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Progression of Italian wines stretches back to Roman Empire

Ron Smith

FARGO — If it were possible to ask my readers to raise their hands if they like Italian wine and food, I'm sure I would be confronted with a forest of raised hands. Little wonder, as Italy has mastered the winemaking and culinary crafts to perfection beginning with the establishment of the Roman Empire.

It wasn't an easy status to achieve, having to overcome an almost totally dry society in the early years of its empire. Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, when first incorporated into society was viewed as a cult and suspect of a possible threat to the ruling powers to overthrow the government.

Gradually, they came around and accepted wine as a daily part of their lives, incorporating the culture of their vines and winemaking techniques along the same lines that made them initially successful in managing their empire — employing superb organizational skills, frugality to the extent of asceticism, with a laser focus on setting and achieving objectives.

Winemaking essentially stood still during the Dark Ages, until the beginning of the Renaissance led by Rene Descartes (1596-1650), a 17th century philosopher best remembered for "Cogito, ergo sum" — "I think, therefore I am" — providing the impetus to expand human productivity.

This eventually led to the Age of Reason, fostering liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state, and extended it into the art and science of winemaking throughout the former Roman Empire. Adam Smith's 1776 book, "The Wealth of Nations," gave further birth to new ideas including viticulture.

In California, winemaking began 249 years ago in 1769 through the efforts of a Franciscan missionary, Father Serra, when he brought settlers from Mexico to San Diego and established the first vineyard. He then moved north along what became known as El Camino Real, establishing 21 missions to Sonoma.

The wines produced were first used for sacramental purposes from the varietal known as the Mission grape, planting about an acre in 1898, and are still harvested at Story Winery. While being a prolific producer of grapes, it doesn't produce a wine that gets much traction outside of sacramental use, at least at this point in time.

With the arrival of a Frenchman from Bordeaux in 1830 who recognized the value of the land for wine-grape growing, he imported varieties of Vitis vinifera, which quickly became established. This attracted immigrants from Italy and other European countries to establish vineyards following the gold rush of 1848 that forever changed the landscape of northern California.

Today, Italian wine lovers can taste varietals that grow both in Italy and in California, by winemakers that are ethnically Italian, or have a love of everything Italian, especially wine and food. Will Chianti (sangiovese grapes) from a California winery taste the same as the original from Italy? Not even close; both are food-friendly, delicious wines reflecting their terroir and cultivation. Try from both sources for comparison and enjoy.

Ron Smith, a retired NDSU Extension horticulturist, writes weekly about his love of wine and its history. Readers can reach him at