Driving through Anderson Valley recently, I realized most of the sheep pastures, mill sites and apple orchards of my youth had turned into vineyards. Those many vineyards have begat an equally dizzying number of winery tasting rooms; 31 at last count, compared to zero back then. Longtime valley residents and visitors will remember North Coast tasting rooms from the 1950s to the early 1970s were relatively few, and limited to Napa and Sonoma County. They also were very different experiences from the more polished presentations of today.
My first visit to a winery tasting room was in 1957, when my parents began weekend trips from the Bay Area to El Rancho Navarro, their newly acquired summer camp near Philo. Italian Swiss Colony (or Asti, as it was often called), located between Geyserville and Cloverdale, became our default stop on those weekly trips (during autumn, winter and spring – we lived at camp during the summer). Italian Swiss Colony likely was Sonoma County’s biggest tourist attraction in those days, driven by a national reputation, free wine tasting, and those “little old winemaker, me” advertisements on radio and television.
For we Newmans, the attractions were more practical. Yes, my parents would enjoy a glass or two of wine (the glasses used in the Asti tasting room were tiny) during our stops. More important for us kids were the bathrooms and a tub of free cookies. The Italian Swiss Colony tasting room also offered perhaps the most clever winery promotion ever; free picture postcards visitors could send to friends, free postage on those cards and even an on-site post office.
Our stops at Italian Swiss Colony lasted until the autumn of 1958. My mother put an end to them when she realized the tasting room staff was greeting my father by name and pouring his favorite wine before he arrived at the tasting bar. The long-haul weekly commute ended soon after, when we moved to Philo.
In truth, there were not a lot tasting rooms in Sonoma County – or anywhere else – back then. On Highway 101 near Geyserville, the Four Monks Wine Vinegar facility (which later became Geyser Peak Winery and now is Virginia Dare Winery) had a sign next to the road that read, “No wine for sale – we drink it ourselves.”
Jump forward to 1970. I am driving from college to Philo on a regular basis. A sign on Highway 101 just north of Geyserville proclaimed “Free Wine Tasting” and pointed down Canyon Road to Dry Creek Valley and J. Pedroncelli Winery. Being legal drinking age and curious, I went. There, at a long counter in the barrel room, presided over by a retired airline pilot named John, I discovered the pleasures of wine. I bought my first bottle - J. Pedroncelli Chenin Blanc – there.
Over the next couple of years, I visited other wineries along Highway 101; the old, mostly two-lane highway that went through – not around - Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Geyserville and Cloverdale back then, not the four-lane freeway of today. Foppiano Vineyards near Healdsburg didn’t have a tasting room, but sold gallon bottles of Burgundy and – for big spenders – half-gallon bottles of 1964 Zinfandel at the cellar door. A. Rege Wine Company, across the highway and a bit north of Italian Swiss Colony, had a tiny tasting room where it offered Rege Burgundy and Rege Reserve Burgundy, the latter distinguished by an extra year in large redwood tanks and an extra dollar in price. Just south of Cloverdale, Bandiera Wines poured and sold Burgundy and – if I remember correctly – Zinfandel at the winery.
Italian Swiss Colony’s tasting room closed years ago: after several changes in ownership, the production facility was purchased by E. & J. Gallo Winery in 2015. Pedroncelli Winery is thriving under the management of the family’s third and fourth generation, with a dedicated tasting room and a full range of Sonoma County wines. Foppiano continues to make and sell wine – though Burgundy has been supplanted by varietal bottlings, most notably Petite Sirah. It also has a dedicated tasting room. A. Rege and Bandiera are long gone; while the latter survived as a label into the 2000s, its original vineyard was replaced by a subdivision.
A favorite winery stop in those years was Nervo Winery, between Healdsburg and Geyserville. Here, in a tiny building next to the old stone winery, Frank Nervo (or occasionally his sister Margaret) would pour Zinfandel (usually the most recent bottling, but occasionally one from 1944), Pinot Noir, Pinot St. George (a red grape variety now called Négrette) and Beclan Cabernet (which was not Cabernet, but may have been Béclan, an obscure French grape variety). After a few visits, during which we became acquainted, Frank began putting the open bottles and a plastic cup on the counter and leaving me to pour my own while he tackled tasks in the winery. The Nervo family closed the tasting room and sold the property in late 1972. The old stone winery, beautifully refurbished in recent years, is now the centerpiece of Trione Winery.
A few things to know about the wine world in Sonoma and Mendocino back then.
A majority of wine production in 1970 was generic blends in big bottles (“jug wines”) and many of the winery owners were Italian. J. Pedroncelli Winery in Sonoma and Parducci Winery in Mendocino were among the first in their respective counties to bottle premium wines in standard, cork-finished bottles labeled with the grape variety. However, it took the establishment of new wineries like Dry Creek Vineyards, Joseph Swan Vineyards, Trentadue Winery, A. Rafanelli Winery and Geyser Peak Winery, plus the building of Souverain Cellars-Sonoma and the revitalization of Simi Winery, all in the early 1970s, for Northern Sonoma and Mendocino to develop as premium wine regions.
With the exception of Italian Swiss Colony, the term “tasting room” was a misnomer. J. Pedroncelli had its counter and bins of wine along the walls, though most of the warehouse was devoted to barrel storage. At A. Rege and Nervo, tastings took place in converted corners of their offices; small, old buildings next to the winery.
Winery promotional material – when it existed - usually was a single sheet of paper with a list of the wines available and their prices. A few small wineries in the early 1970s may have offered single-fold brochures, but I cannot recall seeing any.
Italian Swiss Colony attracted crowds to its tasting room in the late 1950s 1960s and early 1970s, but not so other wineries in Northern Sonoma. Despite wine tasting being free, most tasting rooms attracted little notice. I recall being the only person at a tasting room on Saturday afternoon on more than one occasion. Even the wildest imagination in the wine business could not have conceived of requiring an appointment to taste back then.