Note: This article first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on August 27, 2013 under the title, Toast: Our Wine Pioneers: In their own words.
It smells good in here. Usually I say that when I enter a winery.
This time I'm talking virtual aromas. If we could smell through the Internet (it's just a matter of time, isn't it?) the Bancroft Library's oral histories of wine pioneers would smell of cedar cigar boxes, a hint of grandpa's aftershave and wine, of course.
The introduction to the collection explains oral history as "a spoken account, offered by the interviewee in response to questioning, and as such it is reflective, partisan, deeply involved, and irreplaceable."
Yes, it is exactly that, deeply involved and personal. The kind of thing you would hear at the knee of a favorite uncle, when you grab the nuggets of what you want to know from what he wants to tell you.
All the names are here: Gallo the behemoth of Modesto; Mondavi the restless innovator; Winiarski -- political theorist turned winemaker; and others (admittedly almost all white and male) who made California wine a product of pride for all Americans.
Most of the histories are from winemakers and growers, but a few of the pithier accounts are from a sharp lawyer named Horace Lanza, who recognized prohibition as a business opportunity. "Well, I was one that didn't believe in Prohibition anyway, and I didn't do anything to get in trouble with the government, but if I saw that you bought for sacramental purposes but went around the corner and drank it yourself, I didn't care a darn ... "
Miljenko Grgich relates the frustration of making wine in post-Prohibition Napa, when the industry was starting again, almost from scratch. "White wines were mainly dry sauterne and chablis -- very poor quality. Those wines would be good for six months on the shelf, and then they would oxidize and be worthless." Twenty years later, Grgich made a wine that changed California wine forever, when in a blind tasting, henceforth known as the "1976 Judgment of Paris," French judges chose his chardonnay over those of their own country, which until then had been unthinkable.
The evolution of California wine may best be illustrated in the contrast between two Martinis, father and son, both named Louis.
The younger Martini, educated in enology at U.C. Davis, discusses his interest in microclimate research, sales strategies and the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve.
In an earlier chapter of the same account, his father remembers the San Francisco earthquake, his loyalty to the "paisani" -- fellow immigrants from the Liguria region of Italy -- and the wine he sold from a clam wagon.
When asked about the kind of grapes he bought, he replied, ""Zinfandel, anything."
And the wine he made? "We made white wine and red wine, put it that way."
What a difference a generation makes.
You'll find the stories of more than 90 wine pioneers at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History Office online at http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/projects/food_wine/wine.html.
This is old-fashioned reading -- these oral histories are not easily scanned.
But like the reminisces of a favorite uncle, they are stories you will never forget.