The oldest wineries of Europe date back hundreds of years. By contrast California is a mere wine-producing infant.
However, California is reaching a point where it is possible to begin speaking of a few California wine companies approaching a century of heritage, even though they had to endure a decade and a half of the indignity of Prohibition.
The majority of such continuously operating wineries seem to be located in Sonoma County, an area with an incredibly rich history that begins with largely Italian families attempting to avoid financial problems in their homeland starting in the latter half of the 19th century.
At least 20 years before the turn of the 20th century, many wine companies were formed in Sonoma County, including Italian Swiss Colony (1881) at Asti, which grew to become one of the world’s largest wineries before the imposition of Prohibition in 1919, and for decades after.
The fact that J. Pedroncelli winery will be celebrating 90 years in the wine business in a few weeks shines a light on a dozen or so other brands that are multi-generational, and survived through the Prohibition period by making altar and medicinal wine. Sych wines were sold mainly to the great numbers of newly religious and instantly infirm that seemed to grow by legions nationally between 1919 and Jan. 1, 1933.
The Pedroncelli story is one of perseverance and dedication to quality wine sold at a fair price, the same story (with variations) that led in 1934 to the winery gaining federal license No. 113.
The Pedroncelli story, with variations, could also be told by Louis Foppiano, the Seghesio family, the Kunde family, the Sebastianis, the Simi family, Bob Pellegrini, Leo Trentadue, and many others.
The other day I asked Bob Pellegrini, owner of his eponymous winery, what date to affix to his family’s entrance into the wine game. He said his grandfather, Nello, and grandfather’s brother, Gino, told him the family grape brokerage started in 1925, but he added that chances are somewhere along the line, wine was being made and sold before that.
The brokerage business, he said, “sent grapes to the produce terminal in San Francisco, which had a crush pad, where you could buy grapes and they’d crush it for you, into your own containers … [During Prohibition], it was legal for the head of a household to make 200 gallons of wine for home consumption. The story was that my grandfather had 200,000 gallons for sale on Jan. 1, 1933.”
Everyone knew Prohibition would be ending, he said, so many wineries made wine illegally that would go on sale when it did. An oral history that he read at the Healdsburg Wine Library said that E&J Gallo stated that on Jan. 1, 1933, it had 130,000 gallons of wine for sale — “so for at least a small period of time, my family’s wine business was larger than Gallo’s!” said Pellegrini.
Most of the wine companies that were founded before Prohibition and maintained their business until after that dark period ended wound up doing business with either Gallo or Louis Petri, owner of Roma, then the largest wine brand in America.
A family ownership squabble a few years ago forced Pellegrini in 2013 to buy the family business back from other family members, so he was required to get a new federal wine growers license.