Reviving a century-old dream

Reviving a century-old dream
2010-09-24T00:00:00Z 2010-09-30T16:52:15Z Reviving a century-old dreamKIP DAVIS Napa Valley Register
September 24, 2010 12:00 am  • 

When he was a small child visiting his relatives in San Francisco, Dario Sattui smelled something. He didn’t realize that he was getting a strong whiff of his destiny that will be celebrated Saturday night. 

Decades before, Sattui’s great grandfather Vittorio Sattui was working as a baker in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Like most Italian immigrants of that era, Vittorio made some wine on the side. But Vittorio’s wine was a cut above that of his neighbors and, in 1885, he followed his natural talent and opened St. Helena Wine Cellars on Columbus Avenue. 

Vittorio Sattui made his wines exclusively from grapes that he purchased in St. Helena, ferried across the bay and then crushed at the North Beach winery. The wines were a big hit and Vittorio’s business took off. He changed the name to V. Sattui Wine Company and eventually moved the winery to a larger building in the Mission district. The winery was on the first floor, Vittorio, his wife, Katerina, and six kids lived upstairs. Then Prohibition hit in 1920 and, like most American wineries, V. Sattui Wine Company was forced to shut its doors.

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Vittorio Sattui was in his 70s. Neither he nor any of his family was interested in reopening V. Sattui, so the ground-floor winery was leased to another winemaker. But the elder Sattui and several of his grown children and their families continued to live in the apartments above the winery. That living arrangement had a direct effect on the future of Vittorio’s great grandson, Dario Sattui. 

“As a kid, we visited my relatives there often,” Sattui said, “and my first sensation was always the reek of wine, because they were still making wine there. So I saw all this and it got to me. I’d play in the cellar and ask questions, saw photographs and heard all the stories. So ever since I was about 9 years old, I wanted to go into the wine business.”

Over the next six decades, that youthful dream stayed alive, leading Sattui to eventually revive the V. Sattui Winery near St. Helena and build it into one of the most successful and popular labels in the Napa Valley. The winery’s founding in 1885 and its long, colorful history will take center stage Saturday night at V. Sattui’s 125th anniversary Harvest Ball. 


A head for business — and wine

Saturday’s celebration is a meaningful milestone for Dario Sattui, who kept the dream of reviving V. Sattui alive through his teen and college years. 

While the rest of the family moved on, going into the insurance business, Sattui couldn’t shake his fascination with wine — and the wine business.

“I always knew I had a business head,” Sattui said, “because at 8, 9 or 10, I was always running something. A lemonade stand, in high school I was taking bets on the game. In the summer my mother would drive me to Stinson Beach and I’d take her old canning kettle, put it on a rope around my neck and sell Coca Cola.”

After high school, Sattui studied accounting and finance at San Jose State University, earned an M.B.A. at UC Berkeley in 1969 and, upon graduation, headed to Europe, where he spent two years traveling in an old Volkswagen van. Even during these freewheeling years, there was no suppressing Sattui’s entrepreneurial spirit. 

“I ran a taxi service,” he smiled. “There were all these hitchhikers standing out in the hot sun and I knew a lot of them were Americans, so they’d probably have a little bit of money. I’d stop and say ‘I’m going to Barcelona,’ or wherever I was going, ‘Would you like to come?’ Of course they’d say ‘yes.’ Then I’d say ‘Well, it’ll cost you so much a kilometer, so do you want to come or not?’ They’d usually pay up, so essentially I didn’t pay for any gas in Europe; in fact, I made a little money.”

Sattui’s outlook on life and business also profited from his exposure to European culture. He developed a fascination with medieval architecture and a love of the European lifestyle that would greatly influence him for the next five decades. When he returned to the U.S. in 1972, Sattui was as determined as ever to pick up where great-grandfather Vittorio had left off. 

“I decided if anyone (in the family) was going to do it, I’d have to do it,” he said. “I came back from Europe, I didn’t have much money and I knew I had to get a job and I thought, ‘Damn, I’m going to do what I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was little kid.’ The question was, how do you do it when you don’t have any money, you don’t have any knowledge — that was the hard part.”


An unconventional plan 

Sattui did have a strong vision for what he wanted the new V. Sattui winery to be. He also had the youthful drive and blind ambition to persevere against what many told him were long odds. From 1972 through 1974, Sattui worked at various Napa Valley wineries gaining a general overview “but no depth” of the complexities of the winemaking trade.  During that time, he also developed his vision for reviving the family winery and decided to locate it in the Napa Valley. 

“I had a plan that I wrote in 1973 or ’74,” he recalled, “and we’ve stuck to it almost exactly. And it worked!”

