My grandfather, the Dolcetto wine, the “Merica”

Image from the historical-photographic archive of the Regional Museum of Emigration – Piedmont in the World

At the beginning of the twentieth century the entire Fariglianese (Farigliano is a small town “at the foot” of the Langhe) family of my grandfather emigrated to the United States, to Oakland, California, to try to have a better existence. The father left my infant grandfather (Giovanni Ballauri, dubbed Bastianin, 3 years old in 1905) to his sister, aunt Teresa, “Ginota’s teacher” for the villagers, with the promise that, once settled, they would return to take him. They brought with them the youngest sister still breast-fed.

Many, all over Italy, did it, because life was really bad and in Piedmont no less than in other parts: “My mother as a child went to serve in the countryside as a vachera (herdsgirl), in the parts of San Magno, among people who did well. One morning, while she was going to pasture, and while she was eating a piece of hard bread, she met a man who told her: “Cul pan lì ai tu fa grignà a mangialu e ai tu fa piurà a cagalu. Dailu a la vaca, mi ‘t ne dugn ‘n toc del mé [That bread there hurts you to eat it and makes you cry to shit it. Give it to the cow, I give you a piece of mine]”. My mother had to choose every evening whether to work again or skip the dinner, the mistress said to her: “L’has pì car ’ndà a cugiate o desnò mangié sina e filé ’n füs? You prefer to go to bed, or otherwise eat dinner and spin a spindle? If she worked until midnight to spin the hemp she was due to ‘n tüpinet of soup, otherwise nothing [1]”.

Between 1900 and 1914. In those years 3,035,308 Italians arrived in the United States, which means more than 200,000 expatriates from Italy, on average, every year. A large number of Piedmont farmers and workers emigrated to California for different reasons and not always collimating: a portion of emigrants had been summoned as skilled agricultural workers following the first wine-growing settlements (1881 year of the founding of the Italian Swiss Colony) in the Russian River valley north of San Francisco, as it was attracted to Guasti, in the inner part of the territory of Los Angeles, by the Italian Vineyard Company. A second part, after reaching other North American states, turned to the Californian territory with the myth of the West and the search for gold. This was the case, for example, with other wine growers who are now world famous, such as the Gallo. Stories of emigration and entrepreneurship that were built both through the revival of some founding myths (nationalism, conquest of new frontiers …), and from strong ethnic ties according to racial clichés very alive in the American territory.

The common origin became a fundamental factor in guaranteeing the inflow of capital, by banks and private subjects necessary for the development of the Piedmontese wine business in California. Much of the historiography supports the successful emigration of Piedmontese viticulturists to California had as its cornerstone the Pavesian myth of “I’m at home!”The “Moon and the Bonfires”, inspired by the protagonist of the show, on the subject of the similarity of the Californian hills and the Langhe of Piedmont. Secondly, a large part of the literature has considered the transfer of agricultural and viticultural skills, particularly from the old continent to the new, as the natural outcome of sure entrepreneurial success. On the contrary, deeper historical investigations show how much and how human intervention, at the cost of unimaginable efforts and exploitation, iron will and the above mentioned community economies have been the necessary presuppositions for the cultural and landscape transformations that slowly lead us to the places of wine of the Californian present [2].

My grandfather’s parents Gianni never came back to pick him up: his father wrote several letters to his sister Teresa to have him boarded for the “Merica”. But he nothing: he was well there, in Farigliano, with his aunt.

They also had some land on, in the hamlet of Cornole, “a vineyard that climbs the back of a hill until it goes into the sky [3]”, as a sweet. Master Teresa sold the vineyard, in the early seventies, to her sharecropper Giacomo Gillardi, so that he could continue, in other hands, the history of the vineyard and the family. Since then, the vineyard has been called “Maestra Vineyard” and Dolcetto wine has been produced on its own since 1982 thanks to the new family oenologist Giacolino Gillardi, “Maestra”, and now Dogliani “Maestra”.

[1] Il più povero di Peveragno è più ricco del ricco di allora – Caterina Toselli, vedova Tassone, detta Nuia, nata a Peveragno, classe 1890 – Da Il mondo dei vinti, Einaudi, ed. 1977, 1997, p. 32 in

[2] Cfr. Simone Cinotto, Terra soffice uva nera. Vitivinicoltori piemontesi in California prima e dopo il Proibizionismo, Otto, Torino 2008

[3] Cesare Pavese, Feria d’agosto, Einaudi, Torino 1946