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When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country
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When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country

by Vivienne Sosnowski

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When Prohibition took effect in 1920, only a few months after one of the greatest California grape harvests of all time, violence and chaos descended on Northern California. Federal agents spilled thousands of gallons of wine in the rivers and creeks, gun battles erupted on dark country roads, and local law enforcement officers—sympathetic to their winemaking


When Prohibition took effect in 1920, only a few months after one of the greatest California grape harvests of all time, violence and chaos descended on Northern California. Federal agents spilled thousands of gallons of wine in the rivers and creeks, gun battles erupted on dark country roads, and local law enforcement officers—sympathetic to their winemaking neighbors—found ways to stonewall the intruding authorities. For the state's winemaking families—many of them immigrants from Italy—surviving Prohibition meant facing a crucial decision—give up their idyllic way of life, or break the law to enable their livelihood to survive.

Sosnowski's intimate history provides us with a new view into Prohibition America, away from the flappers and speakeasys of Chicago and New York, and into the lovely hills and valleys of wine country, where families hid vintages and prayed for the days when they could resume the craft that they loved. When the Rivers Ran Red tells of the extraordinary adventures of the stalwart efforts of immigrant families—the Seghesios, the Foppianos, the Nichelinis and the Cuneos—who saved one of America's most beloved traditions.

Editorial Reviews

author of Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolutio William Echikson

Sosnowski's When the Rivers Ran Red will defeat the misconception that fine California wine represents a recent phenomenon. This fast paced, crisply written account of California winemakers' battle to survive Prohibition breathes new life into this precious American tradition and shows in gripping detail how deep these vines' roots run in the soils of lovely Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
From the Publisher

“A cool history book for fans of wine and local lore.” —San Fransisco Examiner

“…a lively account of the battle of the local industry to survive against aggressive government efforts to shut it down.” —Sonoma Index-Tribune

When the Rivers Ran Red casts light on a less-understood aspect of that infamous period in American history -- an era whose familiar images of Prohibition usually don't include its effect on American wineries.” —Nick Owchar, LA Times

When the Rivers Ran Red by Vivienne Sosnowski, chronicles the impact of Prohibition in California wine country. Intelligent, engaging, sympathetic and sharp.” —The Kansas City Star

“Sosnowski's fascinating account of how Napa and Sonoma winemakers struggled to survive during the national insanity known as Prohibition fills a giant hole in the history of American wine. Wine lovers everywhere should thank her for tracking down survivors, many now in their 90s, who provided rich accounts of what it was like to live through that terrible nightmare. A tale well told, Sosnowski has a fine touch.” —George M. Taber, bestselling author of Judgment of Paris

“Rich, moving and evocative, Sosnowski's exquisite writing brings to life a chapter of American history that has largely been forgotten. Anyone who enjoys California's legendary wines will absolutely adore When the Rivers Ran Red. A book to be savored, word by word. Were this a great bottle of wine, it would deserve 5 stars out of 4.” —Don and Petie Kladstrup, bestselling authors of Wine & War: The French, the Nazis and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure and Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times

“Sosnowski's When the Rivers Ran Red will defeat the misconception that fine California wine represents a recent phenomenon. This fast paced, crisply written account of California winemakers' battle to survive Prohibition breathes new life into this precious American tradition and shows in gripping detail how deep these vines' roots run in the soils of lovely Napa and Sonoma Valleys.” —William Echikson, author of Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution

“Intensely moving, fast-paced, horrifying and inspiring in turns, When the Rivers Ran Red is a beautifully written, deeply researched story of liberty and tyranny, the love of life and the sickness of its enemies. I shall remember it every time I visit California wine country.” —Hugh Johnson, bestselling author of The World Atlas of Wine, The Story of Wine and the Pocket Wine Book series

