Friday, December 10, 2004

Buti: Rumbling Wine Barrels and Jackass Brandy

Wine connoisseur? Think you know California Wine Country? Not if you haven't run across the true stories of prohibition in San Francisco, replete with bootleggers, cops, prostitutes, gangsters, grape and gunshot, in Rumbling Wine Barrels and its companion volume, Jackass Brandy. Author Bruno Buti spent his childhood observing some of these events firsthand, and collected the tales of others from family and friends. His free-wheeling informal style makes the books easy to read.

In Rumbling Wine Barrels, Buti has combined the patchwork of family history into a lively account of the running battles between "wine hijackers" Primo Novelli (a "teamster and rascal of sorts") and Buti's father Mike Buti (and his mother Livia), their friend Pucci (a San Francisco fireman), federal agents, Sicilian mobsters from New Jersey, assorted cops and "soiled doves", and a perfectly twisted scheme to make money and mayhem.

Buti warns us at the beginning that while the story may not be perfectly true in every detail, it is a faithful rendition of the struggles—on both sides—that Prohibition generated. Italian emigrants in the wine country in particular, already fighting the hostility* emigrants encounter everywhere, were hit hard by Prohibition. In some cases, where a family had sunk everything into the production of grapes, the law had a harsh effect: choose between law-abiding poverty, or the very lucrative life of crime.

In Jackass Brandy, Buti continues the tale of his father's rise to become Capo of the local bootleggers, battling the hijackers from the other side as a producer of the high-proof alcohol known as jackass brandy. Now the Italians are battling not only the lawmen and rival mobs of Rumbling Wine Barrels, but also lawyers: their own turncoat counsel ("a crook in his own right") and the politically-ambitious District Attorney of Amador County, the Honorable Earl Warren. Buti tells how Warren:
...embarked on a campaign to throw the lot of them in jail: bootleggers (Mike's gang especially), hijackers, tainted Federal agents, Sheriff Becker and his deputies, extortionists of their own making, crooked fellow lawyers... and any and all that had anything to so with the illegal alcohol and gambling trades. He was to give no quarter, not even to his own.

Both books shine with an authentic flavor that has little to do with varietal and vineyard. This is a rare vintage, bold and surprising. Gulp, don't sip.

*A long-time winemaker in Sonoma County, Frank Pastori, tells us that in the twenties, Italians were banned from entering the local bars. In Geyserville, the small town near the Pastori vineyard/port winery, this ban was finally broken when another local Italian vintner (whose name I will not mention, but you would recognize it instantly) went into the bar and began tossing gold coins, one after another, down the bar to pay for drinks on the house until the barkeep finally relented.


Blogger samraat said...

4/03/2010 9:23 PM  

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