Italian Swiss Colony and the Italian Contribution
Another sort of big-scale enterprise begun in California in the eighties recalled earlier experiments like that at Anaheim, but with considerable difference. Andrea Sbarboro was a native of Genoa who had arrived in this country in 1850, aged twelve, and earned prosperity by organizing building and loan societies in California. As a way to help his fellow-countrymen in the state, he had the idea of creating a large grape-growing business on the principle of the savings and loan society. The original investments would be made by capitalists who could afford them, but the workers would, through payroll deductions, acquire shares in the company and could, if they liked, convert their property into land. Sbarboro's intention was to provide steady, dignified work for the many Italians who had arrived in San Francisco in large numbers and sunk to the bottom of the labor pool. No doubt, as a prudent man of business, Sbarboro hoped to make money, but as a student of the many cooperative experiments of the nineteenth century, and as a devoted reader of John Ruskin and Robert Owen, Sbarboro also hoped to create a work of genuine social philanthropy. Thus the Italian Swiss Colony was born (there were originally a few Swiss from Ticino in the affair, but it very soon became exclusively Italian).
The first steps went well. In 1881 a company was formed, and 1,500 acres of hill and valley were bought far north in Sonoma County, near Cloverdale. Here, in a village called Asti after the Piedmont town famous for its wines, the workers were settled and planting began in 1882. Workers were easy to recruit, for the company gave good terms: $30 to $40 a month, plus room, board, and as much
wine as a man could decently drink. Preference was given, according to the bylaws, to Italians or Swiss who had become U.S. citizens or who had declared their intention of becoming citizens: this was to be a permanent community. Two developments, however, soon altered the original purposes. The first was that the Italian workers wanted no part of Sbarboro's investment scheme. The proposal to deduct $5 each month from their wages looked to them like financial trickery. Suspicious to a man, they all refused to participate. Thus, as a company publication put it some years later, "they rejected the future that their more sagacious fellow-countrymen had planned." The Italian Swiss Colony had, therefore, to be carried on like any other joint stock company, though it continued to be marked by a strong paternalistic tendency. A second change in the original purposes came about through the collapse of the market in 1886. The idea of an Italian Swiss Colony specializing in grape growing had been formed when wine grapes were bringing $30 a ton; by 1887, when the first substantial tonnage appeared, the price was $8, not enough to meet the costs of production. The directors determined that the colony would enter the wine business itself and authorized the construction of a 300,000-gallon winery. By these steps the cooperative vineyard of Sbarboro's original vision became an integrated winemaking company.
By very careful management, and by the severe discipline of paying no dividends for its first sixteen years, the Italian Swiss Colony gradually made its way. It was lucky in its officers: Sbarboro continued to take a close personal interest in the work; Charles Kohler, the dean of California wine merchants, was a shareholder and a member of the company's auditing committee; Dr. Paolo de Vecchi, the vice president, was a highly successful San Francisco surgeon; the president and general manager was Pietro Rossi, a graduate in pharmacy of the University of Turin. Despite the phylloxera then spreading through California, they managed to develop extensive vineyards, as well as coping with the wild fluctuations of an unstable wine market. When the company at last had its wine ready, the California dealers' best price was a derisory seven cents a gallon. Rossi responded by organizing the company's own agencies in order to reach the eastern markets. They were able to ship in quantity to New York, New Orleans, and Chicago—the three cities where the still very restricted American wine market was concentrated. Before long, Italian Swiss Colony wines were being sent to foreign markets as well, through agents in South America, China, Japan, England, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The New York branch held stocks of a million gallons. The company did a good trade in altar wines. And it industriously collected prizes and awards at expositions around the world, to be displayed or its labels.
By the turn of the century, the Asti premises were the largest source of table. wine in California, and the huge wine cistern—500,000 gallons' capacity—that Sbarboro had had built to hold the bumper vintage of 1897 in order to keep it off the market had become one of the tourist wonders of California. By 1910 the vineyards of the Italian Swiss Colony extended over 5,000 acres, including proper-
ties at Madera, Kingsburg, Selma, and Lemoore in the Central Valley in addition to the original Sonoma plantings. Company literature boasted that there were more superior varieties of grape grown at Asti than anywhere else in the United States, and certainly the winery poured out a profusion of kinds: Italian Swiss varietals included zinfandel, carignane, mataro, barbera, cabernet, pinot, riesling, pinot blanc, and sauvignon blanc. The company developed a sparkling moscato, and distilled large quantities of both brandy and grappa. Its banner wine, familiar in all American markets, was its "Tipo," sold in imitation chianti fiaschi in both red and white varieties.