“The tentacles of the Volstead Act were powerful and far-reaching. In telling what happened in California's valleys during the difficult years of Prohibition, Vivienne Sosnowski puts a human face on the misery and desperation, but shows the courage and ingenuity that has ultimately led to the triumph of the State's wine growers.” —Gerald Asher, Gourmet magazine, and author of The Pleasures of Wine and Vineyard Tales

“This tale of a little-known aspect of American history will be enjoyed by Californians, as well as oenophiles and history buffs.” —Library Journal

“Sosnowski records in heavily researched detail the real effects of Prohibition on people who wished only to produce sound wine.” —Booklist

“A rollicking story... It'll keep you awake on your [beach] towel.” —The Miami Herald

“Sosnowski is a compelling historian… While the California wine industry is a juggernaut today and Napa and Sonoma are far different places than they were, this book will change the way you look at their wines, and you may find yourself tasting them differently knowing what that land and its people have been through....A cool history book for fans of wine and local lore.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Not until this book has anyone really examined the impact of Prohibition on the people of California's Wine Country. It's a story whose arc you know, yet in the telling it is far more powerful and engrossing than you might expect.” —Book Editor's pick, San Francisco Chronicle

“Ms. Sosnowski's deeply researched story puts a human face on a tragic story.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Wine lovers, history buffs, and those interested in the history of many local grape-growing families are sure to enjoy Sosnowski's compelling, thought-provoking account of winemakers' fight to survive Prohibition. It's a book to relish, perhaps with a glass or two of fine wine.” —Press Democrat

“Sosnowski offers a gripping account of Federal agents looking to seize wine and the winemakers who hid their vintages in ingenious ways. It's also a fascinating look at the birth of some of the California wine dynasties that exist to this day.” —Wine Enthusiast

“The book is a powerful, well-paced account of Prohibition in wine country. It takes its title from the millions of gallons of red wine that were emptied into the rivers because of the new law, and follows the social damage, financial ruin and corruptino that came with the wine ban.” —Wine Spectator

“Sosnowski has written a book that is detailed and colorful. Both historians and wine enthusiasts will appreciate learning about Prohibition from the side of the winemakers of Sonoma and Napa Valley. The particular approach the author uses gives readers a fascinating close-up look at winemakers shortly before Prohibition started and includes the years Prohibition was in effect.” —Wine Trail Traveler

“Not until this engrossing book has anyone really examined the impact of Prohibition on the people of California's Wine Country.” —San Francisco Chronicle's 50 Notable Bay Area Books of 2009!

Library Journal

Speakeasies and Keystone Cops come to mind when we think of the Prohibition Era (1919–33). Few of us imagine what the 18th Amendment meant to families and individuals whose livelihood depended on growing grapes and making wine. Sosnowski, editorial director of the San Francisco Examiner and two other newspapers, collected meticulous research to chronicle how the banning of alcoholic beverages affected the grape growers and vintners of California's Napa and Sonoma region. Though she describes many brutal and abusive raids on farms and wineries by goverment agents, business as usual was surprisingly common. The task of preventing people from enjoying the pleasure of wine was daunting. Few agents were above corruption, and the Napa and Sonoma winemakers, compelled by economics, became very clever in disguising their product and its storage. From shipping grapes across country for "legal" home wine making to running wine to San Francisco in the middle of the night, most did whatever they could to keep from going bankrupt. VERDICT Sosnowski's reconstruction of actual events reads like a novel. This tale of a little-known aspect of American history will be enjoyed by Californians, as well as oenophiles and history buffs.—Ann Weber, Bellarmine Coll. Prep., San José, CA

