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

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

by Simone Cinotto


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781479832361
Publisher: New York University Press
Publication date: 05/02/2014
Series: Nation of Nations Series , #21
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

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.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1 The Success of Italian Winemakers in California and the "Pavesian Myth" 25

2 Producing Winescapes: Immigrant Labor on California Land 47

3 The Culture and Economy of Wine in Italy and California 61

4 One Nation: The Importance of Ethnic Cooperation 93

5 The Spirit and Social Ethics of Ethnic Entrepreneurship 107

6 The Ethnic Edge: The Economy of Matrimonial Strategies and Family Culture 115

7 White Labor and Happy Families: Race, Social Capital, and Paternalism 129

8 Italian Winemakers and the American System 151

9 Wine and the Alchemy of Race I: The Social and Cultural Economy of Italian Regionalism 183

10 Wine and the Alchemy of Race II: Prohibition 207

Conclusion: Work, Social Capital, and Race in the Experience of Italian Winemakers in California 227

Notes 237

Index 261

About the Author 267

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

History professor Cinotto traces a unique path in this study of the origins of California’s wine industry."-Booklist,

“In this important book, Cinotto shows how the success of California’s wine industry was not the product of environment and tradition but rather the result of the effective use (and the exploitation) of symbols and solidarities based on ethnicity.”-Fraser Ottanelli,University of South Florida

“Soft Soil, Black Grapes makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the place of immigrant entrepreneurs in an important American food industry. It offers an inspired interpretation of race and ethnicity that will be compelling to scholars of immigration and ethnic history, and an interpretation of regional Italian difference that will engage those interested in Italian America. Like a good vintage, this story of the origins of winemaking in California will only get richer with time.” -Donna Gabaccia,author of We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans

“This is a fascinating look into the origins of the California wine industry. Simone Cinotto dispels the myth that Italian winemakers brought with them age-old knowledge and grapes from the Piedmont. In place of ethnic stereotype, Cinotto shows how Italian immigrant entrepreneurs with no background in viticulture (including the famed Gallo brothers) deftly negotiated the American ethno-racial landscape to found a niche industry, maneuver through the era of Prohibition, and create a mass market for American wine. A must read for those interested in immigration and business history, and fine wine!”-Mae Ngai,Columbia University

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