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First Families

How the Gallos, the Mondavis and other pioneering clans shaped the history of California wine.

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.

The Gallo family came to California from Piedmont in 1906. Giuseppe Gallo, the father of Ernest and Julio, grew grapes near Modesto. After his death in 1933, his sons took over. Ernest showed Americans how to sell wine, with a single-mindedness that left the competition far behind. He made wine a drink that middle-class Americans would at least consider having with their meals, and his company now moves a cool 60 million cases annually. In time he went from coarse Central Valley wines in bottles with handles to sleek French varietals from Sonoma selling for $30 each.

Cesare Mondavi made his way to the Central Valley from the Marche in the early 20th century and became a shipper of fresh vegetables to Italians living in the Midwest. His sons Robert and Peter started making wine at the Sunny St. Helena Winery shortly after Prohibition, then moved to Krug. Robert dreamed of turning out a wine to compete with the best (which meant the French), and in 1966 he set out on his own. Thereafter he probably did more for the appreciation of fine American wine than anyone else in the country, by promoting it relentlessly as a complement to fine food and as a sign of cultural refinement. So great was his success that in 1979 he attracted a French partner, the Baron de Rothschild, to the Napa Valley--a public-relations coup and a watershed.

Among the newer Italian American success stories are Neibaum-Coppola, in Napa County (the old Inglenook winery, bought by director Francis Ford Coppola and retooled from 1975 to 1995), and Ferrari-Carano, in Sonoma County, which Don and Rhonda Carano founded in 1981. After making the winery's reputation with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, the Caranos added the Italian Sangiovese, which they blended with Cabernet and a touch of Malbec and left in oak barrels for 15 months: a Franco-Italian marriage that became their own American version of a Super-Tuscan.

Nobody today is more devoted to the Cal-Itals than Greg Graziano, of Domaine Saint Gregory, a Mendocino winery with two labels, Monte Volpe and Enotria, that produce Italian-style wines. Graziano's grandfather planted vines here in 1918 and passed on to his progeny his love of the Italian wine character, which Graziano sums up as "great acidity and flavor." Monte Volpe offers the whites of Friuli (Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Tocai Friulano) and the reds of central Italy (Sangiovese, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo). Enotria looks to Piedmont, the Graziano family's ancestral turf, for Barbera, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Arneis and Moscato.

Today Italian influence in California is deeper than ever. The Luna winery, founded in 1995 in the Napa Valley, is devoted to Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese and is housed in a facility that suggests, yes, Tuscany. That the company's principal players are of English, Welsh and Norwegian heritage speaks eloquently to the power and appeal of California's Italian grapes.

James Conaway is currently working on a book about Napa, which will be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2002.

Published October 2000
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