Monday, February 10, 2014

Want Some Cheese With That?

 When one thinks of wine in the United States, one would think of California…maybe Oregon or even Washington. One would probably never think of cold, windy, and remote Wyoming and definitely would not think of Newcastle, a small town nestled in the northeastern corner of the state. However, Newcastle does have an interesting winemaking history. Thanks to the now ghost-town of Cambria, many Italian winemakers made wine in this area for decades and passed on a bit of their home countries to those around them.

The coal mine at Cambria brought winemakers to Weston County. Cambria officially began digging coal in December of 1889, and with this, began Weston County’s wine history. Over 1500 people from 23 different nationalities lived and worked there. Though there were no bars, and alcohol was not allowed to be sold in the company town, the Italian winemaking immigrants made their own wine for Europeans who lived there. Cambria then closed on Saturday, March 15, 1928. With the mine closing, the town was finished as well, but the residents moved elsewhere and took their winemaking traditions with them (Griffith 58). Without Cambria’s history, actual winemaking in Newcastle may never have happened.

Batista Farella was one of these Cambria winemakers. He was born in Aquilia, Italy, October 17, 1881, to parents Angelo and Maria. Batista came to the U.S. in 1901 and made his way to Cambria in 1903. He worked there and then bought a homestead near the mine (Farella Family 413-414). In addition to being known for great gardening and a generous spirit, he was known for his winemaking. Since Batista was from Italy, he made Italian-style wine. The grapes he used were shipped to Lead in a box car. Farella’s children would love to eat these grapes on the fruit’s arrival, but Batista would not let them eat as many as they wanted; he needed all the grapes possible for his wine. He made wines of different dryness every year, depending on the times. When times were hard and sugar was scarce, Batista made a dryer wine. When times were better, he could spare more sugar, and a sweeter wine was made. He always said he was “trained in the school of make do,” and he made wine with what he could afford (Farella Family 414). Batista took pride in his work, making him notorious for his skills with wine.

Another winemaker who had his start at Cambria was Jacento (Matt) Perino. Jacento arrived at Cambria from Turin, in the Piedmont area of Italy, when he was 22. Upon arrival in the U.S., the clerk did not know the American equivalent of Jacento, so the clerk named Jacento Matt; the name stayed for the duration of Jacento’s life. Matt homesteaded on Oil Creek and made his wine there. Many people enjoyed Matt’s vino, especially the other Italians who did not make their own wine but wanted a remembrance of home. Perino’s “well-built” winery was in a cellar, and every fall he would get to work on production. His concord grapes arrived from California by train. He usually received six tons in lugs of thirty-three or thirty-six pounds each. He would take the grapes from the train to his ranch in his old Chevy truck. Once at his ranch, Matt crushed in large crocks using a wood four by four with a handle drilled in the top of it. The juice was then put in upright oak barrels with spigots at the bottom. To this first crush, Perino added no sugar. He would then crush the grapes a second time, adding sugar to this batch. After the second crush, the grapes were thrown out to the pigs for food because nothing could be wasted. The pigs would get “coo-coo” from this special treat (Hunt, “History”). Matt was a second winemaker from Cambria, but he was not the only Perino winemaker.

Matt’s son, Fred, also made wine. With his wife, Mary Ann, Fred made chokecherry wine. They would give small glasses of this wine to their children at evening meals. These children, Matt’s grandchildren, learned to appreciate wine so much that Jim Perino made fruit wines like his dad, Fred, and became the third generation Perino to make wine (Hunt, “RE: Started”). Though Jacento may not have imagined it when he arrived in the United States to start a new life, part of his old life—wine—became an important tradition to his American descendants.

August Piana did not live or work in Cambria; however, he was a third Italian winemaker in the area. Gus, as he was called, came to Newcastle in 1907 with Peter Aminetto (a friend with whom Gus would later open the Corner Bar). Gus’s home town was Sud Piana in Italy, named for Gus’s family who lived there. Starting in the 1920s until his death in 1957, Gus made wine in his cellar at his home on Main Street. The structure of the cellar is still there. A unique twist to this location is that Faust Musso made wine two houses west of Gus, and after Matt Perino moved to town, Perino made wine one block west of Gus (Piana). This area was Newcastle’s own little wine district.

