Developers of those steroid mansions overlooking the Napa Valley or of cult Cabernet vineyards high on Sonoma's Mayacamas Mountains sometimes come across the odd redwood stake on a hillside. The stakes were used to support vines in another era of California winemaking, and the developers all know exactly who put them up: the Italians.
The Italian winemaking names we know best belong to families who arrived in the early years of the 20th century, but there were countless others who put their all into what was to become the triumph of California wine and of the Italian ethic on the far western edge of America. They planted grapes that few people had ever heard of and that no one dreamed would have a devoted following as "Cal-Itals" a century later. In the late 1800s, they began to buy up plots in the Central Valley and in the narrow coastal defiles, farming hillsides that no one else wanted then but that are prized today. And they outlasted the wealthy owners of the late-19th-century piles in Napa and Sonoma--northern Europeans with names like Krug, Niebaum and Beringer--ultimately taking over these institutions and transforming them.
For many years, the board of the Bank of America in San Francisco (founded by A. P. Giannini as the Bank of Italy in the city's North Beach section) included something known as "the Italian seat." Paisanos often got loans; that's how a large segment of the wine industry was nurtured. The two most famous wine names in California, Gallo and Mondavi, best exemplify what happened.