The oldest wineries of Europe date back hundreds of years. By contrast, California is a mere wine-producing infant.
However, California is reaching a point where it is possible to begin speaking of a few California wine companies approaching a century of heritage, even though they had to endure a decade and a half of the indignity of Prohibition.
The majority of such continuously operating wineries seem to be located in Sonoma County, an area with an incredibly rich history that begins with largely Italian families attempting to avoid financial problems in their homeland starting in the latter half of the 19th century.
At least 20 years before the turn of the 20th century, many wine companies were formed in Sonoma County, including Italian Swiss Colony (1881) at Asti, which grew to become one of the world’s largest wineries before the imposition of Prohibition in 1919, and for decades after.
The fact that J. Pedroncelli winery will be celebrating 90 years in the wine business in a few weeks shines a light on a dozen or soother brands that are multi-generational, and survived through the Prohibition period by making altar and medicinal wine.
Such wines were sold mainly to the great numbers of newly religious and instantly infirm that seemed to grow by legions nationally between 1919 and Jan. 1, 1933.
The Pedroncelli story is one of perseverance and dedication to quality wine sold at a fair price, the same story (with variations) that led in 1934 to the winery gaining federal license No. 113.
The Pedroncelli story, with variations, could also be told by Louis Foppiano, the Seghesio family, the Kunde family, the Sebastianis, the Simi family, Bob Pellegrini, Leo Trendadue, and many others.
I asked Bob Pellegrini, owner of his eponymous winery, the other day what date to affix to his family’s entrance into the wine game.
He said his grandfather, Nello, and grandfather’s brother, Gino, told him the family grape brokerage started in 1925, but he added that chances are somewhere along the line, wine was being made and sold before that.
The brokerage business, he said, “sent grapes to the produce terminal in San Francisco, which had a crush pad, where you could buy grapes and they’d crush it for you, into your own containers.
“[During Prohibition], it was legal for the head of a household to make 200 gallons of wine for home consumption.”
“The story was that my grandfather had 200,000 gallons for sale on Jan. 1, 1933.” He said everyone knew that Prohibition would be ending, so many wineries made wine illegally that would go on sale for sale when it did.
He said an oral history that he read at the Healdsburg Wine Library said that E&J Gallo stated that on Jan. 1, 1933, it had 130,000 gallons of wine for sale — “so for at least a small period of time, my family’s wine business was larger than Gallo’s!” said Pellegrini.
Most of the wine companies that were founded before Prohibition and maintained their business until after that dark period ended wound up doing business with either Gallo or Louis Petri, owner of Roma, then the largest wine brand in America.
A family ownership squabble a few years ago forced Pellegrini in 2013 to buy the family business back from other family members, so he was required to get a new federal wine growers license.
“The previous license was No. 4, and there was no number 1, 2 or 3!” he said. “I wanted to keep the old number, but they told me I couldn’t.”
Pellegrini said the Seghesio family “predated us in the business.” He said it was founded about 1904.
The Seghesios mark the beginning of their family wine business with the planting of a home ranch zinfandel vineyard by Edoardo Seghesio in 1895.
In the early years of the 20th century, the Seghesio family had already established a reputation for final quality red wine.
Bob says the family of Samuele Sebastini produced wine during Prohibition, and was one of the larger wineries in the state at the close of the dry period. Probably the largest Post-Prohibition era winery was Roma Wine Co., controlled by the powerful Louis Petri.
One of the earliest Sonoma County families in the wine game was the Foppiano family, after the arrival here in 1855 of Giovanni Foppiano, who later (1896) bought the working winery Riverside Farm.
In 1932, Foppiano made 83,000 gallons of wine illegally, which it had for sale in 1933, when it was finally legal again to sell alcoholic beverages.
Pellegrini said, “After Prohibition ended, Pete Seghesio came down to see us to see if we would distribute their wine. We should have said yes!”
Today, Sonoma County has 60,000 acres of land planted to wine grapes and is approaching 700 bonded wineries.
Next Jan. 1 will mark the 85th anniversary of the end of Prohibition.
Wine of the Week: 2016 E. Guigal Cotes du Rhône Rosé ($15): There are literally dozens of dry rosés available this year that are priced about the same as this one, but few have the reliability and versatility of this Rhône Valley stalwart. A blend of Grenache (60percent) and Cinsault (30percent), the wine’s raspberry aroma and mid-palate weight allow it to work equally with either rich seafood or lighter meat dishes. Or try it with pizza with a white sauce! Often discounted to about $12.