—Ann Weber
Kirkus Reviews
How the Napa and Sonoma Valley wineries survived Prohibition. California's wine country is an oft-romanticized region, and newspaper executive Sosnowski, a first-time author, seems to have fallen sway to its well-advertised charms in her attempt to showcase the region's fortitude during Prohibition. While it is true that many families suffered mightily during that period (1919-33), as the entire region's economy was centered around winemaking, the author's narrative lacks the cohesive direction necessary to give the wineries' plight sufficient dramatic tension. Instead of focusing on the personalities and families behind a few key wineries and how they survived those brutal years-from such obvious dodges as bootlegging to ingenious tactics like the sale of raw grapes for fermenting in private homes-Sosnowski slows the pace with a dry rehashing of facts and figures on everything from the weekly fluctuation of grape prices to the nuances of licensing Prohibition agents. Her empathy for the winemakers-many of them Italian immigrants who brought their craft over from the old country-is evident, but she has difficulty channeling her sentiment into sufficiently energetic prose. Even stealthy midnight shipments of casks and grapes under the noses of Prohibition officials fail to ignite much suspense. While it's refreshing to read a history of Prohibition not focused exclusively on the mob and the speakeasies of New York and Chicago, the colorful personalities and dark excitement unique to this period are lost. Copiously researched, but this particular vintage lacks complexity and depth. First printing of 50,000

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St. Martin's Press
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When the Rivers Ran Red

An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country

By Vivienne Sosnowski

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2009 Vivienne Sosnowski
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-62216-6


The Land was Sacred to These Families

Everyone involved in the northern California's wine industry knew well the precise date on which their lives had changed. Seven years before the Foppiano calamity, on Wednesday October 29, 1919, the people of Sonoma and Napa awoke to a deceptively perfect autumn day and many read an astonishing headline. "BONE DRY AMERICA AT ONCE EFFECTIVE BY SENATE'S VOTE" shrieked the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's front page in a bold, entirely capitalized headline. The influential newspaper in the Sonoma County seat reported the Volstead Act's successful passage in Washington the day before. That law had been hurriedly crafted to complement and enforce the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, banning the making, sale, transportation, and importing and exporting of alcoholic beverages, a historic piece of legislation passed in December 1917 that had then taken its sweet time to achieve ratification across the nation in January 1919.

The news from the nation's capital rocked the wine communities like a shock wave from the San Andreas Fault only a few miles to the southwest. For the winemakers and grape growers in the two counties, nestled up against the rugged Mayacamas Mountains, wine was both a pleasure and livelihood, and had been for almost a century. For decades before Prohibition, alcohol was as much a part of the daily routine for many Americans as feeding the chickens or milking the family cow. But unlike most other imbibers across the country, for whom beer and whiskey ruled, in Napa and Sonoma it was the homegrown hearty wines and rich, fruity brandies that many locals drank with the most pleasure and pride. Winemakers of Sonoma and Napa might start their day with coffee and a small brandy (distilled in their own woodsheds or barns from the family wines). Then they would pour the day's first glass of wine at midmorning, followed by another at lunch, one in the late afternoon, and finally a glass or two at dinner to stimulate the appetite and to relax them after a day's backbreaking work in the vineyards. Wine was the natural and expected accompaniment to every part of the day, and to many who lived in California, it seemed to have always been that way.

But as important as wine was to the counties' lifestyle, for decades it had been another important linchpin of a bustling farm economy. Long before Prohibition, green and fertile Sonoma County was renowned as the breadbasket of San Francisco for its wheat, potatoes, oats, barley, butter, cheese, pears, peaches, and cherries. Many families still owed their solid homes and pleasant lives to those splendid crops, especially to the massive local prune harvest—gathered from plum trees and dried in the sun or in mechanical dryers—and exported as far away as Germany. Hops were sold nationwide to a vast U.S. beer industry that expanded daily, as were many delicious varieties of apples from the region that owed their flavor and crunch, it was said, to the ocean fogs that drifted through the county on so many summer nights. The U.S. military was an important apple consumer; its orders were for a dried version to be stored for use by American men in uniform around the world.

