Enthusiast's Corner April 2006

Third-generation family members are still in decision-making positions throughout the wine business.


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The Italian Heritage of U.S. Wine

Gina Gallo recently paid a visit to the Wine Enthusiast offices to introduce Gallo Family Vineyards, the wines that will eventually replace the Gallo of Sonoma labels. Gina is very knowledgeable, a great spokeswoman for the family, and, along with her brother, Matt, is the third generation of Gallos to take up the winemaking mantle in America. Though most of what we talked about was the future of her family company rather than its past, it got me thinking about family, and how pervasive is the Italian heritage in the California wine industry. It struck me that the history of the Gallo family is virtually the history of American wine, from humble beginnings to dramatic growth to a truly global business.

Essentially, the American wine industry owes its very existence to pioneers who brought the culture of winemaking from their European roots to the shores of the U.S. And many of those pioneers were from Italy. Throughout the mid-19th century, they came to California and, finding that it reminded them of Italy, they began to plant grapes and make wine. It was small-scale farming and winemaking. It wasn't until Prohibition was lifted that Italian winemakers began to build their empires.

There's no denying that the founders of the American wine industry were mostly Italian-Americans: Ernest and Julio Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Samuel Sebastiani, Louis Martini, Giuseppe Franzia. It's staggering to consider that those names are just the illustrious tip of the iceberg.

John DeLuca recently told me of a dinner he attended to honor Lou Foppiano Sr. in Sonoma. DeLuca, who continues his work with the Wine Institute as executive vice chairman, and who was our Lifetime Achievement Award winner in 2004, counted off the names of some of the guests: Robert Mondavi, John Parducci, Mario Perelli, Elizabeth Martini, Joe Minetti, Joe Ciatti, plus members of the Seghesio, Sebastiani, Rossi and Pedroncelli families. "When it came time to take group pictures," DeLuca recalled, "they called for everyone over age 80 to form a grouping, and 20 people came forward. Then they called for everyone over age 90, and there were nine people who qualified."

What was most impressive to DeLuca was not so much the ethnicity, or even the longevity. "The wine industry is defined by the ethics carried across the generations," he said. "There are very few industries today where there is still that family continuity. Third, fourth, fifth generations. Some of these wineries have been acquired, but they maintain the family sensibility."

We hope that sensibility can be found in this issue, which has a pronounced Italian accent. We'll present a preview of the 2001 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino, the quintessential red wine of Tuscany. You'll find profiles of some of the top producers and ratings of this full-bodied, distinctive red wine which, by the laws of the local organization, cannot even be released until the fifth year after the harvest. Talk about longevity.

Paul Gregutt examines the influx of European winemakers to Washington State, where climate, soil, relatively low prices for land and wide-open, American-style opportunity combine to create a very welcoming environment, free of some of the restraints that traditional, family-owned wineries impose on their young. (Granted, it's not all paradise in family wineries.) Our spirits tasting director F. Paul Pacult examines grappa, the traditional Italian brandy, or aquavit, that has proudly maintained a reputation as the most caustic and fiery of all after-dinner spirits. As Pacult reveals, though, the same gentrification that seems to be sweeping all corners of this industry has finally reached grappa, and there are some elegant, refined examples.

We in the wine business often extol the virtues of good food, good wine, togetherness of family and friends. Who, more than the Italians, epitomizes that lifestyle? And when we linger at table over some wine, grappa or espresso, long after the last course has been served, more than good memories and good feelings are generated. As John DeLuca pointed out, a wealth of advice and lore is passed down through the generations. The health benefits of wine, for example, has been a subject of discussion at Italian family tables forever. Today's science, spun from yesterday's folk wisdom.

Cin-cin.

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