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Festa Italiana honors Napa Valley’s Italian American heritage

Festa Italiana honors Napa Valley’s Italian American heritage

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Hundreds of people flocked to Lyman Park on Saturday to raise a glass of wine and a slice of pizza to the Italian-Americans who shaped the Napa Valley’s wine industry, cuisine and culture.

The follow-up to the inaugural 2019 Festa Italiana was once again organized by St. Helena resident Anthony Micheli and the Sons & Daughters of Italy in America, Lodge #2077.

The event began with the raising of the Italian flag on the city's ceremonial flagpole, as Katie Hopgood-Sculatti sang the Italian national anthem.

Pestoni Family Winery handed out free pizza made on-site in the winery’s pizza oven. The Odd Fellows cooked chicken, peppers, sausage and pasta. More than 20 Italian-owned and -affiliated wineries poured wine.

In the early afternoon, members of the 100|OCT club arrived from San Rafael in Lamborghinis, Ferraris and other flashy Italian sports cars. 

The event reflected the work-hard, play-hard spirit of immigrants who came to the Upper Napa Valley from Italy — especially from the Italian-speaking cantons of southern Switzerland.

David Molinari might have been the first Italian-Swiss immigrant to settle in St. Helena, in 1872. Following him were families like Sabina and Battista Salmina, who bought the William Tell Hotel on Spring Street, and Battista’s nephew Felix Salmina, who built the stone winery at what’s now known as Frank Family Vineyards.

Mario Sculatti’s great-grandfather Franco came to St. Helena in 1901 from the town of Angera on the shores of Lago Maggiore in northern Italy. Mario said DNA tests confirm that the Sculattis are, like many Upvalley Italians, primarily Swiss in terms of blood.

Franco Sculatti was part of a wave of northern Italians who came to the Napa Valley in the early 1900s to work in the vineyards. He became the equivalent of a sharecropper, managing the vineyard that’s now the Napa Valley Reserve near Meadowood.

“They weren’t making wine, they were just selling the grapes for prices that would sound dirt-cheap to us today,” Mario Sculatti said. “Grapes were just a commodity back then.”

Franco’s son Gaetano worked for Louis M. Martini Winery and Beringer Vineyards. After fighting in tanks during World War II, Gaetano bought surplus tanks and used their engines to power the irrigation systems in Beringer’s newly planted vineyards in Knights Valley and Calistoga.

Gaetano’s son Ron, Mario’s father, also left his mark on the wine industry. As a cellar assistant he contributed to the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the famous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976.

“The Sculattis always worked in the wine industry, but it was never glamorous,” Mario said. “Like a lot of Italians, we were the working-class part of the wine industry.”

Larry Fiori said his ancestors immigrated in the late 1880s to flee an economic depression in Italy, initially working on southern plantations.

“My father was from a brood of 10 sons and one daughter — typical Italian family right there,” Fiori said.

Swiss Italians were probably drawn to the Upvalley because its geography and agriculture resembled that of their homeland, with its hills and vineyards, said Lin Lawrence-Murphy, national historian for the Sons & Daughters of Italy in America.

“It’s important to keep our Italian culture alive,” she said. “Every nationality has its good and its bad, but there’s been so much good the Italians have done.”

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You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.

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