By the late decades of the 1800s, it was the wine, already sold across the country and increasingly to Europe, that was becoming not just a trademark but also one of the irreplaceable centerpieces of the economy. By 1919, Californians had planted vast tracts of land with dozens of wine varietals: Some of the 400,000 tons of wine grapes produced that year had been turned into dry and sweet wines, notwithstanding Prohibition, perhaps in the belief of winemakers that it was better to act while the grapes were ripe and deal with the consequences later.

The central San Joaquin Valley still produced the bulk of the state's total grape output, but by 1900, long before Prohibition, vineyards in Napa and Sonoma boasted cellars filled with barrels of good reds and whites and hundreds of thousands of bottles of sparkling wine. By the early 1900s, thrifty and hardworking families like the Beringers, Seghesios, Bundschus, Simis, Passalacquas, and Foppianos were cultivating some of the most successful vineyards and grape ranches in the two counties and their operations supported their families in often unaccustomed comfort. By Prohibition many of them were able to add cars, gramophones, and spacious homes to their greatest asset: their invaluable and much-loved acres of fertile land.

The land was sacred to these families, and it meant much more to them than comfortable lives. Many of the winemakers could recall their immigrant fathers' stories about the early years: how they used meager savings to buy property; how they cut down huge trees and wrenched giant stumps out of the ground with chains and horses or struggled with mules and plows on raw, arid land buzzing with rattlesnakes; and how they built their first homes with their own hands, often with lumber they had cut themselves.

Among the increasingly notable Sonoma clans, the Foppianos were typical: a small, tight-knit family who labored shoulder to shoulder, day after day. Their patriarch, Giovanni, had established his lush vineyard just before the end of the nineteenth century. The land he bought had a dramatic history even before the state of California was established. The Foppiano property and the surrounding hills, valleys, and mountains had been part of the vast Sotoyome Rancho when Mexico still ruled this land. The 48,800-acre rancho had been a lavish grant by the Mexican government to a clever sea captain and astute businessman named Henry Delano Fitch, a native of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who had sailed his ship into San Diego harbor in 1826 and had promptly fallen deeply in love with Josefa Carrillo, the teenage daughter of a well-connected Mexican soldier. The couple married after a risky elopement to South America. Fitch acquired a general store in San Diego, surveyed and mapped land, and became a public figure: first a town attorney, then justice of the peace, and then alcade, the chief executive of San Diego, all the while continuing his trading by ship. Fitch had a charmed life, but one of the most fortuitous parts of it was that one of Josefa's sisters, Francisca Benecia, married General Mariano Vallejo, the most powerful man in California. This family relationship smoothed the way for Fitch's massive land grant. Over time, the land Fitch amassed was broken into much smaller parcels, including the land where the Foppianos worked their vines.

Like tens of thousands of his countrymen from Italy in the last half of the 1800s, Giovanni Foppiano had come to California in 1864 in search of gold. And like many of the others, he too left his hometown apprehensive about the long journey to reach the gold fields, although he did not know enough to realize that when he set off he would take one of the more complicated routes possible in search of his dream. After sailing from Europe to Panama, family lore says he walked across the isthmus, and although there had been a railroad built there by 1855 mainly for travelers headed to the Gold Rush that crossed a 47-mile sliver of land from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it is likely Giovanni traveled through the isthmus' jungle, rivers, and lakes by road and by boat like many others. Then he would have boarded yet another sailing ship for the last leg up the coast to San Francisco. This courageous young man from Genoa was also resilient and inventive.

For everyone who made it big in the gold fields, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others left empty-handed, aghast at the isolation, daily violence, armed robberies, drunkenness, and starvation on the remote rivers that rushed down from the soaring peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Giovanni, like others, must have looked around one day at the mining life he had embarked on and asked himself if another calling could offer more to a man with more practical expectations. Soon other immigrants from southern Europe, including many Italians, ran prosperous market gardens throughout California. Setting themselves up with a handful of simple tools and a few acres of land, they grew and sold vegetables to housewives. Grapevines were almost an afterthought to business, often planted to provide wine so the farmers and their families could enjoy a glass with dinner, as had been their tradition back home. But many of them, Giovanni Foppiano included, also brought an unerring instinct for business to their agricultural endeavors; if they could grow grapes to make wine for themselves, they could also turn winemaking into another kind of enterprise. By 1896, Giovanni had amassed enough capital to build a winery.

