Legacy of winemaking and Italian-American entrepreneurship continues

The unincorporated community of Asti is a village rich in history. Located in the Alexander Valley AVA between Geyserville and Cloverdale, alongside Russian River and just off Highway 101, Asti is home to a winery founded in 1881 by the epochal Italian Swiss Colony. By the mid-1950s Asti was the second most visited destination in California after Disneyland, and its winery introduced the first tasting room in the state. Although Asti’s winery has since undergone several changes in ownership, its town’s legacy of winemaking and Italian-American entrepreneurship in Sonoma County continues to this day.
In 1881, a Genoa-born, self-made businessman from San Francisco, Andrea Sbarboro, decided to develop a cooperative agricultural colony in Sonoma County. He then purchased the Truett sheep ranch 80 miles north, renaming it after a city in Piedmont, Italy, and forming the 1,620-acre community of the Italian Swiss Agricultural Colony with nearly a dozen families. Although the Italian and Swiss immigrants he employed were opposed to investing a portion of their wages for a share of the profits, Sbarboro raised capital from his prosperous Italian friends—including Pietro Carlo Rossi, a chemist who pioneered some early winemaking techniques.

As chief winemaker, Rossi incorporated high-quality Charbono, Mourvedre and Zinfandel grapes, with help from Dr. Giuseppe Ollino, the Colony’s vineyardist who’d purchased cuttings from famous wine districts in Italy. When production reached 2 million gallons of wine per year by the late 1800s, Rossi developed temperature-controlled fermentation and became the first recorded winemaker in the state to use sulfur dioxide as an antioxidant. Although predominantly utilizing Zinfandels at first, the Colony eventually specialized in a dry red wine similar to Chianti, with bottles they encased in raffia and labeled Tipo Chianti, which grew to be quite popular. In the 1890s the winery was also known for its award-winning Monte Cristo champagne.

Around that time Edoardo Seghesio of Piedmont came to work at the Colony, saving his pay to buy his own vineyard land—which he did in 1895. He built a winery on those 56 acres in 1902, closing temporarily during Prohibition but ultimately becoming renowned for its Zinfandels and Italian varietals. The Seghesio family still operates the Seghesio vineyard and winery at the old Chianti Station, along with their Healdsburg winery.

The Colony entered the 20th century as the largest dry wine vineyard in California, with a 3-million-gallon-capacity winery turning out 400,000 gallons of wine annually, and a 500,000-gallon concrete cistern. It also launched into full expansion mode, acquiring Fulton Winery near Healdsburg, Cloverdale Winery, Sebastopol’s Juilliard Winery, and Mt. Diablo Winery and vineyard in Contra Costa County to increase dry wine production. The Colony then purchased a large vineyard and winery at Madera in the San Joaquin Valley, and built two more wineries in the San Joaquin Valley to specialize in dessert wine and brandy production. Additionally, the Colony expanded its champagne production facilities and produced California’s most widely distributed champagnes, Asti Sec and Asti Rouge, followed by Golden State Extra Dry. They soon opened new headquarters in San Francisco, along with three large warehouses—one of which, a three-story brick building at the southwest corner of Battery and Greenwich, housing its main office and two million gallons of wine, which miraculously survived the 1906 earthquake.

Soon the Italian Swiss Colony operated nine winemaking facilities with a total capacity of 12 million gallons and about 10,000 acres of vineyard. By 1911, reportedly one of every five gallons of California wine came from the Colony.

A couple years after Pietro Rossi died in a tragic horse-and-buggy accident, and with the 18th Amendment looming, the California Wine Association took control of the winery. Edoardo Seghesio then purchased Asti in 1919, before being taken over by Asti Grape Products—a Prohibition-proof venture formed by Seghesio, Rossi’s two sons, Robert and Edmund, and longtime Colony employee, Enrico Prati.

With the Repeal of Prohibition, Asti once again operated as a winery, and a public tasting room—California’s first—opened in 1934. Rossi’s sons also installed a “wine garden” at the World’s Fair at Treasure Island in 1939, and the Colony became the third largest winery in the nation.
In 1941 the leading Colony families agreed to sell to the National Distillers Corporation, who operated the winery and vineyards until 1953, when the property was sold to Louis Petri of United Vintners. By the late 1950s, Asti became the largest tourist attraction in Sonoma, with a quarter-million visitors each year intent on seeing the “world’s largest wine vat” and Madonna del Carmine, a church built in 1907 from staves and the wood of old wine vats.

Meanwhile, Allied Grape Growers (AGG), a newly formed association of 1,300 farmers led by Petri, took over the winery, whose popularity continued through the 1960s, thanks in part to popular TV ads featuring a little old bespectacled man in Alpine shorts and suspenders, Sonoma resident and actor, Tony Cappasola, and the winery’s revered manager, Joe Vercelli.

In 1968 AGG merged with Heublein, which owned Beaulieu Vineyard and Inglenook in Napa Valley, until Heublein took full control of Asti in 1978. A few years later AGG bought it back. By the late ‘80s it was acquired by ERLY (The Beverage Source) followed by Wine World Estates (a division of Nestle), transitioning the Asti facility into an industrial wine factory and shutting the winery’s doors to the public.
Beringer Wine Estates operated the winery in 1996, until Australia-based beer company, Foster’s Group Ltd., acquired Beringer four years later. Chateau Souverain moved its production to Asti a decade later, and in 2009 the winery reopened to the public under the brand, Cellar No. 8, named after one of the original Colony cellars where Sbarboro aged his barrels of red wine.
A couple years later Treasury Wine Estates, a subsidiary of Foster’s, operated the winery before it was purchased in 2015 by E. & J. Gallo Winery, the world’s largest family-owned winery. SD