Roger Trinchero has one foot in retirement. It’s time for the next generation to take the reins and he’s understandably a little tired of rehashing his family’s story, if not utterly exhausted from talking about white Zinfandel.
The pink craze that predated rosé launched his family’s legacy of Sutter Home into fame, fortune and the wine history books, but it’s really just one chapter of the 70-year-old Trinchero story, which no one else, other than his older brother Bob Trinchero, can detail from memory.
Roger swears he even remembers the three-day train ride his family took from New York to California in 1948, though he was only 2 years old. “Do you ever get around an electric motor? Whenever I smell the smell of an electric motor, it triggers a memory of being on the train, coming from New York,” he said. “I had gotten away from my mother and made it to the observation car. She found me sitting on somebody’s lap, looking at the mountains.”
Barely scraping by
Wine was the reason for their cross-country journey. Roger’s father Mario partnered with his brother, John, to purchase and reopen Sutter Home Winery in St. Helena, which had been abandoned since Prohibition. But realizing the American Dream wouldn’t happen overnight for this Italian immigrant family.
For the better part of their first year in California, the Trincheros lived in a two-bedroom cabin with no indoor toilet while a barn behind the winery was remodeled into a proper home for both families. One of the coldest winters on record, Roger recalls that he, along with his brother and sister Vera, all got sick.
The Trincheros scraped by throughout roughly the first 15 years of business, working amongst fewer than 20 other wineries in Napa Valley. Bob joined the winery officially in 1958, despite his father’s admonition. “I never intended to be a winemaker or join the wine industry,” Bob said. “My dad even said this was not a good business, that there’s no money in it, but he gave me a part-time job and I never left.”
Mario took full control of Sutter Home in 1960 and when Bank of America denied him a loan — a grudge the family still holds today — he entertained the idea of selling the winery for $100,000.
“We were barely making enough to eat or put clothes on our back,” Roger recalled. “Somebody offered $90,000, but my dad held out and said, ‘No, it’s got to be 100. During that time, another bank came to town called Wells Fargo. They lent $32,000, enough to pay our bills and make some improvements at the winery. Wells Fargo has been our banker ever since.”
There’s no telling what might have been had Mario settled, but by 1968, a shift had occurred and business was growing. This newfound success was much in thanks to Bob’s crafting of a robust zinfandel. Sourcing grapes from Deaver Vineyard in Plymouth (Amador County), which was planted back in the late 1800s, Bob experimented with the saignée technique. This process of bleeding off some of the red wine juice early in the fermentation process resulted in a richer and more concentrated zinfandel that started to turn heads.
“I remember taking it to blind tastings and people swore it was cabernet,” said Roger, who joined Bob and the family business in 1972, followed by his sister Vera in 1979. “It really was pretty phenomenal for a zinfandel. That kind of put us on the map. We knew the business was going to move forward, but how successful, we had no idea.”
A happy accident
In a conscientious effort to be economical, Bob took the pressed-off juice from the zinfandel and fermented it into a dry white wine, which he said “moved like manhole covers.” Then in 1975, he ended up with a stuck fermentation. The unfinished juice was light pink in color and tasted a bit sweet, but Bob decided it was good enough to bottle.
This one sold like gangbusters.
Today, White Zinfandel continues to be Sutter Home’s best-seller at more than 4.5 million cases a year, but to wine enthusiasts and critics, it’s the butt of many industry jokes. Not that the Trincheros care: that sweet pink stuff is what kept the lights on.
“We were in the business to make a living and we weren’t about to turn a consumer away that wanted to buy a product,” said Roger. “With the power of White Zinfandel, we were able to start introducing a lot of other varietals. Instead of being just a White Zinfandel winery, Sutter Home became a national brand. People trusted the name and they wanted to support it. They knew that for the amount of money they were spending, they would get a good bottle of wine.”
What’s in a name?
White zin’s reputation aside, the Trincheros did care about producing higher-end wines. The only hurdle was a small marketing issue.
“We started realizing that Sutter Home had a ceiling,” said Roger. “We made some really nice reserve wines, but they never got the notoriety. People didn’t take them seriously because they were Sutter Home. At the time, we were a $5 a bottle brand, and people’s perception was that you can’t produce great wine.”
So in 1988, the Trincheros made their first acquisition to expand their portfolio with the purchase of Montevina Winery in Amador County. Today, the portfolio extends beyond 40 small, family-owned brands, including imports in Australia, Argentina and Chile, plus even spirits. When they meet with wholesalers and retailers, the Trincheros literally have something to check any box.
Following the purchase of the Folie à Deux Winery estate in 2004, located less than four miles north of Sutter Home, the Trincheros did something they’d never done before: they put their name on it. Initially, Roger fought against it. “I thought it would be hard to pronounce, but I was overruled by our marketing people,” he said.
It took more than a decade to find Trinchero Napa Valley’s true identity, but the family completed a massive construction and design overhaul in 2016. The oak-studded estate now features a contemporary tasting room and hospitality center, underground cellar and wine cave. Old family recipes painted on the walls and other small touches, like a pair of cowboy boot rollerblades, pay homage to the family’s history.
“Now we have a destination for the brand that also honors our father and mother for getting us into the business,” said Roger, who toasted to his parents at the winery’s 2018 Harvest Celebration. The event doubled as a 70th anniversary party and featured a traditional Italian feast of Bagna Cauda.
All in the family
“The most important thing is to remain family-owned, to keep the integrity the first and second generations built and make sure that we’re always viewed as the Trinchero family, not a giant conglomerate,” said Carlo Trinchero, Roger’s son. He will be playing a vital role in the company’s future, along with several other involved family members: his mechanical engineer brother Mario, first cousins Tony and Bobby, plus three members of the fourth generation.
Like Bob and Roger, the family business was not what Carlo, 32, had originally set his sights on. He studied kinesiology at Sacramento State and was enjoying his job as a trainer at a high-level performance facility — until he started to feel a tug. “I came back to the Valley for wine tastings and events and I realized what I was a part of and how stupid I would be if I somehow didn’t involve myself,” he said.
Carlo started his own wine project, Taken Wine Company, and worked a harvest as a cellar rat. Soon after, he developed an interest in sales and worked as a merchandiser and sales rep with Trinchero’s distributor. But by 2015, he was back at Trinchero full time working imports when he had the idea for what’s now called The Heritage Collection.
“I realized we have all these cool, small production wines, but we don’t have a fine wine team. I kept bringing it up, but they were a little resistant. We all put together a plan to create The Heritage Collection and it’s amazing to see where it’s going,” he said, before half-joking, “I’m really happy it’s working because if it didn’t, I’d probably be going backwards in the company.”
The Heritage Collection is proof that over 70 years, the Trincheros have come a long way from the $5 bottle thanks to their ability to remain humble—and together—while so many other brands fell away.
“We were in the business to make a living. We came from a family that got into the wine business because it was a way to make some money and continue to grow,” said Roger. “A lot of people fall in love with the romance of the industry, but if we didn’t make money, we didn’t eat.”
“We were in the business to make a living. We came from a family that got into the wine business because it was a way to make some money and continue to grow. A lot of people fall in love with the romance of the industry, but if we didn’t make money, we didn’t eat.” Roger Trinchero