Sonoma History

First there were Pomo Indians. Peaceful, self-sufficient Native Americans, who for 3,000 years developed techniques of weaving reeds into some of the most beautiful and functional containers ever seen. Some of their baskets were designed for holding liquids, and they would even weave small boats for crossing rivers.

Then, and this is important, there were Russians. The first vinifera grapes in Sonoma County were planted in 1812 by Russian fur trappers. Want to win a bar bet? Where is the world’s most valuable collection of exquisite Pomo basketry? Answer: the Kremlin.

Spain wanted to stop this Russian intrusion. So Padre José Altimira built a mission at Sonoma in 1820. All that actually did was mark the end of Spanish influence in North America. One year later Mexican conservatives had won independence from the liberal coup leaders who had deposed Ferdinand VII of Spain in 1820. Of all the places in California named San this or Santa that, the northernmost one is Santa Rosa.

A young Mariano Vallejo arrived in 1835, and ultimately planted hundreds of thousands of vine cuttings. Born in California, his portfolio was to secularize the mission. He granted large tracts of land, understanding well the principle of cementing familial relations through marriage. One tract of land, called Sotoyome near present day Healdsburg, went to Henry Fitche, who married a sister-in-law. Fitche sent an administrator, named Cyrus Alexander, who was given a portion of Fitche’s land (10,000 acres), and who too planted grapes. Another big tract of land went to John Rogers Cooper. He built the first powered (river) mill in Sonoma, and called his property (near today’s Forestville) El Molino. The first female vintner in California was Vallejo’s mother-in-law, Maria de Carillo, who got thousands of acres near Santa Rosa in the mid 1850’s, about when Agoston Haraszthy arrived. William Hill planted Glen Ellen in 1852. In 1861 Davenport Cousins planted Dry Creek.

That same year the California Viticultural Commission sent Haraszthy on a research trip to Europe. He returned with 100,000 cuttings of fine vinifera grape varieties. It is unfortunate that trip ended in utter chaos. The Commission elected not to pay Haraszthy. So he sold the cuttings, in what would generously have been called a fire sale. Few records were kept, and labels on the cuttings were unreliable.


In the 1870’s, due to a worldwide Depression and disruption on the Italian Peninsula from Garibaldi’s unifying the city-states there into the Italian country (1861), millions of Italians began emigrating to America. Fishermen from Genoa moved to North Beach in San Francisco. Their country cousins moved to Sonoma. They all made deposits and got loans from the Bank of Italy in San Francisco, which eventually became Bank of America. Call it ghetto-ization, but language groups tended to live together: the English in Livermore; the French in San Jose; the Germans in Napa; and the Italians in Sonoma.

A Swiss grocer named Andrea Sbarboro came up with a scheme he thought would not only employ hundreds of poverty-stricken immigrants, but also give them long-term security. Make no mistake, Sbarboro expected to profit, but he had a social conscience too. He based his calculations on a current (1881) study from the California Viticulture Commission. They reported the annual cost to maintain a vineyard at $20 an acre. They also estimated a yield of 5 tons to the acre. Grapes in Sonoma at that time were selling for $30 a ton. Sbarboro did a napkin calculation and determined there would be $130 per acre profit annually. Within weeks he had subscribed $300,000 from investors for the Italian Swiss Agricultural Colony. Over the next year he researched 40 properties, and purchased a 1,500-acre sheep ranch in Alexander Valley for $25,000. It was on the Northwest Pacific rail line. He interviewed Italian immigrants, asking about their vineyard experience. He started with 150 of his favorites. He named the town where they would live Asti, after a prominent wine producing town in Piemonte, Italy.

Italian Swiss Colony had many problems, but gigantic assets. Sbarboro hired a chemist with winemaking experience, Pietro Carlo Rossi, to make the wines. Rossi understood the use of sulphites to keep the co-operative’s wines in good condition. When an organization of wine shippers and wine sellers (California Wine Association) tried to control the market after 1891, by offering prices below winemaking costs, Rossi launched a successful attempt to sell his products directly to stores and restaurants in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans. These battles went on for another ten years before the antagonists finally merged their equity and interests. At that time Italian Swiss Colony was the second biggest wine producer in California making several million gallons per year. To reiterate: reliable quality and having your own aggressive marketing organization.

During this same period another very large player in Sonoma County was Fountaingrove Winery just north of Santa Rosa where their round barn still stands. Fountaingrove was a cult. It was founded in England and New York by a charismatic named Thomas Lake Harris. He moved the community to Ohio on the banks of Lake Erie, where he started making wine, then eventually to Santa Rosa. His psychosexual buffoonery laced with spiritualism attracted a lot of attention, but it also generated the money to plant 1,500 acres of vines, all overseen by his assistant. Kanaye Nagasawa became friends with Luther Burbank, and had a burning passion for Pinot Noir. He made a lot of wine, and sold it easily because it was so highly regarded. In 1900 Fountaingrove produced 90% of the Pinot Noir in Sonoma County. Nagasawa continued to run the property until his death in 1934. Their legacy today belongs to a winery named Paradise Ridge.

