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Sonoma-Mendocino - Notable Wineries By District And Region

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


The Russian River finds its source in Mendocino County and flows south into Sonoma, turning west past Healdsburg to empty in the Pacific Ocean some ten miles beyond Guerneville.

The lower Russian River Valley, around Guerneville, forms a small, separate winegrowing area, where some of the finest California champagne is produced. The inland or upper section of the valley takes in the area around Healdsburg northwards to Cloverdale and on into Mendocino County. In this section of Sonoma over forty wineries are located, most of the growers being of Italian descent and producing sound, robust table wines, mostly of the red types.

F. Korbel & Brothers, Inc., Guerneville

The great castlelike Korbel winery is located, among vineyards and huge tree stumps, on the Russian River a few miles east of Guerneville, just beyond Rio Nido. It is the home of champagnes, which rate among the very best and are known throughout the country and beyond.

The Korbels first produced wine here in 1881 and the story is one of enterprise which dates back to the days of the pioneers.

The Korbel brothers, Francis, Anton, and Joseph, were born in the little town of Behine in Bohemia, now part of Czechoslovakia. They emigrated to the United States and after a stay in New York came to San Francisco in the early eighteen sixties. Ironworkers and machinists by trade, they soon found employment in the machine shops of San Francisco. Francis, the eldest, built a cigar-box factory, as he realized the need for such objects. In this he was aided by his brothers and such was the beginning of a family enterprise which led by stages to lithography, publication of The Wasp, lumber, a sawmill on the Russian River, and finally to the production of wine and champagne.

A younger, fourth, brother had also arrived from Bohemia, but because of his delicate health sought the outdoor life. For him the elder Korbels bought a half interest in a sawmill near Guerneville. They later took over the partnership, acquiring additional acreage and eventually owning a large tract of virgin forest on the Russian River.

When all the timber had been cut-the vast stumps of which remain an impressive sight today-the Korbels sought the advice of the University of California on what to raise on the newly cleared land. After a dairy venture which proved unsuccessful vines were planted with the purpose of selling the grapes to Sonoma wineries. When the first crop was harvested, grape prices proved so low the brothers decided to crush the grapes themselves and so landed in the wine business.

The original winery still stands and in 1886 the first section of the present winery was constructed from lumber and from brick made on the ranch property. Table wines only were produced at first, but in the nineties it was decided to make champagne as well. Shortly after the Second World War production of table wines (and of brandy) was discontinued, to concentrate on that of sparkling wines only.

The Korbels brought over from Bohemia Frank Hasek as their first champagne maker, a graduate of the Viticultural School of Melnik, near Prague, later joined by another Melnik graduate, Jan (John) Hanuska. For over forty years Hanuska, a gnomelike figure of genius, carried on as cellar master and champagne maker, a master of his trade.

In early 1954 Anton and Leo Korbel and the other members of the Korbel family sold the corporation to Adolf L. and Paul R. Heck, brothers and wine makers, originally from St. Louis and formerly president and production manager of Italian Swiss Colony. Adolf Heck became president of Korbel as well as the wine maker and Paul Heck the executive vice-president.

The four most important varieties of grapes raised at the ranch for the production of sparkling wines are Pinot noir, Pinot blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon blanc. Some White Riesling and Sylvaner are also grown. In September 1954 the Heck brothers purchased the Santa Nella Winery, which adjoins their Korbel ranch. The Santa Nella property includes a winery, a retail establishment, and a vineyard acreage, part of which was recently replanted to select varietal wine grapes. Plans are to maintain the Santa Nella name and to operate the retail store there the year round.

The Korbel winery produces only Sparkling wines, bottle-fermented, and marketed under the Korbel brand, as follows:

Korbel Brut (very dry), Korbel Extra Dry (for Eastern markets only), Korbel Sec (medium dry), and Korbel Rouge (red champagne or sparkling burgundy and on the dry side).

A recent innovation is the clear glass bottle with transparent label in which the Korbel Pink Champagne or Sparkling Rose is now marketed.

L. Foppiano Wine Company, Healdsburg

The winery dates back to the early eighteen seventies and was known as the Smith winery when Louis Foppiano, of Italian descent and the father of the present owner, purchased it in 1898. The company is a family concern, owned and operated by Louis Foppiano and his relatives.

Louis Foppiano was born right on the property, in the building which now houses the company's offices. Raised in the wine business since his earliest days, he has made a great success of it, including a financial one, something in which growers have not always been so fortunate.

While dessert wines and vermouth are also marketed, table wines are the specialty. They are of sound standard quality and are marketed under the Foppiano and Sonoma Gold brands. They include Zinfandel, Burgundy, and Claret in the reds, and Sauterne and Rhine Wine in the whites. A superior table wine is the Foppiano Vintage Burgundy. Aperitif and dessert wines include Port, Sherry, Muscatel, Tokay, White Port, and Dry and Sweet Vermouth.

