Soft Soil, Black Grapes

The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California

280 pages

May, 2014

ISBN: 9781479832361



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Simone Cinotto teaches History at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. He also taught at NYU as “Tiro a Segno” Visiting Professor in Italian American Studies.

All books by Simone Cinotto

Winner of the 2013 New York Book Show Award in Scholarly/Professional Book Design
From Ernest and Julio Gallo to Francis Ford Coppola, Italians have shaped the history of California wine. More than any other group, Italian immigrants and their families have made California viticulture one of America’s most distinctive and vibrant achievements, from boutique vineyards in the Sonoma hills to the massive industrial wineries of the Central Valley. But how did a small group of nineteenth-century immigrants plant the roots that flourished into a world-class industry? Was there something particularly “Italian” in their success?
In this fresh, fascinating account of the ethnic origins of California wine, Simone Cinotto rewrites a century-old triumphalist story. He demonstrates that these Italian visionaries were not skilled winemakers transplanting an immemorial agricultural tradition, even if California did resemble the rolling Italian countryside of their native Piedmont. Instead, Cinotto argues that it was the wine-makers’ access to “social capital,” or the ethnic and familial ties that bound them to their rich wine-growing heritage, and not financial leverage or direct enological experience, that enabled them to develop such a successful and influential wine business. Focusing on some of the most important names in wine history—particularly Pietro Carlo Rossi, Secondo Guasti, and the Gallos—he chronicles a story driven by ambition and creativity but realized in a complicated tangle of immigrant entrepreneurship, class struggle, racial inequality, and a new world of consumer culture.
Skillfully blending regional, social, and immigration history, Soft Soil, Black Grapes takes us on an original journey into the cultural construction of ethnic economies and markets, the social dynamics of American race, and the fully transnational history of American wine.


  • "This beautifully typeset book, with well-chosen black and white illustrations, draws the reader into the entrepreneurial spirit and immigrant group dynamic behind the success of California Italian wines. Engagingly written, Simone Cinotto's account deserves a wide distribution among economic, cultural, and migration historians and all who love wine. The book blends rich and colorful descriptions of food history with business intrigues and family passions. It is a story of high-stakes risks and economic rewards."

    —Mark I. Choate, American Historical Review

  • "Cinotto adeptly identifies the origins of common stereotypes about California winemakers and unpacks those myths in readable prose. His core argument, that there is nothing natural or inevitable about ethnic niche markets, is important and well-supported by his evidence."

    Journal of American Ethnic History

  • "History professor Cinotto traces a unique path in this study of the origins of California’s wine industry."


  • "The writing style is engaging and the author uses a variety of sources to describe the cultural landscape of the California wine industry from its beginnings to modern times."

    Library Journal

  • Soft Soil, Black Grapes is nicely conceived, well written . . . and nuanced and original in its arguments.”

    —David Vaught, The Journal of American History

  • "Clearly organized and written, this book can be useful for sociologists interested in immigration and the formation of ethnic niches in distinct economic sectors. It will be of interest primarily to wine lovers, but it will also interest social scientists with concerns about the malleability of the concept of race."

    —William H. Friedland, Rural Sociology

  • “This is a fascinating look into the origins of the California wine industry. Simone Cinotto dispels the myth that Italian winemakers brought with them age-old knowledge and grapes from the Piedmont. In place of ethnic stereotype, Cinotto shows how Italian immigrant entrepreneurs with no background in viticulture (including the famed Gallo brothers) deftly negotiated the American ethno-racial landscape to found a niche industry, maneuver through the era of Prohibition, and create a mass market for American wine. A must read for those interested in immigration and business history, and fine wine!”

    —Mae Ngai, Columbia University

  • Soft Soil, Black Grapes makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the place of immigrant entrepreneurs in an important American food industry. It offers an inspired interpretation of race and ethnicity that will be compelling to scholars of immigration and ethnic history, and an interpretation of regional Italian difference that will engage those interested in Italian America. Like a good vintage, this story of the origins of winemaking in California will only get richer with time.” 

    —Donna Gabaccia, author of We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans

  • “In this important book, Cinotto shows how the success of California’s wine industry was not the product of environment and tradition but rather the result of the effective use (and the exploitation) of symbols and solidarities based on ethnicity.”

    —Fraser Ottanelli, University of South Florida