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Livermore-Contra - Notable Wineries By District And Region

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(Note: Information Originally Published In 1955 - Presented For Historical Perspective!)


J. E. Digardi Winery, Martinez

Of the Contra Costa wineries that of Joseph E. Digardi is the best known and most representative. The winery was founded in 1886 by Frank Digardi, a native of Sicily, where the Italian branch of the family still owns vineyards in the neighborhood of Palermo. Frank Digardi planted his vines on the slopes of Mt. Diablo and later acquired and developed other vineyards in the county.

The family enterprise is owned and operated today by Joseph (Joe) E. Digardi, son of the founder and a well-known personality in the wine industry, and by his own two sons, Francis and Ernest. Holdings include vineyard property in the Clayton, or Diablo, Valley, in the shadow of the mountain by the latter name, and in the Vine Hill area, south of Martinez.

Red table wines are the specialty, with Digardi the top brand for fine-quality wines and Diablo Valley for those of standard grade. Digardi table wines include:

RED: Mountain Gamay (from Gamay Beaujolais grapes, and is a famous California wine), Zinfandel, Burgundy, and Claret. Plans are to produce varietals, such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, from Napa Valley grapes.

WHITE: Sauterne, Chablis, and Rhine. ROSE: Vin Rose. A few Aperitif and Dessert wines are also marketed, and there are plans to produce Solera flor Sherries and a Solera Port from the Trousseau grape.

Gopher Gulch Ranch Wine Cellars, Walnut Creek

This is an excellent example of a small private winery operated simply for the pleasure of making wines as a hobby and serving them to one's friends, and for that reason is treated much more extensively than its size would warrant. It is permissible by law to operate a non-commercial winery producing not more than two hundred gallons yearly.

Owner of Gopher Gulch Ranch is that well-known former journalist, James Pomeroy Howe, who since his retirement has made quite a name for himself in his hobby, that of wine making.

Jim Howe was born in Atchison, Kansas, on the Missouri River, where his father, Ed Howe, ran the Atchison Globe. Ed Howe, known as the "Sage of Potato Hill" wrote several books, the best known being The Story o f a Country Town which Mark Twain liked so much he penciled a nine-page letter about it, now a treasured document of the Howe family.

Perhaps the fact that the Brenner brothers in Atchison, when Jim Howe was a youngster, made dry red wines from their Doniphan vineyards inspired the budding journalist's later hobby. Jim Howe first followed his father's footsteps and worked with newspapers all over the country, including the journal in New York, the Times-Democrat in New Orleans, the Oregonian in Portland, the Bulletin in Honolulu. At one time he ran the Index at Emmett, Idaho. He joined the Associated Press in 1914 and was an army correspondent during the First World War. He traveled extensively all over the world, including Russia, and was stationed at one time or another in London, Paris, Berlin, Peking, Tokyo, and Singapore.

In 1920 he acquired his Walnut Creek property, located on what is called Poverty Heights. During his lengthy absences a caretaker was in charge of the property and Jim Howe will hardly forget the day when he returned and found that the caretaker had moved house and all from the top of the hill, where he had left it, down to the bottom, its present location.

Jim Howe's winery is, as he himself calls it, an experimental one. He obtains grapes from well-known winegrowers, such as the Wente Bros. of Livermore, John Daniel, Jr., of Inglenook, L. K. Marshall of the Wine Growers Guild, and the University of California at Davis, or they give him the grapes to see what can be accomplished with them for purposes of comparison. Some wines turn out better than others and some are fine indeed. On the whole he has had better luck with the whites than with the reds.

The resulting wines are labeled with the House o f Howe name, with indication both of the grower who supplied the grapes and of the particular variety. Thus there is, for example, a House of Howe Pinot Chardonnay, Vintage 1952, Grapes from Wente Bros., produced and bottled by Gopher Gulch Ranch Wine Cellars.

Among the white table wines Jim Howe has experimented with are: Pinot Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer (one of his most successful vintages), Emerald Riesling, and French Colombard. The reds include: Cabernet Sauvigon, Pinot Noir, Gamay Beaujolais, Ruby Cabernet, Barbera, and a delightful Aleatico. The roses number most of the usual types and also a Merlot Rose from the Napa Valley.

A feature of the cellars of Gopher Gulch Ranch-scene of some grand parties-is the truly fabulous collection of vintage wines, both European and Californian. Here can be seen-and, if one is a lucky guest, tasted-such vintages, all of the better years, as Romanee Conti, Chateau Latour, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Martin Ray, Beaulieu, and many others of the top-flight class. Jim Howe has a passion too for magnums, a bottle seen and cultivated only too rarely in California. Many an expert has said with reason that a great wine achieves its ultimate greatness when bottled in the imposing and comfortable magnums.