Simi Wineries (Montepulciano Winery), Healdsburg

This famous old firm was founded in 1876 by Giuseppe Simi, who came over from Italy at the time of the Gold Rush and first worked in the mines. He came to Healdsburg in the early seventies, planted a large vineyard acreage and built a winery which he called Montepulciano after the place of that name in his native Tuscany. The enterprise is now managed by his daughter Isabella and her husband Fred Haigh.

The products of this winery were once featured by the fabulous old Del Monte Hotel (now the U. S. Naval Postgraduate School) at Del Monte near Monterey, California, where they achieved a wide reputation.

Table wines are still the winery's specialty, marketed both under the Simi and Montepulciano brands, sold mostly at retail at the winery's entrance. They include a varietal Carignan claret, one of the very few produced in the state, and a favorite of Mrs. Haigh.

Vercelli Brothers Wine Company (Alpine Vineyards), Healdsburg

This family enterprise, located just north of the Russian River crossing, is owned by the brothers Joseph S. and Louis J. Vercelli with Joseph (Joe) the general and sales manager. Joe Vercelli, a very popular figure in the wine industry, was born in San Francisco and has been in the wine business his entire adult life. He was at one time a pupil of the famed Dr. Bioletti. In addition to his duties concerning his own company he was named wine maker, in 1954, for Italian Swiss Colony.

In 1937 the Vercelli brothers purchased the Costa Magna Winery, established prior to the turn of the century, and two years later acquired part of the assets of the old Alpine Winery from John Greeott, who founded it in 1893. For a number of years the Vercellis specialized in varietal table wines, selling them to the larger Sonoma wineries. On account of the speculative nature of the varietal field production has more recently been concentrated on the popular generic wine types of sound standard quality.

During the Second World War, Vercelli Brothers, along with a number of other well-known California wineries, supplied wines to distant places, as far apart as Central America, Saudi Arabia and the South Sea Islands. Vercelli's wines found their way to the Free French Forces in New Caledonia, to Tahiti and Noumea in the Society Islands, and to Tientsin, Hongkong, and Macao. One faithful lady customer from Tahiti still comes yearly to purchase four barrels of wine to take back with her to Papeete.

Table wines are the specialty and are marketed under the Vercelli, Verbro, and Alpine brands. They include Zinfandel, Claret, and Burgundy in the reds, Sauterne (dry), Chablis, and Rhine in the whites, as well as a rose, produced from either Zinfandel or from Carignane grapes.

Italian Swiss Colony, Asti

The origin of Italian Swiss Colony is in great part the story of Andrea Sbarboro, who came to San Francisco from Italy in the early eighteen fifties as a youngster to work in his brother's grocery store. Twenty years later, by working hard and saving, he bought his own store and turned builder and financier.

In 1881 he founded the Italian Swiss Agricultural Colony with the purpose of aiding Italian and Swiss immigrants to settle in their new land. Many of these were vineyardists by trade and a 1500-acre tract was chosen in Sonoma County, suitable for the planting of vines. The land was named Asti after the town of that name in Piedmont, Italy. Each immigrant was provided with room, board, and wages, in return for which a contribution was expected toward building up an equity in the land and eventually becoming an independent farmer. The immigrants objected to the last condition; they were willing to work, but not to take a chance. Sbarboro decided to operate Asti privately. He set the immigrants to work, planting vines with the idea of growing and selling grapes. The price of the latter soon dropped below the cost of production. It was then decided to press the grapes into wine. The first crush was a disaster; owing to carelessness in handling, the wine turned to vinegar.

Asti, so far, had proved a failure, but Sbarboro did not give up. He put Pietro Rossi, a San Francisco druggist who had studied wine making in Italy, in charge of the winery. This was in 1888. The first wines Rossi produced were of good quality, but the market price offered for them was unprofitable. The Colony then decided to market its wines direct and set up agencies throughout the country and abroad. Italian Swiss Colony finally came into its own. The fame of its wines soon spread and many medals were received in the United States and Europe and even in the original Asti, in Piedmont.

Sbarboro built a sumptuous mansion at Asti and, being a great practical joker, equipped the gardens with a sprinkler system, copied after the one at Hellbrunn in Salzburg. The purpose was not so much to sprinkle his plants, but his guests. The grounds of the estate became a maze of booby traps for the unsuspecting.

With the death of Pietro Rossi, thrown from his horse in 1911, one of the great figures of the Colony passed away. Management of the winery was taken over by his twin sons, Edmund and Robert Rossi, who had been taught the art of wine making by their father. Andrea Sbarboro, who among his other duties headed the Italian American Bank in San Francisco, remained in charge of the Colony's promotion.

