125th Anniversary of V. Sattui Winery
By Michelle Sieling
There’s a large blue and white building that sits on the corner of 23rd and Bryant Streets in San Francisco. Currently it houses an art gallery and a live/work space. As I’ve cycled past many times, I have wondered about the low building in the back, which looks oddly separate from the rest of the structure. To my surprise, I recently found out this was once part of a winery. And not just any winery, but a winery that still is in business today, V. Sattui Winery.
Though there are wineries in Europe that have been around for ages, it’s hard to find many in the United States that have a history that lasts more than a century. I was lucky enough back in March to be able to attend a luncheon in honor of the 125th anniversary of V. Sattui Winery. Among the speakers was Dario Sattui, the great-grandson of Vittorio Sattui, founder of V. Sattui Wine Co., which later became V. Sattui Winery.
Many of you may already be familiar with the award-winning V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena, but if not, it is a family-owned winery dedicated to making handcrafted wines in small lots. If you want to try it for yourself, you’ll have to visit the winery or the website as V. Sattui Winery only sells directly to the public. Much hasn’t changed in that way since Dario’s grandfather, who started out in 1885 in North Beach, sold barrels and demijohns (a large narrow-necked bottle usually enclosed in wickerwork) directly to his customers.
Like many other wineries in the United States, it closed with the introduction of Prohibition in 1920, though Vittorio did continue making a little legal wine at home. By the time Prohibition was over, Vittorio was 77 and didn’t have the energy to restart the business. His children had moved onto other ventures and did not restart the winery, either.
Though the family winery had been sold by that time, Dario’s great-grandparents continued to live upstairs. Some of Dario’s earliest memories are of the strong odor of wine which permeated the Bryant Street building. That wine got into Dario’s blood, and led to dreams of reopening the family business.
Time went on, and after graduating from college, Dario spent a couple years traveling around Europe. When he came back to the United States in the early 1970s, he was determined to start a winery, but he had to do it on his own.
Dario held a number of jobs in the Napa Valley wine industry to gain real-world experience in the wine-making business, including retail, cellar work, and tour guide, trying to familiarize himself with the industry. He also started angling for investors, but it was a constant scramble, often securing one interested party to only have another pull out of the deal at the same time.
Frustrated, but not defeated, Dario obtained a lease-option on a property he could barely afford. The house on the property was in such a state of disrepair, that he and his wife at the time lived out of the same VW van in which he had toured around Europe.
By 1975 Dario scraped together enough to start building the winery he had also designed. Though some of the investments he received were not monetary, but the labor of friends and family, such as his brother-in-law, who put on the roof of the winery.
As far as equipment, Dario had little money left over to purchase anything but the essentials. Thankfully, the stories of wine making Dario heard as a child from his family provided him with enough common sense and know-how to get started with the bare minimum.
Opening the doors to the public on March 4, 1976, V. Sattui Winery’s tasting room consisted of a few planks on top of barrels, and old deli case for cheese to accompany the wine and a wooden box for a cash register.
The first year was challenging, with both Dario and his then wife working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, handling all winery jobs, from cleaning to buying, to managing, with only the occasional help on the weekends. In the end of that year, the winery managed to sell 1,800 cases of wine, netting a profit of $2,460.
V. Sattui Winery has come a long way over the years, and I am sure if he was still alive, Vittorio would be quite proud of Dario’s ingenuity and determination. Not that V. Sattui Winery hasn’t been faced with challenges, like phyloxera, the Glassy Wing Sharpshooter, growing competition, and unscrupulous employees, but in over three decades, V. Sattui Winery has grown into a thriving business, selling more than 40,000 cases of wine a year.
In the past few decades, V. Sattui Winery has also acquired almost 1,000 acres of land which hold five vineyards throughout Northern California, totaling nearly 300 acres of grapes. Much of the land that is not planted is in the Land Trust to make sure that it will never be built upon. Other changes include the large tasting room, gift shop and full service deli, where everything is made in-house under the direction of Gerardo Sainato, sit in what was once the original winery. The newer stone winery, built in 1984, houses underground cellars and caves. In addition, Dario opened up a new winery called Castello di Amorosa, up the highway in nearby Calistoga.
If you are only learning about V. Sattui Winery now, like I recently did, I suggest taking the trip to try it in person, give yourself a little time to relax under one of the shady trees on the expansive picnic grounds and open a bottle of wine and share a meal with the people you care about. If you’re already familiar, you know the wine, and I am pretty sure you’ll try it again.
V. Sattui Winery is located at 1111 White Lane in St. Helena. The tasting room is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day (until 5 p.m. November through February). For more information call 707-963-7744 or visit www.vsattui.com.