Giovanni's neighbors were cut from the same cloth: industrious, entrepreneurial, independent. Just a few miles over a bridge, then through a dusty town plaza, a tiny square of parkland, in the little city of Healdsburg and onward north just a few short miles, Edoardo Seghesio, another Italian immigrant, had already purchased land in this county and had begun to plant his own vineyard. By that time, Seghesio had plenty of experience with grapes and wine. Edoardo had first labored in the winery and fields at Sonoma County's huge Italian Swiss Agricultural Colony winery near Asti, about 80 miles north of San Francisco at the invitation of the great winemaker Pietro Carlo Rossi. Seghesio had worked for the Rossi family back in Italy and had impressed family members there. Andrea Sbarboro, who had traveled in steerage to a still-wild San Francisco many years before when he was 13, had launched the Italian Swiss Agricultural Colony in 1881. He had arrived in the port city a year before a young Levi Strauss and his legendary bolts of denim cloth had landed by boat from New York under circumstances just as physically uncomfortable. The Colony began with nearly 1,500 acres of land at Asti, just south of Cloverdale, purchased for $25,000, $10,000 of which was the downpayment. Just after the turn of the twentieth century, it operated a wine vault in San Francisco on the corner of Battery and Greenwich streets that could store two million gallons of wine.

During his years at the Swiss Colony, Edoardo had been able to save a lump sum on which to build his future. By 1895 he had married the very intelligent and pretty Angela Vasconi, equally industrious as he, and the daughter of his Asti boss. Edoardo used his savings to buy his first plot of land. Sturdy and still in his middle years, he, too, was unafraid of hard work and the uncertainties of living so far from his family roots in the Piedmontese village of Dogliani, not far from the original Asti.

As his tiny ranch began to prosper, Seghesio looked for more grape-growing land that he could afford. By 1910, the family's new home in the Alexander Valley was surrounded by Zinfandel grapes that would turn into the great spicy red wines with their fruity and peppery finish, so dear to the heart of Californians. And soon new parcels too, would be planted to hearty varietals, some from his homeland, including Sangiovese and Trebbiano. By 1918, Edoardo was making 100,000 gallons of wine a year, remembered his son Eugene many years later. He cleared $4,000 a year and had $80,000 in the bank. He was to risk everything and lose a great deal not long after that.

Just as hardworking as the Seghesio family were the Cuneos. The family's main asset was fertile land in the Dry Creek Valley, some parts sloping, some parts pancake flat, a few short miles by road from the vineyards of the Foppianos and Seghesios. The Cuneo family produced some wine but were also important grape growers in the district. John Cuneo, who abandoned his baptismal name of Giovanni when he arrived in San Francisco as a 17-year-old, left Liguria in 1900 with $5 in his pocket and the knowledge that he would soon be eligible for the draft if he stayed. A farm laborer at first, he soon became a cooper and then bought a share in a garbage-hauling business in San Francisco.

Like many of his countrymen, John depended on family connections to get him established, starting a grape farm with his brother-in-law and asking his mother to send a wife from his home village of Chiavari, outside Genoa. The tall and enchanting Maria, who spoke no English, arrived on one of the derisively nicknamed "macaroni boats" with the words "San Francisco" printed on a sign tied with a ribbon around her neck. In 1919, John Cuneo still ran the original ranch with his four children—and all of them, especially their only son, Eugene— were vital participants in every part of the ranch operations. The Cuneos considered themselves lucky to have such hardworking children; they could hire fewer ranch hands.

