The Italian Influence on Washington State Wine

By: Nick Tomassi

The Italian Influence on Washington State Wine

By Nick Tomassi

January, 2008

As a full-blooded Italian (both mother’s and father’s parents immigrated to America in 1890’s), I have always been interested in how the great Italian wines influenced the production of wine in America. My wife and I had the opportunity to travel to Eastern Washington to the city of Walla Walla and interview a number of men in the Washington State wine business whose ancestors also immigrated to America and were among the ones who influenced winemaking in Washington State.

As we sat with these men and recorded their thoughts and their memories, we saw the great pride in their eyes for their ancestors' accomplishments, and their stories took on a special flavor. I had only to ask the first question, "What can you tell me about your Italian ancestors and their

influence and involvement in the local wine industry?", to open the floodgates of their memory.

One could sense their immense pleasure at being able to finally tell the story. I sat back and listened to some of the most fascinating stories of the history of winemaking in Washington State. My fondest wish is that readers can get a sense of that pleasure and pride.

The Italian influence on Washington Wine began with Mr. Frank Orselli, born in Lucca, Italy on April 27, 1833. He came to Washington Territory in 1853, the year it was formed, and to Walla Walla in 1857. A member of Company T, Fourth Infantry, and a veteran of the Indian wars in Oregon, he was discharged with a service connected disability.

Orselli was an industrious young man, and by 1865 he owned 180 acres of land in the original town plat, and had purchased the ‘California Bakery’. In addition to baked goods, he sold supplies, groceries, liquor, wines, cigars, tobacco, fruits and vegetables. It seems probable he grew his own fruits, vegetables and wine grapes.

At the same time there was a Gold Rush going on in Orfino, Idaho, and Orselli sold his produce to the miners. (In Italian, Orfino means "fine gold".) Orselli was a man that was there when the town and county were being formed, owned considerable land, was an orchardist, fruit drier, vineyardist, wine maker, gardener, fireman, soldier, and pioneer businessman. He died on September 11, 1894, leaving a son and two daughters, and his third wife, none of whom stayed in the Walla Walla Valley.

Starting in 1876, Italian immigrants began to arrive who would form the foundation of the Italian farming community in the Walla Walla Valley. They were called ‘gardeners’ by the locals, probably because they started with small gardens for raising their own food and selling to the townspeople. They slowly acquired property, building their ‘gardens’ into substantial farms and vineyards.

They came because they heard of the rich, fertile soil which would allow them to continue the Italian family tradition of growing their own crops and grapes, and making wine for daily consumption with the food they produced. They came because the Italian economy was failing and they no longer trusted the government of Italy and its King. America would allow them to be free and prosper, which they did.

They came from northern Italy near Milan, and from southern Italy near Naples. These early northerners and southerners acknowledged and tolerated each other, but they still sat apart on opposite sides of the church for Sunday Mass. They gradually became friends and formed partnerships in business and in marriage.

A number of the families are now into the fifth generation in the Walla Walla Valley. One of the fifth generation families is that of Mr. Doug Saturno. His great grandfather, Pasquale Saturno, was said to be the next Italian immigrant to arrive in Walla Walla after Orselli. He was born on the island of Ischia, off of Naples in southern Italy, March 3, 1850, and landed in New York in 1875. He made his way to Texas, then California, and finally arrived in the Walla Walla area, settling there in January of 1876.

He was the first commercial truck gardener (farmer) in the Walla Walla Valley, and the first of a group of Italians who would send for family and friends from the old country to help with the farming and begin to form the pioneer Italian community in the Valley. This young man worked hard planting, weeding, harvesting, and selling his produce at Fort Walla Walla and to the townspeople.

He shortly came to own close to 200 acres, with 46 acres planted to farmland. Besides a vast array of crops, he grew and made wine from grapes, having a two plus acre vineyard by his homestead. That vineyard was active until it froze out in 1955. Doug Saturno said, "It wasn't actively maintained but it was there. I remember as a small child, my dad pulling out the old grapevines with a tractor because the freeze had killed them all. Nothing remained of the vineyard."

In addition to grapes that he grew, Pasquale Saturno had Zinfandel grapes sent from California. He had a big press and vat that they pressed the grape juice into and rack after rack of barrels. He made his wines, and sold them to the soldiers at Fort Walla Walla which adjoined his property. So he was able to trade his wine for cash and trade goods that the family needed.

