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- Published on Amazon.com
In Soft Soil, Black Grapes, Simone Cinotto has made an original contribution not only to California wine-making history, but to the history of immigration in the U.S. before WWII. Focusing on the winemakers Andrew Sbarboro, the founder of the Italian Swiss Colony Winery, Ernest and Julio Gallo, and Secondo Guasti, founder of the Italian Vineyard Company in what is now Rancho Cucamonga, Cinotto argues that these early winemakers, all from northern Italy, did not necessarily bring old-world viniculture skills to America. Rather, they succeeded as businessmen by exploiting the growing ethnic economy in America at the time through social and cultural capital.
Cinotto's well-researched history draws upon archives from northern California to southern California. It is widely known that the original Italian immigrants to northern California came from northern Italy, from A. P. Giannini, Marco Fontana, Domenico Ghirardelli, and Giovanni Pedroncelli, Robert Mondavi, and the Cellas to Secondo Guasti, Andrew Sbarbaro, and the Gallos.
What distinguishes these northern Italian immigrants is that they came not as peasants looking for work, but as businessmen looking to exploit the new markets that they imagined would be awaiting them in America. Some, such as Ghirardelli and Guasti, immigrated first to South America and Mexico, where they began their New World business careers, before they migrated to America. They brought with them their business experiences and also a higher degree of literacy than their southern Italian counterparts who would make up the vast majority of the Italian immigrants coming to American.
As Cinotto explains, Sbarboro, as well as all the other Italian businessmen, could not have become successful without the labor of those southern Italian immigrants, as well as other immigrants, that came West. The unique contribution to immigrant studies that Cinotto makes in Soft Earth, Black Grapes is how the immigrant economy worked for Sbarboro, Guasti, and the Gallos, as well as his workers, in spite of their low wages. In the exchange of what Cinotto calls social capital, the winemakers hired Italian immigrants at a lower and even, it could be argued, an exploitive pay scale. But in return the laborers had a more secure working environment. At Secondo Guasti's Italian Vineyard Company, Mexican and southern Italians worked as laborers and foremen, while Guasti's top managers were from his home region and spoke his dialect. Japanese labor contractors provided Guasti with the bulk of his seasonal workers, but not always at a fair pay scale.
Soft Soil, Black Grapes is a window into the workings of the immigrant economy, not just Italian but by implication all immigrant communities before World War II and well into the twentieth-first century. Ethnic communities, whether urban or rural, are not just cultural entities, but enterprise zones where immigrants have always relied on each other culturally and economically to succeed, from the Japanese and Italian farmers in the West before World War II to Chinatowns, Little Italies, and Barrios throughout the U.S.
However, these same economic opportunities were not available to Native Americans and African Americans. For the careful reader, Cinotto's study opens yet another important discourse over the issue of race in America: who is or is not "white."
Cinotto has laid the basis for further studies on how all immigrant communities succeed in spite of resistance, historical and contemporary, to their settlement in America. Ken Scambray, Univ. of La Verne.