The shareholders who endured the long years of profitless operation were finally well rewarded. The company's winery capacity in x 910 had reached 14,250,000 gallons, and the stock, originally worth around $150,000, was now valued at $3,000,000 and would continue to grow. Sbarboro and Rossi both built handsome "villas" at Asti, which they used as summer retreats, from which they could survey their work—the winery, the village houses, cooper's shop, post office, school, railroad station, and church—the latter built in the shape of a barrel among the vineyards. Sbarboro could, with pardonable pride, look on the evidence of a success rather different from, but probably far greater than, anything he had imagined back in 1881. Unluckily, he had also the misfortune of living long enough to see the catastrophe of the Eighteenth Amendment, which wiped out all the results of his philanthropic labor. Sbarboro was one of the first among the leaders of California winemaking to perceive the threat of prohibition, and he became a leading publicist in the national campaign for wine and temperance. He had the bitter fulfillment of seeing all that he had worked for fail.
It is not necessary by this point to repeat that the growth of winemaking in this country was the work of a wide variety of different immigrant communities; but the success of the Italian Swiss Colony reminds us that the Italians were a relatively new element. There had been Philip Mazzei in eighteenth-century Virginia, but he seems to have had no successors, or at least none who left a record. That changed very quickly now. Italian immigration to the United States had formed only one half of one percent of the total immigration in the decade of the Civil War. By 1881-90 it had increased more than tenfold, and in the next decade it tripled again. Much of this tide came to California. The Italians were all the more welcome after the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1882 shut off the flow of Chinese labor to the vineyards and wineries of the state.
Though it can be given only incidental mention, the Chinese contribution to California wine deserves more than that; it is, however, largely undocumented, and so much of it is lost to history. What can be said is that in the thirty years between their first immigration in 1852, when they were sent to the gold mines or to the railroad embankments, and the Exclusion Act of 1882, they were widely used in the California wine industry, from vineyard to warehouse. Scattered remarks in print attest this, and a few old prints and photos show Chinese at work in vineyard and press house, but no connected account of the Chinese in California winegrowing
has yet been put together. As early as 1862 Colonel Haraszthy was employing Chinese labor at Buena Vista and defending his practice against an already strong public hostility. In the south, as we have seen already, J. De Barth Shorb had discovered the virtues of Chinese labor in his vineyards by 1869; his neighbor and rival L.J. Rose had followed Shorb's lead in using Chinese labor by 1871, and thereafter one may reasonably suppose that they were a standard part of southern California winemaking as they already were in the north. Perhaps the best-known picture of winemaking in nineteenth-century California, the drawing made by Paul Frenzeny in 1878, has as one of the most prominent parts of its design the figures, of Chinese coolies bringing in baskets of grapes from the field and treading them out over redwood vats.
To return to the Italians, the earliest of them in California winemaking were very early indeed: the Splivalo Vineyard and Winery in San Jose went back to 1853. though Splivalo did not acquire it until the late fifties. Earliest of all, perhaps, was: Andrea Arata, who planted his Amador County vineyard in 1853. These were isolated instances, however. And when there was a considerable Italian immigration
to California, few of the newly arrived Italians were in a position to set themselves up independently—a fact to which Sbarboro's cooperative scheme of the Italian Swiss Colony had been a response. The fate of most who went on the land, then, was to labor in the fields. There were exceptions: Vincent Picchetti was in business in Cupertino by 1877, Placido Bordi at the same place in 1881; but it was not until the late eighties that Italian names began appearing with any regularity among the proprietors. In the south, Giovanni Demateis founded his winery at San Gabriel in 1888; Giovanni Piuma his in Los Angeles in 1889; Secondo Guasti opened his Los Angeles winery in 1894. In the Central Valley two wineries founded in the 1880s followed the expansive tendencies of that region by growing to a great scale: the Bisceglia brothers at Fresno, who opened in 1888, eventually built their enterprise to a capacity of eight million gallons; Andrew Mattei at Malaga, near Fresno, pro cessed the yield of some 1,200 acres of vineyard. In the north, Bartholomew Lagomarsino was established in Sonoma County; G. Migliavacca was one of the earliest of all, for he set up as a winemaker in Napa in 1866.
Though they were beginning to make an important contribution to California winegrowing before the nineteenth century was over, the Italians were far from dominating the scene, as they have sometimes seemed to do since Repeal. Certainly one would get that impression from the fiction and drama written about the families who make wine in California: the writers almost all choose Italians as their image of the California winegrower. The French family Rameau in Alice Tisdale Hobart's The Cup and the Sword is a rare exception. Perhaps it is true that the Italians were more loyal to the vine than any other group during the trying times of Prohibition, so that the names that first came forth on the morning of Repeal were those of the faithful Italians: Rossi, Petri, Martini, Gallo, Cribari, Vai. But the prominence of Italian names on the winemaking scene of California is an effect of our particular perspective. To an observer of the California industry at the moment when Prohibition shut it down, its character would have been thoroughly mixed, perhaps a little more evidently European than most American institutions, with its many Beringers, Schrams, Lefrancs, Gallegoses, Niebaums, and Sbarboros, but not clearly dominated by any one of these nationalities and not excluding an abundance of people with names like Tubbs, Baldwin, Dalton, and Keyes. If I were to make a guess on the question (and it would be something more than a guess), I would say that there were more growers and winemakers of German descent, both in California and in the rest of the country, than of any other origin before Prohibition.