Football, the White House, God Bless America, YouTube, and some of the highest-quality American wines… There is a common thread linking them. Can you guess it? All of these items, and thousands more of routinely used items that make life as we know it possible today, have all been created or majorly influenced by who – immigrants who came to America.
The persuit of the American dream, combined with the immigrant’s high-risk spirit to do something unique that they believe in, a strong work ethic and desire to create a better life while also wanting to import some of their cultural traditions to maintain as sense of meaning and livelyhood in a foreign land, have brought to us some of the traditions that are now synonymous with American culture, but trace their roots far from our land.
Let’s focus on the importance of Italian families and their contribution to American wine. We should be grateful for their desire to colonize wherever they go with vines, as they have done such since the Roman Empire. It wasn’t until the decades after 1880 that the Italian population in the US began to grow by 3 to 10-fold each decade, partially as a result of the Oriental Exclusion Act being inacted. The importance of Italian immigrants can be seen as even as early as the 18th century.
One notable influencer at that time was Tuscan-born Phillip Mazzei who met Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, with whom he collaborated to bring over numerous Tuscan products like olive trees, vegetables, and thousands of Italian vines. Fast forward to Prohibition, when most winemakers chose to rip out their vineyards and plant more predictable and profitable plants, it was some of the Italian familys that chose to perservere through these difficult times by creatively exploiting loop-holes (the upside of the notorious corruption that Italy tends to be known for) despite the legal and economical pressures. One of those was the ability to make up to 200 gallons annually of personal wine. Home winemaking is estimated to have increased 9 times during that period, ironically causing an increase in CA vineyard acreage from 1920-1925, but unfortunately doing nothing but damage to overall wine quality.
Another loop-hole which one Italian winemaker who is still making wine in Sonoma today, Pedroncelli, used to his advantage was the selling of ‘wine bricks’ which came with explict instructions of how ‘not’ to m ake wine - since selling grapes with the intention of making wine was illegal. It was his dedication to the cultural importance of making wine that has led to the quality wines they produce today. Others like Gallo and Martini, found their way to use the loop-hole allowing wine to be made strictly for religious purposes with the Catholic Church. And so finally in 1933 when Prohibition ended, and less than 100 of the previous 2,500 wineries remained, these persistent and passionate Italian winemakers were ready to rebuild once again and improve the quality of their wines for commercial sale.
Today, many of the top ranking California wines are synonymous with Italian names – Mondavi, Simi, Sebastiani, Trentadue… And others, albeit now more famous for their jug wines, E&J Gallo and Carlo Rossi, had huge influence on the spread of wine to the mass market which ultimately has shaped our wine culture today. And if you love your daily glass of Cabernet, it was Robert Mondavi alongside Andre Tchelistcheff who deemed it the perfect match for Napa Valley. But perhaps as much as we should give thanks to the enduring and passionate Italian ways when it comes to winemaking, much of their thanks surely goes to the open-minded spirit that is instilled in the American culture, allowing for the American dream to be a possibility for anyone who has the grit and desire to make it happen.
I may not prefer the California red blends, but I am surely grateful for this blend in culture. So in conclusion, if you love Tesla, can’t live without Google, or just like to sit back on a Sunday to watch your favorite football match while your wife drinks her glass of Cabernet, don’t forget that all of this is a result of an open-minded, inclusive culture which attracts hard workers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and innovators from highly specialized fields from all over the world.