The Italian Swiss Colony Tipo Wood Box

The Italian Swiss Colony Tipo Wood Box.

Charcoal making

Making charcoal.

Three million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1900 and 1915. The majority were young men, both artisans, and peasants, with no future in their homeland; Italy became a country in 1861 with the goal of bringing many independent regions together. The outlook for the economy was very bleak and the government repressive. The unrelenting poverty in Southern Italy forced approximately eight percent of the immigrants to leave Sicily and the southern provinces of Calabria, Compania, Abruzzi, and Molise. Four out of five immigrants worked only in agriculture and had no skills in manufacturing and mining. But for most Italians, there was a higher risk of dying by staying in Europe than by emigrating to America.

In the late nineteenth century, many of these Italians immigrated to Northern California to find work in the vineyards and the agricultural fields. Wine was the defining beverage in Italian culture and also in the sacraments of Catholicism. Many southern Italians found work at the Italian Swiss Colony in Asti. The Asti Colony and their Italian workers became a national brand that grew Italian varieties and shipped bulk table wine to every major city in the United States with an Italian population. Tipo Chianti wine, tipo meaning “type” in Italian, was most famous. The Italian Swiss Colony brand became the largest table wine producer by 1937. By the 1950s, it was the second most visited tourist attraction in California, after Disneyland.

However, the history of the Italian migration is very different in San Luis Obispo County. Italians from Northern Italy and Switzerland had major roles in shaping the wine history of San Luis Obispo County.

The Italians who migrated to Templeton in the early 1900s had a different heritage from those in Southern Italy. They were typically a part of the educated middle class who lived in mountain villages in Northern Italy or Switzerland. Many grew up on dairy farms or worked as woodcutters. They tended to travel in small groups with relatives or friends from their villages. As they arrived by ship on the East Coast of the United States, most of the men joined friends and became laborers to earn the money to move west. They lived in tenement houses maintained by Italians and socialized with fellow Italians. They worked on the railroads in New York or in the coal mines of Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They were often paid a dollar a day with a gold coin. Eventually, many of these Italian immigrants saved enough to travel to California by train with friends to join family and to seek jobs in dairies, agriculture, lumber, or manufacturing charcoal.

The Templeton Gap stretches from York Mountain, east to Paso Robles. The names of early settlers – Busi, Dellaganna, Dusi, Martinelli, Nerelli, Pesenti, and Rotta – are still well known there a century later. Most of these Italian immigrants started as woodcutters and charcoal makers in the early 1900s, clearing the forests to plant vineyards on York Mountain. Charcoal was a valuable commodity; it was used for heating and for the manufacture of gunpowder. Some of the earliest of these immigrants worked for John Pesenti, the first of his family to settle near Paso Robles. As soon as they learned the skill, they formed their own businesses to make charcoal and hired their own crews. The Busi family would become well known for their skills in this business; a business that continued to flourish well into the 1950s.

The Italians moved on to work in the newly planted vineyards. They were trained to dry-farm, prune and harvest grapes. Within a few years, each family had purchased farmland with their savings. The Paso Robles and Templeton areas are similar in geography and climate to Northern Italy with crops and vineyards planted in rolling hills and on steep mountains. Winegrower Frank Nerelli describes the areas as “so similar that you forget which country you are working in.”

These Italian families lived, worked, ate, and prayed together forming strong social bonds. Many had come from the same villages in Italy. Multiple generations often lived and farmed together. They socialized on the weekends at bar-b-ques and card games. They helped one another with harvests and planting.

During the 1920s, it was the Italians who transformed the Templeton landscape by removing forests to farm grains and plant Zinfandel grapes in their own small vineyards. They primarily focused on growing grapes; only five Italian growers founded wineries in the early years.

In 1920, Prohibition took effect in America; the legislation banned the sale and transportation of liquor, including wine. However, it was legal to grow grapes, sell them, and make a limited quantity of wine on your own property. And, it was legal to drink wine on your own property but not to purchase it in bars, saloons, or speakeasies.

The majority of Italians arrived in San Luis Obispo after the turn of the century and planted their vineyards in the 1920s after Prohibition began. They became known for their field blend of Zinfandel, Alicante Bouchet, and Carignane. They produced wine at home and in their wineries for religious and medicinal purposes; a few sold to friends and the black market. Some were arrested and fined by local law enforcement. Some had their homes raided and barrels chopped to pieces. Others spent time in jail but they all thrived. Their stories are fascinating and reveal their determination and talents. The wine they produced was sold by the gallon in glass containers with a screw top; it was known as “jug” wine until the 1970s when a new breed of Italian winemakers transitioned Zinfandel from the jug to an elegant bottle.