beyond Cannery Row: Sicilian Women, Immigration, and Community in Monterey, 1915-1999, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2006).

In another example, Cinotto records how winemakers circumvented labor unions by utilizing a Southern Italian immigrant labor force. Employees of the winemakers were made to feel like family even though they were exploited, sometimes severely. Italians’ perceptions of themselves as «white», reinforced by American law, and ethnic identification between employees and employers, limited employees’ identification with other laborers deemed non-white (Filipinos, Mexicans, Japanese) in a period of intense radical labor activism in California (the 1910s through the 1930s, and again in the 1960s) and allowed winemakers to evade labor unions and make higher profits. This was true also (though Cinotto does not mention it) in the fishing industry in Monterey, San Pedro, and San Diego, and among Italian cannery workers. A comparative analysis would have shown what was and was not unique about the history and development of Italian winemaking in California.

Soft Soil, Black Grapes is a ground-breaking study that demonstrates clearly that our ideas of immigrant Italians simply drawing on skills, connections, and traditions they learned in Italy to flourish in the American context is not true. Cinotto ably demonstrates that the development of the wine industry in California was a hard-won struggle, not a simple transfer of people and capital. It involved multiple failures, flexibility, an international scope, and depended as much on the ever-changing American context as on the seemingly ageless Italian one.


Carol Lynn McKibben (Stanford University)

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