The Italian influx reached a peak just before the turn of the century (1900). Family wineries such as Foppiano, Seghesio, Simi, and Sebastiani began at this time. As did Gundlach, Korbel, and Bundschu. At the beginning of Prohibition there were 256 wineries in Sonoma County, and over 22,000 acres of grapes. Prohibition allowed ‘heads of households’ to legally make 200 gallons of wine tax-free, so vineyards were actually at a premium. There were more acres of vineyard in 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, than when it started. But only 50 Sonoma County wineries survived.

One valuable artifact from the period of Italian immigration was the concept of field blend. Italian families would make three wines for their personal consumption. The first picking of the vineyard made a table red for everyday consumption. It was rarely kept more than a year. If sold, it was called (without malice) “Dago Red,” which implied an honest workingman’s wine; not some ethnic slur. In fact the phrase actually carried the connotation of pretty enjoyable, competently made red wine. The second picking of the vineyard would make a riper, more extractive, more alcoholic wine. It was intended for men, after women and children left the dinner table. It would be consumed with chocolate and pistachios while playing pinochle. A third picking of the vineyard would yield an Amarone-style wine with 16% alcohol and 3% to 5% residual sugar. That one was reserved for special occasions: holiday meals and bocce tournaments.

Ruins of the Jack London House
Ruins of the Jack London House

A prominent Sonoma Valley resident during this turn of the century period was Jack London. Best known for his adventure fiction (e.g. Call of the Wild, White Fang, To Build a Fire) London was perhaps America’s most famous Socialist (e.g. The Iron Heel, War of the Classes). When he bought 1,000 acres near Glen Ellen in Sonoma Valley (for $26,450), his ‘comrades’ undoubtedly felt betrayed. Then he built his 5,000 sq. ft. dream house on the property eight years later for $80,000 ($2 million plus today). The week he was scheduled to move in, someone burned it to the ground. Depressed, he basically drank himself to death (uremic poisoning) six months later in 1916.

Some vintners, like Tuscan immigrant Samuele Sebastiani, who survived Prohibition by selling wine to the Catholic church, engaged in beneficial public works following Prohibition which employed otherwise destitute people during the Great Depression. Sebastiani built a motel, a theater, and a skating rink. When he died in 1944, Samuele was one of the biggest landowners in Sonoma Valley. His son August was always pictured in bib overalls in the business section of San Francisco newspapers, but he increased his father’s real estate empire as efficiently as he increased the family’s wine business.

After WWII, Sonoma County made a lot of wine, but lacked the name recognition of next-door neighbor Napa Valley because so much of Sonoma’s wine was sold through wineries and brands located elsewhere: Napa; Santa Clara; and the Central Valley (Julio Gallo sourced huge amounts of wine and grapes in Sonoma County). Hanzell was an interesting exception. It is a tiny winery on a hill just north of the town of Sonoma. In a lovely building modeled after Clos de Vougeot in Burgundy are separate one-ton stainless steel fermenters which produce a total of about 3,000 cases per year. The winery was established in 1952 by James Zellerbach, part of the family that owned Crown Zellerbach paper and eventually the US Ambassador to Italy. Hanzell was the prototype boutique CA winery. Several techniques, which were seminal in California, date from those first years when R. Bradford (Brad) Webb was Hanzell’s winemaker. Fermenting in temperature controlled stainless steel was one, but introducing small French cooperage was much more important. Hanzell introduced French barriques to North America in 1958.

Sonoma County broke out of its name recognition funk in the 1980’s as land prices in Napa rose precipitously. There were any number of noteworthy ventures which have made their mark on national markets. Describing three will serve our purpose here.