At the time, Sattui’s business plan was unconventional — and certainly did not conform to what was being done by most other Napa Valley wineries. He envisioned his winery as a fun destination, “like coming to Europe for the afternoon on a $50 budget.” To augment his tasting room, Sattui wanted to offer a “food component” — in the form of high-quality deli cheeses and bread — and comfortable picnic grounds adjacent to the rock-walled winery.

“Most wineries (at that time) had signs saying ‘Keep off the lawn’ and ‘No picnicking.’ We wanted to provide a place to escape your asphalt environment, forget about the fight you had with your wife or your nagging kids, come out and have a nice picnic lunch, and combine wine and food. It’s that European-type feel.”

Sattui also proposed to market his wine direct-to-consumer, bypassing distributors and retail outlets. Although this is common practice today, it was virtually unheard-of in the mid-1970s. 

Before he could launch this unconventional winery, however, Sattui needed capital. He was told by a UC Davis expert that he needed at least $1 million to start a new winery. Sattui thought he could do it for $100,000, but raising that during the cash-strapped mid-1970s was difficult. He finally put together about half of his target capital, leased a four-acre piece of property south of St. Helena and, on a shoestring, began building the winery in July 1975. 

The location was not an accident. Sattui chose it based on visitor traffic patterns he had observed in Napa Valley.

“Too far south (on Highway 29) and people don’t want to stop yet,” he said, “and at that time, we saw statistics that showed 40 percent of the people never went beyond (north) of Beringer or Krug. Then, if you were on the left side of the road, people didn’t want to make that left-hand turn. So I wanted to be on the right (east) side of the road.”


New wine — and a 90-year-old corking machine

Sattui made his first wine at the new location in the fall of 1975 using mostly rented equipment. In a nod to tradition — more out of necessity than sentimentality, he said — the first vintage was bottled later using his great-grandfather’s 90-year-old corking machine. 

The winery construction was completed in early 1976 and the reincarnation of V. Sattui Winery opened for business in March of that year. Despite its primitive fixtures and lean surroundings, the winery offered visitors the fundamentals of Sattui’s vision: wine displayed on planks supported by wine barrels, interesting cheese in a $200 used deli case all in a European-style stone winery/tasting facility. And as the year wore on, V. Sattui enjoyed some success.

“We were profitable the first year,” Sattui said, remembering the exact end-of-year profit  — $2,640. “And we’ve never had a year since when we weren’t profitable.” 

Sattui’s business plan seemed to be working. Traffic steadily increased to the new winery and sales grew.

“People really responded well,” he said. “It was just a natural, relaxed, comfortable thing to do. And often, the experience transcends the wine. It makes the wine even better than it is.” 


Davies on board

In 1980, Sattui hired Tom Davies to work in the tasting room and cellar. A recent graduate from Chico State, Davies’ business sense quickly became apparent to the overworked owner and the two have been together since. Davies is now a partner and president of V. Sattui Winery. 

Davies said the winery’s success and longevity are due primarilyto Sattui’s original, outside-the-box vision. The direct-to-consumer sales model, he said, has set the winery apart from competition in Napa Valley and beyond.

“We were probably one of the first wineries to ship wine interstate, direct to the consumer,” Davies said. “From day one, we had a newsletter and, fast-forward 37 years, now it’s much beyond that. It’s social media, e-mails and we even have our ‘outbound hospitality,’ a team of people that reaches out to customers over the phone. But we’ve always kept it direct-to-consumer and to this day, 100 percent of what we produce is either sold out the front door of our tasting room or via the Internet.” 



 “We were innovators of a lot of things,” Sattui added. “There were a lot of wineries who laughed at us initially and now they’re trying to copy us.” 

Selling direct, Sattui and Davies said, creates a much closer relationship with the customer. Properly nurtured, this relationship can continue for years and help further expand the customer base without costly advertising or marketing.  

“I think it’s about forming relationships,” Sattui said. “We have employees who have been here over 20 years. Customers come back and see the same faces, the same personalities … people relate to that. It’s like coming home. We have a tremendous amount of repeat business.” 

“Because we’re direct-to-consumer,” Davies added, “that really helps us in our pricing model. Every bottle we’re selling is sold at retail, and because we’re selling wines direct, we can offer a much better value — a bigger bang for the buck.” 

The diversity of V. Sattui’s wine offerings is designed to appeal to a wide variety of customers. This further sets the winery apart from the Napa Valley norm.

““We do a lot of things different here,” Sattui boasted.  “For instance, most wineries make cabernet, chardonnay and a few other varieties. We make over 40 different wines here.” 

Through the years, V. Sattui has acquired 225 acres of vineyards in the Napa Valley, Carneros and Anderson Valley. Davies said 65 percent of its annual wine production is from estate vineyards. The winery also has longstanding relationships with several Napa Valley growers. 

“I categorize it as small lot winemaking,” Davies said, referring to V. Sattui’s product strategy. “We make a lot of small lots of many different wines.”

