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How Italian Wineries Saved American Wines

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Does the contemporary American wine industry owe its existence to Italian immigrants and their wineries? Perhaps, at least to some extent. Americans owe a debt a gratitude to Italian immigrants for a lot of things, but one of the lesser known may be the efforts of immigrant families to preserve their vineyards and wineries during Prohibition.

When so many other wineries ripped out their vines and planted other profitable, predictable crops, a few Italian families saved their vineyards despite the political, legal, social, and economic pressures. Once Prohibition ended, these Italian wineries were ready to start providing wine to the nation. Is it any wonder that the biggest brand names in American wine have for so many years been Italian?

Thanks in large part to the apparent cultural imperative to make wine everywhere they go (the ancient Romans planted both France and Spain thick with wine grapes), Italian families in California kept winemaking alive during Prohibition. Today’s top tier of California winemakers is testament to this persistence: Mondavi, Sebastiani, Martini, Trentadue, Simi, Gallo, Indelicato, Parducci, Seghesio, Foppiano, the list of Prohibition survivors could go on and on.

The Pedroncelli family survived in Sonoma and even profited by selling something called “wine brick,” a compacted brick of dried grapes. Since it would have been a little too shameless to put directions for home-made wine right on the label, the package instead featured a famous warning: never dissolve in cool water, add yeast, nor allow to ferment two weeks. The final unspoken step in the process: do not put in mouth.

Source: Jonathon Alsop, Wine & Philosophy: A Symposium on Thinking and Drinking

It seems to me that wine is more readily associated in people's minds with France than with Italy, but Italy has a wine culture and heritage every bit as deep as France's. After all, it was Italians who originally brought grapes and wine production to France in the first place and hence created their wine culture. Why shouldn't we look to Italy first?

This leads me to an interesting question: to what extent has the American wine culture been informed or even defined by Italian wine culture — perhaps in ways not immediately obvious? For example, if Italian wine makers have so dominated the American wine industry for so many years, have Italian wine making practices and traditions helped guide or even create American wine tastes and wine preferences?

Italian wine makers seem to have been favored by fortunate circumstances:

Wine production changed dramatically after passage of the Volstead Act and Prohibition. The only legal methods for producing wine involved exceptions, one “allowing heads of families to make up to 200 gallons annually” for home use and another allowing sacramental wine to be made for church use.

There was no legal market for retail wine consumption. Because of this, most vineyards turned to producing grapes that would be hardy enough to be shipped all over the United States for home wine production. Many vines were removed and replaced with alicante bouschet, a tough-skinned, high-yielding grape variety that is much favored by Italian American home vintners. The Gallo Brothers winery was able to hold onto their winemaking business by developing exclusive contracts with the Catholic Church to make sacramental wine.

Source: The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, by Amy B. Trubek

The American wine industry has been marked almost indelibly by America's 13-year experiment with Prohibition and responses of Italian family wine makers who struggled to survive and save their vineyards. America's wine industry still hasn't recovered from the devastating effects of Prohibition, but what has survived and the way it survived we clearly owe to the traditions, experiments, and ingenuity of Italian wine makers.

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