Italian Pioneers of Walla Walla Wine

By Nick Tomassi

When I decided to write about The Italian Influence on Washington Wine, I looked on it as just another story about wine. My wife, Kathy, and I traveled to Eastern Washington to meet with and interview the descendants of those early Italian pioneers. We visited the men and a number of the sites they told us about, especially in the Walla Walla area.

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 King and the government of Italy. 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 soon 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 the 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. Mr. Rusty Figgins, currently Cave B winemaker in Quincy, WA., 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, "Also 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. I'm 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 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 said, "That was exciting, to find that the grape variety my grandfather made wine from (Black Prince) 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. He said, "If we get to them before the birds, we get to make a little of the old wine."

Then 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 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, Oregon, was the 14th bonded winery in the state, and the first commercial winery in the Walla Walla area. He is in his 90s and is said to be the oldest living winemaker in the Walla Walla Valley. He said "My 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. "I didn't stop right way because it took the BATF a little while to close me out."

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

Pesciallo doesn't remember when he became interested in the winery business. He was pretty young and following in his father's footsteps. He said, "Things just happen naturally at that time, when you are a teenager, and you grow up with it. My interest and curiosity grew to the point where I knew I wanted to grow grapes and make wine."

A number of the current generation of winemakers trace their interest in winemaking to the influence of family winemaking for home consumption. A good example is one of the best known winemakers in Washington State, Leonetti Cellars owner and winemaker, Gary Figgins. His maternal grandparents, the Leonettis, arrived at Ellis Island from Serrapedsci, Calabria (the toe of the boot), Italy in 1906. They traveled to Eastern WA., and homesteaded a 20 acre farm with two creeks outside of Walla Walla, planting grapes on the high ground and crops on the low ground. They raised hogs and chickens and other animals, and became farmers, raising vegetables in addition to the animals for themselves and for sale. They also raised eight children.

Gary Figgins said, "Grandfather planted a vineyard with Black Prince grapes and made five barrels of wine each year." Gary spoke about his memories as a youngster of the old Italian families like his own making homemade wine from Black Prince grapes and from grapes brought up from California in railroad cars. He told an interesting story about how the Italian families hid barrels of wine from federal agents during Prohibition. He also remembers family gatherings and Italian weddings with Italian cuisine, wine, music, singing, and "...the great feeling of the warmth of the wine going down."

Figgins said "Bert Pesciallo was the last guy (to make wine commercially) until I started Leonetti Cellars in 1977. I Planted grapes in 1974 on the old Leonetti homestead." He made his first wine in 1978 and some of those grapes went into his first wine. The 1978 wine was rated as the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the nation by Wine and Spirits Magazine, propelling Gary Figgins and Leonetti to instant fame.

Figgins has a long and varied experience in making wine. He started as a home winemaker at about age 20, in his grandfather's tradition. He said, "When Nancy and I were first married, I made wine every year out of every type of fruit and grape that I could possibly get. We're talking cherries, choke cherries, elderberries, apricots, strawberries, anything I could ferment, even bananas."

He gained a lot of knowledge and experience in eight years of experimenting as a home winemaker. He said "I guess it just kind of overtook me. I just had a knack for knowing how to unlock everything. Knowledge tempered by experience. And now I have more experience than just about any other winemaker making wine in Washington State, making wine for thirty three years, and haven't missed a year."

After eight years he decided to become a commercial winemaker. Got all the books written to study the French, Italian and Californian methods. He read, studied at UC Davis, and traveled to the vineyards and wineries of Italy and France, studying their processes to increase his knowledge. So in 33 years, his ability to make wine has been rewarded by being acknowledged as one of the best.

Another Italian following in his ancestor's footsteps is Gordy Venerri, co owner/winemaker of Walla Walla Vintners with Myles Anderson. He described their trip to his ancestral home in Calabria, Italy in 1981, as the inspiration to begin as a home winemaker. This eventually led to the decision to join with Myles Anderson to start Walla Walla Vintners in 1995. He said, "We started making wine after our trip to Italy in 1981, but we were making wine just for ourselves, until will fall of 1995. Then we began Walla Walla Vintners, and made our first commercial wine that year."

The Italians who got to Seattle often came after a short stop in California. They found to their delight that it was quite possible to enjoy the benefits of city and country life at the same time. They could make good wages in construction and in the mills and, following Italian family tradition, have gardens, rabbits and chickens in the yards of the single family homes that even working men could afford in this still spacious city.

They arranged with their family and friends in California to send train boxcar loads of Zinfandel grapes from places like Lodi, so they could make their homemade wine. Bringing grapes in by the boxcar apparently continues to this day. In fact, during grape harvest in Eastern Washington, grapes by the truckload are known to find their way to the Seattle Tacoma area for the Italian home winemakers.

Finally, a word about the producers of Italian varietals that can be found on store shelves today:

Sangiovese producers include: Leonetti Cellar, Walla Walla Vintners and Yellowhawk Winery in Walla Walla, Andrew Will Winery, Vashon Island, Tefft Cellars, Outlook, Columbia Winery, Woodinville;

Nebbiolo: Tefft Cellars, Cavatappi Winery, Kirkland; Barbera: Columbia Winery, Cascade Cliffs, Wishram, Woodward Canyon, Lowden;

Dolcetto: Woodward Canyon, Morrison Lane, Walla Walla.

The list is probably not complete, but they show the most notable producers.

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Sources of information:
1. Books: "The Horticultural Heritage of Walla Walla County 1818 to 1977", by Mr. Joe J. Locati.; The Wine Project by Ron Irvine and Dr. Walter Clore.
2. Interviews with the following people:
Mr. Dave Venneri, portrays Frank Orselli in The Fort Walla Walla Museum Living History program.
Mr. Bert Pesciallo, oldest living Walla Walla area winemaker.
Mr. Don Locati, Program Coordinator, Fort Walla Walla Museum.
Mr. Gary Figgins, Leonetti Cellar owner/winemaker
Mr. Gordy Venneri, Walla Walla Vintners co owner/winemaker.
Mr. Myles Anderson, Walla Walla Vintners co owner/winemaker
Mr. Rusty Figgins, Formerly Glen Fiona owner/winemaker, currently Cave B winemaker/viticulturist.
Mr. Doug Saturno, fourth generation descendent of pioneer Pasquale Saturno

Nick Tomassi teaches wine- and beer-appreciation classes.
E-mail: info@tomassiwinecabinet.com.
Website: www.tomassiwinecabinet.com.
Nick Tomassi is a Contributor to WineSquire.com