Gus produced wine in a similar fashion to Farella and Perino. He bought from four train cars of grapes delivered to Lead, South Dakota. Each car held twenty-two tons of grapes, and at twenty dollars a ton, this was precious cargo. Shipped from the Chicago area, Gus preferred to use Zinfandel and Barolo. (Gus may have meant Nebbiolo, the grape that makes Barolo wine from his native Italy.) Each fall when the grapes arrived, Piana would use his two-ton Chevy pick-up to haul the grapes to residents of northeastern Wyoming who bought the fruit from him. People from Upton, Gillette, and Four Corners would buy one or two tons at a time, then the rest Gus would use. Jim, Gus’s son, remembers having “wine chores” to do for his father. One such chore was wearing rubber boots to foot stomp (crush) the grapes, two tubs at a time. When crushing was complete, Gus used old bourbon barrels from Kentucky to finish production. The bourbon makers only used these barrels once, and then sold them to the Italian winemakers for twenty-five cents, plus eight dollars shipping to Wyoming. The barrels were soaked for a week before use and were placed horizontally on racks for the duration of fermentation and aging. No sugar or any other elements were added to make the wine. As an investment, Gus purchased a corking machine. He soaked the corks for a week before, and the machine pressed the cork in the top of each bottle (Piana). Gus had quite an ingenious and efficient business of winemaking.

Like Matt Perino, Gus also passed his love of winemaking on to another generation. In the 1950s, Jim Paina, Gus’s son, started making wine in the fashion of his father. As time marched on, Jim eventually ordered his grapes from Deckers, the local grocery store. The cost of fruit went up drastically; by the early 1970s, when Jim Piana stopped making wine, grapes cost almost two thousand dollars a ton! Though Jim made wine, he actually never drank any. He gave every gallon away, many to Italian friends around town. In a unique twist, the hospital would often call Jim to ask him to give wine to certain people. These individuals had health issues, and the doctors thought the benefits of wine consumption could help these patients (Piana). The Piana men were wonderful vintners for many decades.

While not as well known, there were other Newcastle community members that made wine. As previously stated, Faust Musso made wine in his home on Main Street; he received grapes via train like Perino and Farella (Hunt, “History”). Another Cambria resident, Hank Martini, was an immigrant from Bolzano, Austria—once a part of Italy—who worked at Cambria before moving to Sheridan and making wine there (Martini-Bennett 605). Two gentlemen helped Gus Piana produce wine but also made it on their own: Emilio Gaido and John Allera. John ran away from his Italian home at age nine, going first to South America and then to California before finally ending up at Cambria, Wyoming (Piana). These other producers of wine may not have been as well known or had family stay in the area for generations, but they were still an important piece of history in Newcastle.

When thinking of Wyoming, most people would think of isolated wilderness, cold winters, or black coal. Few would think of wine…although history shows many should think of this unknown Wyoming subject. Because Cambria was such a melting pot of European immigrants where many Italians settled and continued their family traditions of winemaking, Newcastle has a very interesting wine history. There were multiple winemakers in this area who passed on the art and science of wine to their sons, and even grandsons, continuing a family legacy for generations. Batista, Jacento, and August may have left their home countries, but they brought a piece of this home with them to their new world: wine.

                                                   Works Cited
Farella Family. “Farella Family.” Weston County, the First 100 Years. Dallas: Curts Media Corporation, 1988. 413-414. 

Griffith, Elisabeth. “Cambria.” Weston County, the First 100 Years. Dallas: Curtis Media Corporation, 1988. 58.

Hunt, Linda. “Newcastle and Area Winemakers’ History: the Italians.” Anna Miller Museum, Newcastle.

Hunt, Linda. “RE: Started Research.” Message to author. 22 Jan. 2014. E-mail.

Martini-Bennett, Joan. “Martini, Henry E. and Katherine Smith.” Weston County, the First 100 Years. Dallas: Curtis Media Corporation, 1988. 605-606.

Piana, Jim. Interview by Linda Hunt. 30 Jan. 2014.