Frank Passalacqua, another neighbor and winemaker, had arrived in the United States from Italy by way of New York in 1865 when he was 18. One of six sons of a family that lived about 12 miles from Genoa and completely unschooled, Passalacqua had started work at age six picking olives. He had saved enough money by the time he was 13 to buy his first pair of shoes. After some of his teenage years spent selling fish in France, he set out for America. Frank was yet another lionhearted refugee who originally tested his fortunes unsuccessfully in California's cruel gold country. Nearly 20 years after he arrived in California, he was settled in Healdsburg in Sonoma County. Thanks to Healdsburg's salubrious climate he raised crops throughout the year. On one three-quarter acre parcel "he picked 1,000 to 1,200 baskets of strawberries a week." By 1889, Frank had 20 acres in vines that produced 25 tons of Zinfandel.

* * *

Although many Italian families were well established in the 1900s, the wine industry in Sonoma and Napa had been born long before. California's first grape growers came from an unlikely place: Russia, whose czar sent colonists to develop a trading base on California's North Coast in the spring of 1812. The Russian-American Company's attempt to cultivate grapes was a victim of the climate on the blustery, misty cliffs of Sonoma County's coast. The endless bone-chilling damp of that raw exposed seacoast was in stark contrast to the mild winters and torrid summer days that blessed Napa and Sonoma only a few dozen miles inland, both tucked behind the protecting embrace of a ripple of coastal mountains.

Another beginning for the wine industry came during the mild winter of 1823, in a tiny clearing among the oak trees that would later become the pretty wine village of Sonoma. Here, a tough Franciscan priest planted 3,000 grapevines to provide wine for the sacrament of mass as well as for enjoyment. Mission priests had green thumbs, along with the time and the help in the fields to make the most of them. They planted flowers: lilies, roses, jasmine, and lavender. They gathered their own nuts and fruits year round: oranges, limes, peaches, pears, pomegranates, and almonds. They were able to cook hearty meals from the rice, wheat, maize, lentils, and garbanzos they grew, and they spiced those meals with home-grown spices and flavorings: tamarind, anise, and cumin. The mission priests cultivated many other necessities of life, including cotton, flax, hemp, and tobacco. And they planted grapes. You could reach from a window and almost touch the vines planted just a few feet outside the newly completed mud walls of the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, the most northerly of 21 religious outposts on the Camino Real, the Spanish royal trail from San Diego to Sonoma. Then controlled by the Catholic Church, the missions were soon to be secularized by Mexico, abandoned, and then swallowed up by that brand-new creation, the state of California. But the legacy of that tiny vineyard was momentous: It was the first to be carved out of a valley that would one day evolve into Sonoma's rich quilt of vineyards.

In 1917, the granddaughter of early Napa Valley settler George C. Yount (for whom the town of Yountville was named) related her memories of winemaking in the 1840s. Mrs. George J. Bucknall's grandfather, thanks to his friendship with General Vallejo, once the commanding general of Alta California for the Mexican government, had acquired a "lordly domain of more than twenty square miles extending across the heart of the [Napa] valley and reaching from ridge to ridge of the mountains." Yount soon secured cuttings of Mission grape vines and was one of the first winemakers in the state. "I remember well the primitive manner in which I first saw the pressing out of the grape juice," Mrs. Bucknell related. "A huge ox skin cleansed and stretched was firmly fastened to four stout stakes driven securely into the ground," and two or more stalwart Native Americans "trampled out the vintage in truly pastoral style. Later troughs were used, the Indians crushing the grapes with their feet. The juice was run into vats and after fermenting was put in casks."


Excerpted from When the Rivers Ran Red by Vivienne Sosnowski. Copyright © 2009 Vivienne Sosnowski. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Vivienne Sosnowski has been an editorial director of newspapers, including the Washington, D.C., Examiner and the San Francisco Examiner. A gifted photographer whose portraits of wine country pioneers were the genesis of When the Rivers Ran Red, she divides her time between a home in the vineyard county of Sonoma and another in Vancouver, Canada.

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