Louis J. Foppiano, a crusty pioneer of the Sonoma County wine industry who bounced back from the one-two punch of Prohibition and the Great Depression to build an enduring family winery offering quality Russian River Valley varietals, died on Friday at Sutter Medical Center of complications from pneumonia. He was 101 years old.
Foppiano Vineyards, which he took over at the age of 13 and continued to oversee into his nineties, is the oldest winery in Sonoma County continuously operated by the founding family.
"He was a legend in the industry, and one of the last surviving from the Prohibition days, and a great guy," said Joe Ciatti, partner with Zepponi & Company. "Really someone who stayed close to the family and stayed close to the land, and always had a very good attitude about keeping your head straight about the wine business."
Like most of the old Italian family wineries of the North Coast — Sebastiani, Seghesio and Pedroncelli — Foppiano survived because of its willingness to reinvent itself again and again.
"Even though he was third-generation Italian, he still was a rough Italian," said his son, Louis M. Foppiano. "He was a son of Depression, he was tight fisted. He rubbed a nickel pretty hard before he let it go."
Before Prohibition, the winery supplied bulk wines to the California Wine Association. By the 1960s Foppiano maintained a healthy business turning out good jug table wines of burgundy or chablis. But as California wines gained in sophistication, Foppiano modernized further, diversifying its product, improving marketing and producing quality varietals like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, zinfandel, sangiovese, merlot and his favorite, petite syrah.
Even as far back as 1966, he foresaw the future in premium grapes and began ripping out what was left of his prune and apple orchard, replanting with cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
But the winery also strove to keep its everyday wines affordable to the working class under its Riverside label.
"It was never my goal to get too big, to become a Gallo or Kendall-Jackson," he reflected back in 2000. "I wanted a winery that was small enough where we could keep control — run it like a family business."
That didn't mean he was averse to growth. He expanded the vineyards in 1945 by purchasing the adjoining Sotoyome Vineyard. The winery continued to advance under the helm of Louis J. Foppiano's son, Louis M. Foppiano, who left the post last year after a family dispute.
"He worked hard," his son said. "He really loved the ranch a lot, and he really loved being outside. Up until he was 95, he pruned the grapes every year."
Foppiano's California roots go back to the Gold Rush. His grandfather, Giovanni Foppiano, an Italian immigrant who made his way to California by traveling overland though the Isthmus of Panama, eventually settled in Healdsburg growing fruits and vegetables. In 1896 he bought a working winery at the old Riverside Farm and launched Foppiano Vineyards.
Giovanni and his son, Louis A. Foppiano, found a ready market for their wines among the Italian immigrants of San Francisco's North Beach. In 1910, the year Louis J. was born, Giovanni and his son had a falling out over their different visions and the younger vintner wound up purchasing Foppiano from his father. He built it into one of the more prosperous wineries in Healdsburg until Prohibition forced him to shift to prunes, apples and pears to survive.