Orselli, Saturno, Tachi, Locati, Arbini. These melodic names belonged to some of the early Italian settlers who found their way to eastern Washington in the 1800s.
Most were experienced farmers. Some were skilled winemakers. Together, they forged an industry whose imprint would be felt 150 years later. Today, more than 100 wineries and nearly 2,000 acres of vineyards have taken root in the Walla Walla valley.
Located in the southeastern corner of the state, blessed with fertile soil, rolling rivers and abundant aquifers, Walla Walla (a Native American word for “many waters”) is perhaps most famous for its sweet onions. But since the 1980s, its steadily growing wine industry has transformed the city from a sleepy Western town to a “must-stop” locale for wine and food enthusiasts.
A wave of Italians immigrated to Walla Walla starting around 1870, and are credited with planting some of the first vineyards in the region. (Fort Walla Walla Museum)
Early settler Frank Orselli was instrumental in that growth. Believed to be the first Italian to arrive in the Walla Walla valley, Orselli was born in Lucca in 1833. He immigrated to America while still a young man, served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army, and arrived at Fort Walla Walla in 1857.
After his discharge, Orselli remained in the area, drawn by its cheap land and wide open spaces. Walla Walla was growing by leaps and bounds, helped along by the arrival of gold miners from neighboring Idaho. Soon, there were 30 taverns and liquor stores downtown.
Orselli eventually bought 180 acres which he planted with vegetables, grapes and fruit trees. Like so many immigrants, he was not afraid of hard work. In addition to his farm, he also owned the California Bakery, where he sold baked goods, groceries, fresh fruits and vegetables, tobacco, liquor and, of course, wine.
The 18th century Saturno house and garden are on display at the Fort Walla Walla Museum. The green exterior was a color traditionally used by Italian immigrants in the region. (Fort Walla Walla Museum)
His store became one of Walla Walla’s first tasting rooms. By 1882, locally produced wine was available in all of Walla Walla’s saloons.
The “Walla Walla Statesman” carried a short news item about Orselli in 1875 that detailed his prodigious winemaking abilities: “Mr. Frank Orselli has crushed about 6,000 pounds of grapes, and already has 300 gallons of what promised to be a very fine wine. The grapes crushed were of the white variety…Mr. Orselli has the largest winery in the valley and in a few years, expects to manufacture wine upon a large scale.”
In a later newspaper story, Orselli said he wanted to produce about 2,500 gallons of wine, mainly from grapes grown on his farm. If he hit that target, he vowed to increase production the following year, even if he had to purchase fruit from other vineyards.
History does not record whether Orselli made his quota. He died in 1894, leaving behind a wife and three children, none of whom remained in the area.
Around the same time that the local paper was extolling Orselli’s wine business, another Italian, Pasquale Saturno, was set to appear on the scene. Originally from the island of Ischia near Naples, Saturno arrived in Walla Walla in January 1876 and later sent for his wife and three children.
Primarily a vegetable farmer, Saturno also grew grapes on two acres of land he owned behind his farm. He realized that the soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Walla Walla were prime customers for his fresh produce and wine, but his small vineyard could not meet demand. He began importing two to four tons of Zinfandel grapes from California by rail. Together with fellow immigrant Joseph Tachi, Saturno sponsored other Italian families to join them in the valley. When the immigrants arrived, they would be put to work on the farms or in the vineyards until they had paid back their fare.
Initially the Saturno family lived in one large room but as Pasquale earned more money, he added more rooms. The property remains in the family’s possession today, reduced from its original 88 acres to eight. In 1980, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Much of the wine-making equipment used by Saturno is on display at the Fort Walla Walla Museum, including the original 1876 homestead. The furnishings were donated by members of the family and were actually used in the house. “The exhibit also includes a small vineyard of Black Prince grapes, a variety used by early Italian families as a decent table, juice and wine grape,” explained James Payne, the museum’s executive director. “Our vineyard comes from cuttings from vines planted in the Walla Walla valley in the early 1930s.”
Prohibition put a halt to commercial winemaking in the valley, a situation that remained unchanged until Gary Figgins started Leonetti Cellar in 1977. Figgins traces his interest in wine back to his grandparents, Francesco and Rosa Leonetti, who emigrated from Calabria in 1902 and cultivated their own small vineyard. In fact, Figgins’ first cabernet sauvignon grapes were grown on an acre of hillside behind the original Leonetti homestead. Today Leonetti’s award-winning wines are much sought after by wine enthusiasts.
The Italian contributions to Walla Walla’s wine industry were huge and their impact felt for generations, said wine educator Regina Daigneault. “The early Italians not only planted vines from their home country but they also planted their passion for growing and raising grapes in Walla Walla and throughout eastern Washington. Whether they planted Tuscan, Piemonte or southern Italian varieties, they had the foresight to see that eastern Washington could one day produce wines of amazing depth, character and complexity.”