If it weren’t for Prohibition and the disruption of the commercial wine trade in California, we’d probably be drinking Barbera today instead of “Napa Valley Cab”
One of the most compelling texts I’ve come across in my early research on Barbera popped up in the oddest of places: a 1910 petition sent to the California Supreme Court, asking for an injunction in trademark litigation between Italian Swiss Colony (the plaintiff) and Italian Vineyard Co. (the defendant).
(Older Americans will remember Italian Swiss Colony as one of the state’s early pioneers of commercial wine production.)
The latter was infringing on the former’s trademark, according to the complaint. Italian Swiss Colony was hoping to stop Italian Vineyard Co. from labeling its wines with the trademark “tipo” indicating the type or category of wine. And here’s where it gets really interesting.
Among the “types” of wine that the two estates were growing and bottling at the time (for more than 10 years at least, according to the document), “the defendant has been manufacturing wines having characteristics similar to those of other Italian wines, to wit [sic], those known as ‘Barbera,’ ‘Puglia,’ and ‘Gragnano’ — and has branded and marked them as ‘Tipo Barbera,’ ‘Tipo Puglia,’ and ‘Tipo Gragnano,’ in order to indicate that its said wines were respectively, of the type of the said Italian wines.
There is a lot of juicy information (excuse the pun) loaded in this passage. It gives us glimpse of how Californian and Italian wines were marketed and perceived at the time (at least 10 years before Prohibition was implemented in 1920) and it also offers an indication of Barbera’s stature among the great grape varieties of the world at the turn of the century.
Man, I could write a dissertation on this legalese! But if we narrow our focus here to Barbera, there are a handful of important takeaways imho.
- By the turn of the century, Barbera had already become a wildly popular grape variety — in Italy and the U.S. It’s telling that the author of the complaint lists Barbera first in the triptych.
- Barbera was so popular by that time that it had already become a wine “brand.” In the implicit hierarchy in the passage, Puglia and Gragnano (Campania) are place names (there is also a mention of “Tipo Chianti,” another place name reference). That’s the only grape name.
- Had Prohibition not disrupted the commercial wine trade in California in 1920, we might be drinking “California Barbera” today instead of “Napa Valley Cab” and Merlot
According to the great Italian ampelographer Ian D’Agata (Native Wine Grapes of Italy, University of California, 2014, a book I highly recommend to you):
- Barbera is one of Italy’s five most-planted native grapes, and the third most-common red grape, found in almost every region of the country. It is also one of the 15 most-planted grape varieties in the world.
- Barbera is grown mainly in Piedmont, Lombardy (in the Oltrepò Pavese near Pavia), Emilia-Romagna (Colli Bolognesi, Colli Piacentini, and Colli di Parma) and Sardinia, but nobody disputes the notion that the best examples hail from Piedmont.
Today, it’s widely accepted that it was planted across Italy in the mid-to late-19th century because of its natural resistance to oidium (a fungal disease also known as powdery mildew). In the course of my research and readings, for example, I’ve come across a number of 19th-century references to Puglia-grown Barbera (no joke). As D’Agata points out, Barbera is renowned for its ability to deliver quality even in high-yield crops. As phylloxera and oidium loomed over European grape growers in 1800s, it made perfect sense to embrace a resilient and highly productive grape (you could draw a parallel, for the same reasons, with Zinfandel/Primitivo).
In my next post for My Name Is Barbera, we’ll start looking at Barbera’s legacy in Piedmont, the grape’s spiritual homeland (as D’Agata points out above). Thanks for reading and please stay tuned!