Immigrants, Wine and the Spirit of America

By: Carla De Luca Worfolk

As summer is ending, I’m reminded of big family gatherings around the table on warm evenings during my childhood. After dinner, my Sicilian grandfathers would sit together slicing ripe peaches into their glasses before pouring red wine over them. They favored this dessert more than any other, including my grandmothers’ cannoli. And I remember how they often spoke during these times, about how grateful they were for the opportunity they found in America. About how their hard work and sacrifices were worth it. And they shared an unwavering belief in an always better future, reflecting on what the family had overcome — separations and financial hardships throughout World War I and II, like so many others.  

When I first began researching for my documentary film, “America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition,” I was immediately struck by a familiar mindset of optimism among the early immigrant wine families who also came to this country. Emigrating primarily from Italy, France, Germany and other parts of Southern and Eastern Europe, they brought their strong cultural and religious traditions, which included wine as part of their everyday diets and lifestyles. Looking back, it is no surprise that a Hungarian immigrant, Agoston Haraszthy, established California’s oldest commercial winery, Buena Vista, founded in 1857.

"More recorking at Buena Vista," for champagne, from the Eadweard Muybridge series, circa 1871, Courtesy  The Bancroft Library .

"More recorking at Buena Vista," for champagne, from the Eadweard Muybridge series, circa 1871, Courtesy The Bancroft Library.

When National Prohibition began in 1920, these wine families, mainly in California, could not imagine that a new law would have such a dramatic impact on them and their livelihoods. Since much of the concern surrounding Prohibition was because of public abuse of beer and spirits, many in the wine community had incorrectly assumed that the commercial making, selling and distribution of wine would be considered an exception. As the 18th Amendment took effect, winemakers were truly stunned.

Sun-lit barrel room in California from “A merica’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition ,” Courtesy  The Bancroft Library

Sun-lit barrel room in California from “America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition,” Courtesy The Bancroft Library

Most were forced to close up their businesses and uproot vineyards, but a steadfast contingent of entrepreneurs from immigrant families quickly and cleverly redirected efforts in order to persevere during the thirteen dry years. As we explore in the film, they employed a range of strategies to stay in business and meet the needs of consumers, keeping some knowledge of winemaking and the emerging American wine culture alive.

For example, it was still legal to sell wine for medicinal and religious purposes, and some, like the Wente family, became providers of sacramental wine to the Catholic church. There was also a provision in the law that allowed home winemaking in limited quantities, which not only created a boom in home winemaking, but also in grape growing. Vintners, like J.B. Cella of the Roma Wine Company, and twins Edmund and Robert Rossi of Italian Swiss Colony, capitalized on this, shipping fresh grapes by rail car to Eastern cities, while they also produced concentrates. In fact, a number of winemakers switched their operations to create grape products for making beverages, as well as sauces, jams and jellies, which were all well-advertised in pamphlets and magazines. My favorite of these is the congealed “wine brick,” that often came with an amusing warning, such as “Don’t add water and sugar or an alcoholic beverage will result!”

Remarkably throughout Prohibition, these businesses survived, fueled by optimism as the winemakers maintained an unshakeable belief that Repeal would come. When it did with the 21st Amendment in 1933, a few vintners, like the Concannons, were ready to sell wine on the very first day, enabled by their ingenuity and resilience. Still, they all faced significant challenges after years of disrepair, with limited resources, poor grape quality, and a myriad of confusing new laws and regulations. But the entrepreneurial vintners again overcame obstacles to rebuild the wine industry, setting it on course to become a leading global competitor. Historians mark the beginning of America’s international wine success with the Paris Tasting of 1976, which is only 43 years after Repeal - a short amount of time historically speaking and compared to other countries.

The Ceja family at their Napa winery, from “ America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition ,” Courtesy  The Bancroft Library . 

The Ceja family at their Napa winery, from “America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition,” Courtesy The Bancroft Library

From the earliest days, immigrants have contributed to and influenced all aspects of American winemaking, from earth to table, taking on every job from vineyard worker to owner. As our film looks at the historical arc of how the modern wine industry developed with great enterprise, these critical contributions are highlighted in representative stories of individuals and families, leading up to present day. Among those included in the film, the Ceja family shared their story of working from the ground up. Amelia, her husband Pedro and his brother Armando, came to Napa from Mexico, starting as young farmworkers before co-founding their Napa winery. In May, they were recognized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, along with other families of Mexican heritage, for their work supporting and also shaping California’s wine industry.

Close up of bottling line from “ America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition ,” Courtesy  The Bancroft Library

Close up of bottling line from “America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition,” Courtesy The Bancroft Library

In 2013, the Smithsonian also featured my film and recognized family members of legacy wineries that survived Prohibition - E&J Gallo, Gundlach Bundschu, Louis M. Martini, Pedroncelli Winery, and Wente Family Estates - to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Prohibition’s repeal. These events, honoring both the past and present generations, underscore the essential role immigrants have played in American wine history as they’ve imparted their indomitable, optimistic spirit. It’s the same spirit my grandfathers brought with them from Italy, and is the very best of America.

Carla De Luca Worfolk is the Director, Executive Producer and Co-Writer of the award-winning film, “America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition,” sponsored by the University of California’s Bancroft Library. An Emmy-winning former CNN producer, she is also a new board member of the San Francisco Press Club.