While the Foppianos can't match those families in profile or star quality, they are proving to be equals in intensity.
"Italian families live operatically," said Bo Simons, head of the Sonoma County Wine Library in Healdsburg. "I know it's a gross generalization, but it seems some go crazy about things. They have huge fights."
Both sides were in court Friday to confirm the trial. Valera declined to comment outside the hearing. Her brother's lawyer, Mike Senneff, said efforts to resolve the lawsuit amicably have failed.
"We're locked into this," Senneff said. "It's really unfortunate."
The winery dates to 1896 with its founding by Giovanni Foppiano. The business was passed to his son, Louis J. Foppiano, who ran it until handing it over to his son, Louis M. Foppiano, eight years ago.
The father, who turned 101 in November, created a trust that controls 49 percent of Foppiano Corporations, which includes the winery and vineyards. In 2009, he relinquished his rights, naming his son and daughter as co-trustees.
Valera said since her brother took over business operations in 2005, finances deteriorated dramatically. In part because of the economic downturn, the company went from selling nearly 100,000 cases a year to fewer than 20,000 cases. And for the first time ever, it took on debt.
A consultant in 2008 recommended changes to make the company more profitable. Todd Arterburn took over operations from Louis M. Foppiano, who remains the public face of the company. Improvements were suggested for the tasting room and grounds. And a new marketing plan was developed.
To finance it all, Foppiano took loans, first from the family trust and later from the bank, secured by the trust. In two years, he created $4.1 million in debt, Valera alleges.
One of the loans required a signature from the aging father, which Valera alleges her brother forged. Both sides hired handwriting experts to analyze the document.
Valera said in court documents she was misled by her brother into going along with the borrowing because he insisted the company couldn't meet payroll and was on the brink of closure.
About that time, she said she learned her brother and Arterburn had used some of the money to give themselves "sizable bonuses."
Valera said she began looking more closely at the corporation's finances, but her brother and Arterburn blocked her.
Instead of turning over records she requested, Arterburn fired her and four other employees, she said. Her brother also threatened to sell company property where she had lived for 25 years, she said.
"By taking away petitioner's income and health benefits, Louis M. has attempted to quiet her through economic coercion," Valera's lawyer said in court papers.
Foppiano disagrees. He said in court documents that he decided to "revitalize" the brand with a series of improvements when he took over from his father, who had been reluctant to make investments in the winery for many years.
With the support of family members, including Valera, he hired the consultant who suggested sweeping changes. He brought in Arterburn, a professional manager, and began capital projects that were estimated to require $2.5 million in loans.
Temporary "bridge loans" were needed, so Foppiano turned to the trust. He paid the trust back after getting a larger loan from Summit State bank, he said.