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Soft Soil, Black Grapes

The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California

Simone Cinotto

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: NYU Press

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

The fact that this book was first written and published in Italian and then, thoroughly revised, in English, means it has kept me busy for quite a long time. But it also means that I have had the great fortune of enjoying twice the amount of help that one could normally expect. ...

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pp. 1-24

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 ...

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1. The Success of Italian Winemakers in California and the “Pavesian Myth”

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pp. 25-46

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, ...

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2. Producing Winescapes: Immigrant Labor on California Land

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pp. 47-60

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 ...

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

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pp. 61-92

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 ...

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4. One Nation: The Importance of Ethnic Cooperation

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pp. 93-106

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. ...

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5. The Spirit and Social Ethics of Ethnic Entrepreneurship

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pp. 107-114

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 ...

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

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pp. 115-128

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, ...

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

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pp. 129-150

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 ...

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8. Italian Winemakers and the American System

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pp. 151-182

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, ...

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

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pp. 183-206

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” ...

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10. Wine and the Alchemy of Race II: Prohibition

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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 ...

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

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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 ...


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pp. 237-260


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pp. 261-266

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About the Author

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p. 267

Simone Cinotto is Assistant Professor of Twentieth-Century History at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, Pollenzo (Italy). He was previously Tiro a Segno Visiting Professor of Italian American Studies at the Department of Italian Studies at NYU. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814717394
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814717387
Print-ISBN-10: 0814717381

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 817560248
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Soft Soil, Black Grapes

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Subject Headings

  • Wine and wine making -- California -- History.
  • Wine and wine making -- Social aspects -- California -- History.
  • Viticulture -- California -- History.
  • Italians -- California -- History.
  • Italian Americans -- California -- History.
  • Vintners -- California -- History.
  • Vintners -- Italy -- Piedmont -- History.
  • Wine and wine making -- Italy -- Piedmont -- History.
  • California -- Ethnic relations -- History.
  • California -- Economic conditions.
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