California winemakers raise a glass to Smithsonian collection on their craft

McClatchy Washington BureauOctober 22, 2013 

— Christine Wente began organizing her family’s winemaking lore even before the Smithsonian curators came calling.

This week, with the federal government finally back in business, Wente and other California winemakers are serving up some of their stories at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Fair warning, though: Even with a topic as potentially juicy as winemaking during Prohibition, the focus remains on the up-and-up.

“I’ve come to realize that one reason we are a successful family business is that we don’t have skeletons in the closet,” Wente said Tuesday.

The 37-year-old graduate of Princeton and Stanford Business School is a board member of Wente Family Estates, based in California’s Livermore Valley, east of the San Francisco Bay Area. Her business card also identifies her as a “fifth generation winegrower” whose great-great-grandfather founded the Wente business 130 years ago.

That legacy has already lured the Smithsonian curators, who’ve undertaken an American Food and Wine History Project since 1996. The specialized collection, a tiny part of the museum’s overall stock, which comprises more than 3 million items, so far boasts a 1973 Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon and 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay, which prevailed in a famous 1976 Paris tasting.

Then there are the more mundane food and wine mementos, such as a 1954 Swanson’s TV dinner tray.

“It’s a different lens through which we can examine history,” noted Valeska M. Hilbig, a representative of the American history museum.

The famed museum’s work, in turn, has drawn more California winemakers into its orbit.

On Tuesday night, Gina Gallo from E&J Gallo Winery joined Christine Wente’s aunt, Carolyn Wente, and others among the viticultural headliners at a fundraising dinner at the Smithsonian Castle. The dinner was arranged around a Prohibition theme by Darrell F. Corti, of the Corti Brothers, a gourmet food and wine business in Sacramento, Calif.

Money raised from the $500 per-head dinner will support the food and wine history project, whose curators have been soliciting archival documents and artifacts from winemakers such as Gallo, Wente and Gundlach Bundschu.

“We have a tremendous history, and we are always happy to talk about it,” Christine Wente said. “We think it’s important to contribute.”

She said the Smithsonian curators had shown “particular interest” in the company’s business documents, but she indicated that no decision had yet been made about what might be donated to the museum. John Segale, a spokesman for Gallo and the Gallo-owned Louis M. Martini Winery, said Tuesday that both wineries would donate wines and artifacts. Martini, for instance, is donating the identification plate from an early 14,000-gallon steel fermenter.

A Smithsonian curator pressed her luck Tuesday afternoon, asking Gina Gallo – the granddaughter of winery co-founder Julio Gallo – about donating two old University of California winemaking pamphlets that the company’s founders obtained from the Modesto library to learn their new trade.

“I’ll definitely get back to you on that,” Gallo said.

At Wente Family Estates offices in Livermore, business and family records fill 120 boxes, Christine Wente said. The materials include everything from what she described as “some amazing menus” to documents concerning a local chapter of the Anti-Saloon League, which lobbied for Prohibition. In response, the old records show, the Wente family backed a competing group called the Grape Protection League.

The Anti-Saloon League won the battle for a time, as Prohibition was enacted to ban the sale of most alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. The privately held Wente business survived by selling wine for sacramental purposes, as well as by branching into cattle ranching and olive farming.

“Most wineries, if they were creative, got involved in other things,” Christine Wente said. “There was quite a bit of demand from the Catholic Church at the time. There were maybe two to three Masses a day.”

A public dialogue among California winemakers Tuesday afternoon also focused on California wineries coping during Prohibition, which formally ended on Dec. 5, 1933. The event Tuesday coincided, Gallo noted, with the 80th anniversary of the Gallo winery getting bonded and thus ready to take off once Prohibition ended.

“We’re young’uns, compared to the Wente family,” Gallo said.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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