Great grandson Doug Saturno said, "That equipment was still use during the Depression years when my grandfather and his buddies made wine." The family gave the press and vat to the Italian Heritage Society, along with the original Saturno Breen homestead, which can now be seen at the Fort Walla Walla Museum.

The ‘old grapevines’ Doug Saturno's father pulled out are called Black Prince. Present-day winemaker Mr. Rusty Figgins was asked to oversee the installation of the vineyard near the Saturno Breen home at the Fort. The Italian Heritage Society wanted to have a replica of the Italian pioneer's vineyard and winery at Fort Walla Walla, and to have it historically correct, planted the way they would have done it, with the correct grape variety.

Figgins research revealed that the Italians tried a number of grape varieties, but the one that worked best in the hot and dry conditions there was the Black Prince variety. He said it had to be bush vines because the old Italians did not trellis their vines, they used bushes. So now out there you'll find each vine trained up on a single stake. The first vines were planted here in the 1880s, and they didn't set up vast trellis systems, they just had bush vines. He’s certain they did it that way, and they still do it that way in some places in Italy.

Figgins said he found there was a nursery in Sacramento where most of the Black Prince vines came from. "It was a good variety for table grapes for eating, and made a nice wine also. Not a lot of color. They had to punch down the skins to increase the color. The Italians would also blend in Alacanti grapes because it had dark red pulp, providing red grape juice to color the wine."

He also traced the Black Prince to the variety called Black Malvoisie (mal vo see a), and traced that to the well known French Cinsault (sin so) grape variety. He thought it was exciting, to find the Black Prince grape variety his grandfather made wine from was actually a French Rhone variety, Cinsault.

He brought in certified Cinsault variety vines and compared them to Black Prince, which still exists in the Valley. He planted two rows of each variety at Fort Walla Walla side by side at the Italian Heritage exhibit.

Then next came Frank Villa from Genoa in 1878, and Guiseppe (Joe) Tachi from Lonate Pozzolo near Milan in 1780. Tachi sponsored two eleven year old nephews, Tony Locati in 1886, and John Arbini in 1890, and brought them to Walla Walla. These and a few others, about twenty pioneer families in all, were destined to be the influential leaders of the Italian community which grew rapidly from 1895 through 1914. Italian immigration was interrupted for a while by the onset of the First World War.

These men brought with them the Italian tradition of family, growing their own food, and making wine. Some of the wine was sold to the soldiers stationed in the area as well as through the store that Orselli owned, The California Bakery. As their farm acreage grew, the pioneer Italians

gradually became fairly wealthy, selling the produce to the rest of the Walla Walla Valley inhabitants. And the tradition of winemaking carried on from that generation to this.

When the descendants of these pioneer Italian families are asked what influenced them to become winemakers and winery owners, one of the things they invariably point to is the Italian family tradition of the head of the household making wine for home consumption.

There is one other Italian of note who influenced today's winemakers like Leonetti Cellars' Gary Figgins and Woodward Canyon's Rick Small, and that is Mr. Bert Pesciallo. Mr. Pesciallo said that his dad came here in 1900 from Genoa, Italy.

Bert Pesciallo's Blue Mountain Winery in Milton Freewater, OR., was the 14th bonded winery in the state, and the first commercial winery in the Walla Walla area. At the time of his death, he was in his 90s and was said to be the oldest living winemaker in the Walla Walla Valley. He told us that his dad had vineyards here for years, and used to sell grapes to the Italians in Walla Walla. The Blue Mountain Winery started making and selling wine starting in about 1950, ending shortly after the bad freeze in 1956.

Pesciallo helped Rick Small at Woodward Canyon, and Gary Figgins at Leonetti Cellars get started, and he believed that both Small and Figgins have forgotten more than he ever knew about winemaking, because they pursued the wine business and he didn't. Small bought some of his equipment, and asked Pesciallo if he could buy some of the equipment he had purchased from France. He agreed to sell it to Small when he decided to quit. Back then the winery business was very uncertain, now we know it has a good future.

In a follow-on story I’ll report on some of the modern day Italian winemakers making some of the great Washington State wines, following in their ancestors footsteps.

About The Author

Nick is a Connecticut Yankee, transplanted to the Pacific Northwest by a tour in the Air Force. Childhood in Connecticut with a huge Italian extended family taught him about good food, great wine and Italian opera. He retired as a civilian test engineer for the Navy in 1988 and started teaching and writing about wine, beer and spirits in 1992. He and his wife currently live in Silverdale, WA.

Visit Nick Tomassi's web site