Prohibition was the last enemy to strike at Italian Swiss Colony. Sbarboro proclaimed endlessly that Prohibition was not the road to temperance and appeared before Congress in Washington to protest against this threat to man's liberty of action. But he realized that he was fighting a losing battle. He retired from the wine business and in 1923 he died, partly out of disgust, it is said, that his beloved Asti was bottling grape juice. It was, however, by selling grapes and grape juice that Asti was kept going during Prohibition. When Repeal came, the Rossi twins lost no time in reviving the Colony's wine industry and within a few years Italian Swiss had once again become one of the country's leading wineries.

The "experiment that nearly failed" was finally crowned with solid success. During the Second World War, Italian Swiss Colony was sold to National Distillers Products Corporation, who owned it till April 1953, when it was purchased for a record figure by the Petri family, already well known in the wine industry. The next year the Petris also acquired from National Distillers the popular Lejon and Hartley brands.

Italian Swiss Colony owns a vast vineyard acreage in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The main winery, for table and sparkling wines, is located at Asti itself, always a popular attraction fdr visitors. Other bonded premises of the company are to be found at Lodi (Shewan-Jones) and at Clovis (La Paloma Winery) for the production of aperitif and dessert wines and of brandy. Bottling plants are located at Chicago, Illinois, and at Fairfield, New Jersey, to ensure adequate service for the Midwestern and Eastern markets.

Italian Swiss Colony produces a large variety of wines which enjoy a national and foreign distribution. Their quality is invariably sound and they are priced in the medium range, with Gold Medal, Private Stock, Tipa, and Asti the best-known brands in ascending order of quality and of cost.

Table wines marketed include: Asti: Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and Burgundy; Pinot Blanc, Dry Semillon, Riesling, Sauterne, Chablis, and Rhine; Vin Rose; Tipo: red and white Chianti;

Private Stock: Burgundy and Zinfandel; Sauterne (dry) and Haut Sauterne (medium dry); Vin Rose;

Gold Medal: Burgundy, Claret, and Zinfandel; Sauterne (dry) and Rhine.

Italian Swiss markets a semi-sweet Vin Rose under the LS.C. label.

In addition Gambarelli & Davitto, an Italian Swiss Colony division, markets an inexpensive mellow vino rosso type under the name "Fior di California."

Sparkling wines (bulk fermented) are labeled under the Private Stock brand and include Champagne (medium dry) and Sparkling Burgundy.

Aperitif and Dessert wines are marketed as follows: Asti: Sherry (medium dry), Pale Sherry, and Cream Sherry; Tawny Port and Ruby Port; Muscatel;

Private Stock: Sherry (medium dry) and Pale Dry Sherry; Port; Muscatel; Tokay;

Gold Medal: Sherry (medium dry), Pale Dry Sherry, and Cream Sherry; Port; Muscatel; Tokay; White Port; Angelica;

Vermouth, both dry and sweet, is available under the LS.C. (Italian Swiss Colony) and G E D (Gambarelli & Davitto) labels.

Separate mention must be made of the Lejon and Hartley products, made popular by that famous and colorful personality of the California wine industry, Lee Jones, of whose name the Lejon brand forms a contraction and a lasting tribute. A table wine, both red and white, is marketed under the Chateau Lejon brand, as are Champagne and Sparkling Burgundy (bottle-fermented), while Hartley Sherry and Lejon Vermouth, both dry and sweet, are wines familiar to many throughout the country.

Hollis M. Black Winery, Cloverdale

The Hollis Black Ranch, picturesquely situated on the Russian River, was originally the Hall Ranch, with a winery founded in 1905. Lewis Black and his son Hollis purchased the property from the Halls in i9I9 and the family enterprise is now operated by Hollis M. Black, assisted by his son and daughter-in-law, Davis and Elise Black.

The ranch had been in the bulk-wine business for some forty years when it was decided, for economic reasons, to concentrate on the production and marketing of superior-quality table wines. A selection of the finer varieties has been planted in the vineyards and plans are to produce Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Chardonnay, White Riesling, and Sylvaner. Ruby Cabernet was planted besides and the resulting wine, when blended, has shown signs of great promise.

In the meantime, besides a home-grown Claret, a number of other table wines are carefully selected and then aged and bottled at the winery. These include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Burgundy; White Pinot (Chenin Blanc), Sylvaner, Riesling, Sauterne (dry), and Chablis. A Pale Dry Sherry and a Port are also aged and bottled.

All wines are marketed under the Hollis Black brand, the label of which is artistically outstanding and the work of Mrs. Hollis Black, a portrait painter of more than local repute, who has also written for some of the better-known national magazines.