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A century-old winery that's been an integral part of Healdsburg's viticultural heritage will find new life as an office building.

The landmark brick building, believed built in 1902, will serve as a new office space for E&J Gallo's Sonoma County operations.

"We're taking a building that's old and unused and making it useful again," said Kelly Conrad, a spokeswoman for the company.

It was initially known as the Oliveto Winery before it was acquired in the 1930s by the Passalacqua family and occupied by a succession of wine companies.

Set off Healdsburg Avenue, to the north of downtown and behind a car dealership, the old winery building has been obscured in the past by trees and vegetation.

"It's kind of tucked out of the way a bit. Given the fact it will have the prominence it deserves is nice," Mayor Tom Chambers said.

As clearing and some demolition work got under way late last year, the stark brick walls — temporarily without a roof — have become more visible.

Gallo has had the building for about 20 years and used it for bulk wine storage off and on, according to Conrad. But it's been empty since April.

Total renovation costs "will exceed $2 million," Conrad said, and work is expected to be completed by fall.

The building will accommodate about 80 Gallo employees, many of whom now occupy leased offices downtown, opposite the Healdsburg Plaza.

Conrad said the renovation does not reflect an expansion of Gallo, which owns about 6,000 acres in Sonoma County, half of which are planted in vineyards.

The project will bring the interior up to modern, green building standards while maintaining the character and look of the building, said Gallo representative John Segale.

Alan B. Cohen, the Healdsburg architect spearheading the renovation, said, "I think everyone in town had their fingers crossed that something happened to the building before it disintegrated.

"I can't tell you how many people, when I've told them about the project, have just been thrilled," he said.

One of the issues that had to be resolved, Cohen said, was earthquake retrofitting. It's being done through an innovative, less expensive process that involves injecting concrete between the inner and outer brick walls.

"We were able to show we could retrofit the building at the same price as new," he said.

According to research done by consultants, there is some discrepancy about the date of the original building's construction.

The winery was built in 1902 for the Francischini and Lorenzini Co., which operated it as the Oliveto Wine Co. But some descriptions note the actual structure as being built in 1880.

A newspaper article in the Healdsburg Enterprise dated July 31, 1902, notes the new construction of the building.

A cultural resources and historic evaluation notes that the earliest viticulture experiments in the county were in Sonoma Valley, but by the late 1860s, there was a flourishing grape growing and winemaking industry around Healdsburg.

By 1888, the secretary of the Board of State Viticultural Commissioners listed 80 grape growers and winemakers in the Healdsburg area.

After the Oliveto Winery was built, the local newspaper again made mention of it, following the 1906 earthquake:

"The company are daily making shipments from the cellar at the edge of town at the average of four carloads a week. At the time of the earthquake the company had about 250,000 gallons on hand, and the large winery was not in the least damaged."

After Francis Passalacqua purchased the property in 1934, it was leased to a succession of companies, including Vischia, Paul Masson and Gallo, before the last ultimately bought it.

Cohen said some of the original materials will be salvaged for the remodel, including 12-by-12 posts and beams that will hold up the new roof.

The interior will be light and airy.

"It's really going to be a nice building when it's done," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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