No. 1 is an example of the transition from our first iconic ‘boutique’ wineries (e.g. Hanzell, Mayacamas, Chalone, Stony Hill) to the beginning of our Cult winery (e.g. Randy Dunn then; Harlan, Sine Quo Non, Colgin now) phenomenon. Personally I don’t think there could ever be a better example than Laurel Glen Vineyard. Patrick Campbell is simply a compelling individual. He has a graduate degree from Harvard in Philosophy and Religion. He came to Sonoma to hold down a ‘union’ viola chair in the Santa Rosa Symphony while he lived in a communal Zen monastery. The monks owned a vineyard. Patrick, and his wife Faith (you couldn’t make this story up), eventually bought 27 acres on Sonoma Mountain not far from Jack London’s former ranch. Patrick built his 4,000 sq. ft. winery in 1980, making Cabernet Sauvignon. With one full-time helper in the vineyard, and one part-time helper in the winery, Patrick turned out 5,000 cases per year. He did it all on crutches, having had polio as a child. The wines have always sold in the $40 to $60 range. Laurel Glen is an example of a great many wineries in flux today as the owners get older. The Campbell’s three daughters have successful careers of their own; none in the wine business. So in 2010, when Patrick turned 64, the Campbells sold their winery to importer (Blue Nun) Peter Sichel’s daughter Bettina, a restaurant owner from New York.

Jess Jackson, Founder of Kendall-Jackson

Our second illustration is Kendall-Jackson. They operate statewide, but are headquartered in Sonoma County. Beginning in 1974, San Francisco lawyer Jess Jackson parlayed the phenomenal market success of Chardonnays, blended from several coastal regions by superstar winemaker Jed Steele, into an empire of which even his own PR staff could barely keep track. Beginning in 1987, Jackson simply bought everything in sight.

At the beginning of the decade Jackson and Steele were making 25,000 cases of Chardonnay. An engine driving the business early was an understanding of what would be necessary to command attention from the rapidly consolidating wholesale tier of the US three-tier distribution system. Steele provided the ideal product: aromatic lushness from the Central Coast; acid and length from Sonoma; toasty sophistication from barrel fermentation of ripe Napa grapes. A homeopathic dose of Muscat was rumored to be the secret ingredient, which Jackson went to Court to prevent Steele from revealing. Tasting competition prizes rolled in with monotonous regularity. Moreover Steele produced a seemingly unlimited stream of this elixir at a very attractive price. By the mid-’80s an $8 bottle of K-J Chardonnay was synonymous with white wine in the minds of 21- to 35-year-olds having wine-by-the-glass in bars throughout America. By the end of the decade Steele was pumping out 800,000 cases of barrel-fermented Chardonnay a year, no small physical feat.

On the production side, Jackson’s operation quickly segmented their line, buying (or creating their own) high-end brands. They hired talented young winemakers away from successful wineries, and gave them free rein. They identified special blocks in their vineyards and designated those on labels. They embarked on these high-end sorties confident that any wine unused by top-end programs (e.g. Hartford Court) could flow into mid-range labels (e.g. La Crema, a Sonoma County appellated label), or eventually find a home in the river of wine going to market under the K-J (California appellated) label. Similarly, on the marketing side, they could now begin to participate in the pricing gamesmanship so beloved by large US distributors called programming. They would get the attention of distributor sales staffs by offering volume discounts on brands with good name-recognition, while gradually inserting new brands into the limited volume slots at the top of the distributors’ catalogue. There is a continuous cascading flow to this business, as brands are gradually increased in volume, and discounted down through the price levels. Australian conglomerates (such as the Fosters Group with their Penfolds and Lindemans labels) may have pioneered this business model, but Kendall-Jackson Americanized it, and it has now become very widely practiced.

Another gigantic plus has been the quality of several Jackson vineyard acquisitions. Their Gauer Ranch mountainside vineyards high above Alexander Valley are an excellent example. Likewise Jackson’s Sonoma Seaside plantings west of the Russian River AVA are enormously promising. Jess Jackson died in April 2011 at age 81.

As a final example of Sonoma County’s new ascendancy we’ll cite the marriage in 2009 of Jean-Charles Boisset to Gina Gallo. I guarantee every politician in America has them on speed dial. The Boisset family owns the most Premier and Grand Cru vineyard hectares in Burgundy, along with brands such as Bouchard, J. Moreau, Ropiteau, Antonin Rodet, and Dom. de la Vougeraie. Jean-Charles bought DeLoach winery on the Santa Rosa Plain from a former San Francisco fireman in 2003. Gina Gallo is Julio’s granddaughter, and the winemaker at Gallo’s Northern Sonoma operation. Gallo, the largest single winery in the world, owns something on the order of 5,000 vineyard acres in Sonoma County. Since their marriage, Boisset has acquired Raymond Winery in Napa, Buena Vista in Sonoma, and Lockwood in Monterey. Previously Gallo acquired Louis Martini Winery and William Hill in Napa. I’m beginning to see a pattern here. What I’m eagerly anticipating is Boisset offering a package of terroir-distinquished, Santa Rosa Plain Pinot Noirs from DeLoach, or another brand. You know the concept is close to his heart.

We’ll discuss Bill Foley (Firestone, EOS, Sebastiani, Chalk Hill, Kuleto) from Santa Barbara County at another time.

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