Soft soil, black grapes—and choice holiday wines

—Simone Cinotto

My book, Soft Soil, Black Grapes: The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California began while I was researching for another project on the foodways of Italian immigrants in New York, 1900-1940 (The Italian American Table: Food, Family, and Community in New York City, forthcoming next fall).

During my research, I began to notice that almost all of the wine and wine grapes Italian New Yorkers consumed during the early 1900s were produced and shipped through the North American continent by other Italian immigrants in California. I thus set out to discover the dynamics of this vast ethnic market. The first step was to deconstruct the popular myth—as widespread in my native Piemonte (Italy) as it was in existing scholarship—that California functioned as the ideal environment to where Northern Italian immigrants could easily transplant their traditional winemaking skills. Actually, none of these pioneers had any prior training in the business, and, lacking any significant capital, had to work their way up by transforming cheap patches of land into vineyard (this made possible by the intensive labor of their fellow contadino immigrants).

It wasn’t the “soft soil” that provided Northern Italian immigrant winemakers with a decisive edge over competitors—but instead their ability to navigate the complex racial scenario of turn-of-the-twentieth-century California. The presence of disenfranchised Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican grape workers, coupled with the discrimination Italian laborers faced at the hands of Anglo winemakers, helped these immigrant wine entrepreneurs secure a skilled and loyal labor force with low social conflict. Northern Italian immigrant winemakers were then able to present themselves in the eyes of the white elites of San Francisco and Los Angeles as the last offspring of a classic culture of wine, reliable ethnic leaders, and enthusiastic believers in the gospel of American capitalism.

Perhaps because of my difficulty in reconciling with my own past, it was only at the end of my work that I realized how autobiographical my story was. My father grew up in a small village in the Alps, not far from the French border—a place where almost all working-age men, and some women, had left in search of jobs in the coal mines of Southern Illinois, Colorado, Nevada, and California. Many had later sent for their spouses or families; some had managed to raise their own farm, cultivate grapes, and make their beloved wine in their new land.

My father was born later, in 1938. In the 1950s, he immigrated to Turin, which at the time was experiencing a population boom—mostly the influx of “dark” Southern Italians—because of the expanding auto industry. As he was educated and well read despite his social extraction, he soon landed a white-collar job with the Italian National Railroads. Yet he remained a wine drinker of the working-class kind. He bought his wine in bulk from a producer in the Monferrato region who shipped to Turin. Since he wanted to have hands-on knowledge of what he drank (decades before this became fashionable) he asked his purveyor to work for him in the picking, and the first phases of winemaking, every vintage for a few years. This meant, beginning one September when I was eight or nine, he would drag me to his friend’s place in Calosso d’Asti to  accompany him as he worked in the vineyards and cellar. Against my will, for weekends after that, I kept him company in the dark, small basement of our apartment house in Turin as he transferred the wine from the demijohns into bottles—just as thousands of the immigrant consumers I describe in my book did. I dreaded the experience, which I recall also because it was down there that I got sickly drunk for the first (and perhaps the last) time, furtively tasting the bubbling purple liquid that ran through that funny plastic hose.

As you see, I am not that nostalgic for those times. Yet to this day, the wines that my father bottled during those weekends in the early 1970s (Barbera and Dolcetto) are among my favorites, and I cannot think of wines that are more representative of the story of the people who travelled half the world to recreate their wine culture in California. The wines made from Barbera and Dolcetto grapes are the most rooted in the traditional everyday cooking of the Piemonte region (much more so than the famed, complex, and sophisticated wines of the Nebbiolo family: Barolo, Barbaresco, and Gattinara). Both Barbera and Dolcetto are wines of important character, whose flavors span from chestnuts to berries, and unique tastes reflect the different terroirs of Southern Piemonte. In fact, these grapes are truly manifestoes of the cultural and biodiversity of the region. There are important differences between the two: Dolcetto tends to be more fruity and acidic; Barbera is more tannic, ranging from sparkling light to seasoned and strong. Yet again, both wines are great with homemade egg pasta or risotto and meats—from stewed and roasted beef to pork, from frog to rabbit or snails.

I hope you might consider spending some time this holiday season reading my book and tasting some nice Barbera and Dolcetto; the two will make for an interesting and pleasurable combination. I truly wish you all fantastic holidays and much happiness.

Simone Cinotto teaches History at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. He also taught at NYU as “Tiro a Segno” Visiting Professor in Italian American Studies.

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