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Cheers 1 – Of wine and Little Italy


Submitted by Karl Breckenridge

The other night I was seated in an actual restaurant and the cute little server asked me for a cocktail order. I responded “red wine.” She asked “Merlot or Cabernet” and a column was borne. I answered “Red, some good vintage like April,” and I realized immediately that my pathetic attempt at humor was falling on ears 50 years too young to comprehend. I got my glass of wine, whatever it was.

A friend, not that night at that table, mentioned that she was looking at a home in Little Italy. “Whereabouts?” I asked and she replied, “By McKinley Park School.”

Umm…that ain’t Little Italy. Some call it the Powning Addition; most call it the McKinley Park School area. But, in this day and age in response to San Francisco’s “Marina” and New York City’s “Tribeca” ‘hoods, we anoint areas with names. But she called it Little Italy as her Realtor had, so I played along. But – a second column was borne.

Little Karl. Image: Bud Loomis

Now, it becomes complicated. I often write in the persona of “the 6-year-old-kid,” pedaling my bike with Hank Philcox and Don Hartman from my home at 740 Ralston Street, off on adventures around Reno. This is fun writing because I’m too young at six to have to worry about spelling and grammar or facts or journalistic ethics and all the other stuff grownups have to think about and besides, I can blame all my screwups on my baby sister – I can just write for fun!

The dilemma so created is that that address is only a house or two out of Little Italy, and I’m contemplating a column that takes place when I’m about 6 years old. Ergo (a word I use sparingly), I now take on the persona of the 6-year-old kid.

First let’s pin down the “Little Italy” area of Reno, as being the streets of Washington, Bell and Ralston, north of University Terrace and Whitaker Park. And the cross-streets connecting them – West Ninth through maybe West 12th Streets (and you just noticed here that numbered streets in Reno through Eleventh are spelled out while those higher use a cardinal number. (Sparks streets are numbered from 1st on up. You wanna be a columnist..?)

The so-called “Little Italy” district is populated largely by Italians going back to its earliest days in the 20th Century. And I invite you to drive there, park your car and take a walk, enjoying the architecture along the way – various hues of rococo brick, arched doorways, unique fenestration and occasionally the loud lingo of a senior Daughter of Italy speaking in her native tongue, or the heavenly aroma of good Italian cooking wafting through the air. Walk far enough and you’ll leave Little Italy and enter Academy Heights, with its totally different architecture.

Many of the Italians that created Reno lived in the area. Their culture and pride ran deep.  A good example might be of the creation and staffing of the Reno Fire Department’s Station Four, on the southeast corner of Ralston and West Eleventh Streets in 1952. It was decreed and agreed that Italians from Little Italy (and airmen from the newish Stead Air Force base) would staff the station.

Two major downtown fires broke out shortly following the opening of the station. And the new station’s men responded mightily. A side note is that RFD chief Karl Evans cautioned the men of Station No. 4 that English, and not Italian, was the preferred language of the department on its radios.

Now, let’s use the customs and habits of those residing in Little Italy as we springboard into the second element of today’s visit:

Wine, and the manufacture of and enjoyment of it.

In those days it was legal in Nevada to bottle up to 40 gallons of wine annually–for a family’s own consumption. Might still be; I dunno.

A grape press.

I can reliably report that every home in Little Italy had, in its back yard, a grape press.

And I can  also report, because I was invited to attend–probably the only Irish/Welsh kid in the audience–to accompany once Mr. Neiri and another time Mr. Ginocchio, to…………the…………….(a drum roll please…..):

annual arrival of the grapes, from the wine country of California!

Wherein, two or three refrigerated boxcars of grapes culled from the fields of the Napa Valley were brought annually about this time of year to Reno’s Southern Pacific freight station north of the present Aces ballpark, then dumped unceremoniously onto the concrete floor of the freight house. The waiting Italians then more or less attacked the huge, boxcar-high pile of grapes, with great glee and the use of clever terms that even my half-dozen drunken Irish-Catholic great-aunts didn’t use, and often attacked even each other to triumph in taking the cream of the crop to their pickup trucks, then up the hill to their grape cellars.

In a few days their treasure would be squeezed and pressed into wine, to then be taken in bottles–saved over time from their last use, be it for last year’s wine or this year’s kerosene–it mattered not, for one-gallon glass bottles were like gold during the pressing season.

And, there were no “Merlots” nor “Cabernets” nor “Zinfandels” or any other of today’s variants of red wine. Those names might have had validity in the capitals of Europe’s castles, but north of Whitaker Park in the late 1940s, one found Dago Red. Or occasionally “Blush,” which I always suspected was the product of the white grapes’ crush but poured into a bottle that still had a smidge of red in it…

Soon the season’s great crush was past and neighbors who were verging on murdering one another in the freight house had kissed and made up. All had 40 gallons – plus – for their “own” consumption, but on family dinners our on Sunday nights at Siri’s, the Columbo, the Toscano or the Mizpah, the red seemed to this 6-year-old to flow more readily.

And that’s the way it was, 70+ years ago, up around Whitaker Park. It’s fun to be writing again after a week or so playing hookey – c’mon back next week – I think a  nice sequel to all this may be the grocery stores we all once loved, and I don’t mean the Pub ‘n Sub or Brickie’s Tavern!  Have a great week, and, be safe, huh?

Submitted opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of This Is Reno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article or letter to the editor here.

Karl Breckenridge

Karl Breckenridge was slowly going nuts. So he decided to help out This is Reno by writing a daily out-of-his-mind column for the duration of the coronavirus shutdown. Now that it’s over he’s back to his usual antics, drinking coffee with the boys at the Bear and, well, we’re not sure what else. But he loved sharing his daily musings with you, so he’s back, albeit a little less often, to keep on sharing. Karl grew up in the valley and has stories from the area going back to 1945. He’s been writing for 32 years locally. 

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