While driving north on Highway 101 just picking up a nose full and eyeful of a warm spring day, past Geyserville the Asti exit looms, which awoke memories I hold dear. Placid amongst the vineyards at the northern tip of the Alexander Valley, the old winery is nearly a ghost town. A few residents are lucky enough to live near there.
Asti has a rich history in cultural significance as well as several distinctive landmarks in the wine industry and agriculture. Founded in the late 1800’s by a troika of savvy bankers, Asti was built in the fertile soil of the Alexander Valley. The wines produced were labeled “The Italian Swiss Colony.” These men of vision helped fellow Italian immigrants get a fresh start in the new world. Andre Sbarbaro and his partners were also instrumental in the development of fresh fruit being shipped to the eastern market in cold rail cars. That brain trust also fathered other developments in the canning and packing process that helped build the foundation of agriculture in California.
In the 1950s the marketing genius of Jack Wilen and Joe Vercelli brought visitors to the winery in such staggering numbers that Asti, in the late 50s, was second only to Disneyland in California tourism. I remember the buses on the Old Redwood Highway filled with some of the first wine tourists pouring into Asti. Back then wine was not part of our wider culture until the popularity of “That Little Old Wine Maker-Me” marketing. He became the spokesman for the winery in the fledgling black-and-white television market. With that success, Asti brought wine to the table of middle America. For decades, table wine has been frowned upon as unsophisticated. Two-buck Chuck shot a big hole in that theory, the concept of a $2 bottle of wine put the industry on its collective ear.
I had the distinct honor of knowing Joe Vercelli in the winter of his life in the 1980s. Joe showed me where the barracks were, the place where the field workers slept. Then it was just a group of foundations; today the cement is gone and the restored earth grows vines for the Gallo company. Gallo invested in the valuable vineyards that surround the old village just a few years ago. Joe took me across the rusty railroad tracks to the Villa Pompeii, it was built to faithfully reproduce an unearthed villa near Mount Vesuvius. Sbarbaro sent craftsmen to Italy to measure and plan the villa replica. It was the businessman’s weekend home, just a half-day by ferry and train from San Francisco. Joe told me he had entertained many, many prominent individuals in business and politics on the beautifully landscaped grounds of the Villa in its heyday. Joe had been the CFO and marketing genius of Asti. He moved on later in life to help other struggling wineries, Joe was based in his home in Healdsburg where his daughter Ann lives today, Ann Vercelli is a master chef and has been, long before the overblown foodie culture today.
Hoity-toity wine snob visitors in expensive cars and rattling jewelry, who gush over notes of chocolate, overtones of fruit and a back of the mouth finish have no patience with historical wineries. The Italian Swiss Colony made wines that were purchased because they tasted good, wines designed to be brought to the American table. They produced even, dare I say it, a raffia-covered bottle of Chianti.
Today Asti has only a guard and property manager who protect the site. The old railroad tracks at the north side of the property still have the special stop built by Sbarbaro. Steeped in history, the old, dry buildings whisper of the old days, like an old movie star who yearns for her past glory.
Someday, when you are not in a hurry, stop by, park under the palm trees and walk around the old buildings.
If you would like to explore the history of the Italian Swiss Colony, enter the name in Wikipedia or search for Andrea Sbarbaro to learn the amazing history of the winery and those who built it.
Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is the former president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association. Look for his column in The Community Voice each week.