“We always go against the flow,” Sattui added. “When nobody else was making riesling or muscat, we were doing it. Whatever everybody else is doing, we’re often doing the opposite and it works for us.

“Another thing that sets us apart from a lot of the other wineries,” Sattui continued, “is that we try to involve and include our customers, make them part of the family. When we’re bottling, we don’t try to close it off. We open the door and say, ‘Come on in.’ When we’re crushing, we invite the customers out to watch us crush and we bring grapes into the tasting room so they can taste what goes into the wine. Everything we do, we try to involve the customer. It’s their winery. It’s a place they want to bring their friends and relatives to, a place they want to come back to.”

And come back they do. The winery’s annual Harvest Ball, started in 1985, is attended mostly by loyal V. Sattui customers who live throughout the U.S. Many plan their vacations around the black-tie event, Sattui said. With the added significance of the 125th anniversary, this year’s event will be moved out of the winery to a giant tent for the expected larger-than-normal crowd.  

Large crowds are a regular feature at the winery, an apparent affirmation Sattui got it right back in the 1970s. Weekends are jammed at V. Sattui with people crowding the deli and tasting rooms, enjoying a picnic on the grounds and buying wine. 


Other projects

With Davies handling the day-to-day business, Sattui is pursuing other projects, including his recently completed Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga. As much an architectural attraction as a winery, Castello was a labor of love for Sattui whose fascination with medieval architecture is stronger than ever. 

“That was a fantasy for me,” Sattui said, noting that the Calistoga winery is a separate entity from 

V. Sattui. 

That medieval fantasy extends to Italy, where Sattui spends several months a year and owns several old properties.

“I bought an old monastery over there,” he beamed. “It’s over a thousand years old and I’m renovating it. I don’t know what it is. A medieval building is like a beautiful woman for me. Sometimes I tremble … I get so excited. It’s something inside of me … I’m nuts!”

If that’s what you call it, then “nuts” has been good for Dario Sattui. From his youthful obsession with the old family winery, the bare bones quest to revive it in St. Helena, even his bizarre ideas for picnics, cheese and selling direct, Sattui’s non-traditional vision has had its share of skeptics. Friends and family, he admits, frequently thought he was “crazy.” Competitors laughed, rolled their eyes and, later, quietly adopted some of those weird ideas. But, according to Davies, Sattui invested a lot more than just “weird ideas” to make V. Sattui the success it is today.

“There’s a saying,” Davies said. “The harder you work, the luckier you are. And just from working side by side with this guy for 30 years, I can say he’s got a tremendous work ethic. Most people would not have made the sacrifices that Dario made to build what he’s built.”

To paraphrase another saying, the apple doesn’t fall far from great-grandfather’s tree. Family history indicates that 125 years ago Vittorio Sattui was also a dreamer, probably considered “nuts” for trading his baker’s pans for a wine press, a guy with a vision who worked hard and succeeded. Apparently, that spirit is alive and well three generations down the road. 

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(17) Comments

  1. Dirty Napkin
    Report Abuse
    Dirty Napkin - September 24, 2010 7:04 am
    This is a pathetic effort to clear his name after the fiasco.. Daryl said horrible things about our firemen, and women.. Shame on you... I will never for get it, neither will the over 4,000 members of the boycott page on facebook...
  2. tsgets
    Report Abuse
    tsgets - September 24, 2010 7:54 am
    Dirty Napkin said: "This is a pathetic effort to clear his name after the fiasco.. Daryl said horrible things about our firemen, and women.. Shame on you... I will never for get it, neither will the over 4,000 members of the boycott page on facebook..."

    I agree. Who did Dario schmooze over to get this on paper. I'm not visiting his winery or his elaborate castle. Didn't he say he would have traded all of this for the alleged "easy schedule and retirement" that public saftey folks have?
  3. Malka In The Closet
    Report Abuse
    Malka In The Closet - September 24, 2010 8:26 am
    I enjoyed this interesting article about an impressive gentleman. I await HIS book. Just read Martha Stewart's book on Rules and was equally impressed as to how a person faced with so called issues, just keeps truck'in on making a life for themselves and doing the community a service in creating a lively hood for employee families. I love it. I am also impressed by great people who never take on the selfish endeavor of retirement, that continue to contribute their "work" to the world. I applaud Dario Sattui, his enthusiasm, passion and his family past and present.
  4. napa1957
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    napa1957 - September 24, 2010 8:51 am
    Despite the 4000...his businesses flourish. Have you gone up valley recently?
  5. Malka In The Closet
    Report Abuse
    Malka In The Closet - September 24, 2010 9:26 am
  6. Truth
    Report Abuse
    Truth - September 24, 2010 9:58 am
    How does opening a winery in the 70's using your grandfathers name equal a 125 year anniversary? That's as authentic as your castle.
  7. bmxdad
    Report Abuse
    bmxdad - September 24, 2010 10:41 am
    Dirty Napkin, I couldn't agree more!
  8. norcalgal
    Report Abuse
    norcalgal - September 24, 2010 11:41 am
    Dirty Napkin, you took the words right out of my mouth!
  9. crooked6pence
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    crooked6pence - September 24, 2010 12:07 pm
    Instead of being so fired up at what Daryl said, focus some of your energy on the truths that he pointed out.

