Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Italian-American mantra: "My grandfather made my life possible today."

To Kalon "I" Block
Coming home from a week at the 11th annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley, I missed my plane and caught a later flight, and was wired, tired but also inspired. To wind down, I crashed on my ancient green couch and veged out on TV. PBS is running a series on Italian Americans, so I watched a segment.

It prompted me to think about the arc of my family, in that both my grandfathers came to America for different reasons. One, my mother’s dad, Attilio, was trying to escape the most abject of poverty. He was married and left his wife (a “white widow”) and young son. Eventually they joined him, and after four more children were born, they separated. He went on to other pastures.

My father’s dad, Alfonso, came here very young (15) and had a family back home with a thriving business. His mission was to expand the family leather business into the New World. He did. But he went back home to Sicily often. His wife, who was from a village near Palermo, was also in America. They married very young (17) and lived in Dallas. Every road for my family led to Dallas.

When nonno Alfonso saw an opportunity to move his young family to Los Angeles, he didn’t waste a moment. It was a very good time to be in LA, all options were open. It resembled his native Sicily in weather with unlimited access to sun, soil and water. They enjoyed local olives, artichokes, tomatoes and assembled a life similar to the one they had known as children. And of course, there were grapes.

Nonno Alfonso loved land. I’m told he had a plot in Cucamonga, which was the epicenter of a young California wine industry. By the time I arrived, those vines in Cucamonga were already old. Driving past them on our many trips between LA and Palm Springs, those vines, untrellised and head-pruned, spoke to me. I often wondered who they were. To a youngster with an imagination, they were more like people than vines. I was sure we were related somehow.

Now I know we were. The vines the Italians bought with them were as much family as their children.

In looking at the span of one’s life, especially from the perspective of a few more years, I now see it as having a marvelous symmetry. Probably, my grandfather, in his wildest imagination, never imagined I would be so hopelessly devoted to Italian wine. Italian wine is my family. My grandchildren are Barolo and Nerello. Some of them live in California. And some of them are back in Italy. I visit them often.

As a speaker in the PBS show said, “My grandfather made my life possible today.” For all of us American-Italians, this is true. The sweep of my family’s life extended from Italy to Texas to California. And then, for me, a return to Texas. I am in the middle, between the birthplace of my grandparents and my childhood homeland. I’m still very much a Californian in my heart, but my soul is all Italian. Thank you nonno, both of you, and nonna, both of you as well. For without my grandmothers I would have never known the reason why we have wine – something magical to drink with their wonderful cooking.

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