    If you read the comments after the article, a firefighter admits to working 10 days a month.

    What job in the world would allow you to work 10 days a month for 30 years, then allow you to retire at 90 percent of your pay?

    That's 3,600 days worked until full retirement. The average American wont qualify for full retirement and their meager Social Security benefits until 67 and would have to work 49 years or 12,250 days before they retire.

    Could you imagine retiring at age 50, and then drawing $90,000 a year for the rest of your life, with cost of living adjustments to boot?

    Taxpayer subsidized salaries are far too generous.

    Don't get me wrong, I appreciate firefighters and what they do - but PG&E Linemen have a far more dangerous job.
  10. fishfry
    Report Abuse
    fishfry - September 24, 2010 12:53 pm
    crooked6pence, thanks for pointing out to all of us that you are very opinionated but not very informed. Yes, firefighters work on average 10 days per month, but those are 24 hour shifts. So really - firefighters are putting in about 240 hours per month - not counting extra shifts. Most 8-5 folks are putting in 160 hours per moth before their extra shifts. Let me guess right about now you are saying, "But firefighters get to sleep on duty!!!!!" Go ahead and call it sleep if you want, getting up and running stressful calls throughout the night is anything but restful.

    Bottom line- if you work in public safety or care about those who do, never forget what Mr. Sattui has said. There are plenty of other great wines to be had in this valley!
  11. ruralresident
    Report Abuse
    ruralresident - September 24, 2010 12:58 pm
    My first comment wasn't posted so let me re-phrase.

    Sattui is successful and popular with out-of-the-area people. He is not so beloved in the Valley (previously, I said "at home").
  12. Dirty Napkin
    Report Abuse
    Dirty Napkin - September 24, 2010 2:00 pm
    Boycott Sattui facebook page is well over 10,000 members. Sorry I was incorrect
  13. crooked6pence
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    crooked6pence - September 24, 2010 2:44 pm
    Just as opinionated and informed as you fishfry.

    If this 24 hour shift is so stressful, change to 3 shifts of 8 hours, or 2 shifts of 12 hours like the rest of the working world.

    The upside would be lower unemployment, allowing more people who dream of being a firefighter to do the job they have always wanted to do.

    The downside would be lower wages paid to those firefighters - because the job becomes far less demanding and exclusive, which in turn may make the dream of becoming a firefighter less desirable.

    Come to think of it, firefighter salaries are an economic paradox. It is rare that when supply (many people applying to be firefighters) exceeds demand (number of positions available) you can still maintain a high rate of pay.

    The bargaining chip should be that there are 100 other people standing in line to do this job, here's what we are going to pay you.

    If it wasn't for those pesky unions.
  14. commongrapesense
    Report Abuse
    commongrapesense - September 24, 2010 4:15 pm
    Great article about a man who went to work and created an empire with no money and the desire to fullfil a family dream.
    If you don't get it, you'll never will.

    The people who write about the firemen, get a life, that was so long ago. You may not like his opinion, but that's all it is.
    Good job Daryl.........
  15. notpc
    Report Abuse
    notpc - September 24, 2010 8:44 pm
    There are alot of people applying for the job of firefighter. There is also good reson that they don't hire just anyone to be a police officer or firefighter. I guarantee you that the stringent standards that need to be met are to protect the public. Remember public safety officers are inside your homes, treating your family members and have to make serious life altering decisions under extreme duress. You can't read the books and survive 30 years you have to learn by experience. Not every applicant can handle this type of profession in fact out of the thousands of applicants there is a small percentage who actually make the grade.
  16. napamom1
    Report Abuse
    napamom1 - September 24, 2010 9:56 pm
    tsgets said: "I agree. Who did Dario schmooze over to get this on paper. I'm not visiting his winery or his elaborate castle. Didn't he say he would have traded all of this for the alleged "easy schedule and retirement" that public saftey folks have? "

    Apparently I can't say it the right way because I get bloacked, so I will quote the above and express my agreement...
  17. glenroy
    Report Abuse
    glenroy - September 30, 2010 7:39 am
    We’re lucky to have this family among us….they have created hundreds of jobs and they’ve donated untold amounts to charities….

    The left hates that….anything not inline with their worship of government, particularly an advocate of independant thought, just doesn’t get it.

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