Joe Rochioli Jr., pioneering Russian River Valley pinot vintner, dies at 88
Joe Rochioli Jr., the Russian River Valley vintner and grape grower who played a pioneering role in making the region synonymous with premium pinot noir, died Thursday at age 88.
Rochioli had a stroke in September 2020 and was in and out of the hospital since then. He died of kidney failure, according to his son, Tom Rochioli.
“He was a tough old guy,” his son said. “He survived COVID and was almost asymptomatic. He had a good run.”
Today, Rochioli’s highly coveted wines are regarded by many to have cult status, and Rochioli is recognized as one of the founding fathers of wine growing in the Russian River Valley.
“He (Joe Jr.) was a visionary ahead of his time,” said Nancy Bailey, general manager of Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, which is celebrating its 40th year of purchasing Rochioli fruit.
“Joe Jr. was one of the first to plant pinot noir in the Russian River Valley, long before anyone else was talking about pinot noir,” Bailey said. “He was absolutely an icon and always will be. Sonoma County owes him a great deal.”
Rochioli grew up on a ranch on Healdsburg’s Westside Road, where he returned after college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a stint in the U.S. Army to farm in 1959.
He shifted away from French Colombard, a white varietal grown on the ranch, to focus on pinot noir grapes with his first plantings in 1968. He led the family to create its namesake label in 1985, with pinot noir the winery’s flagship varietal.
The business was twofold: Of the ranch’s 128 acres, 80 are planted in pinot noir and 55 of those acres are reserved for Rochioli wines.
The remaining 25 acres of pinot noir are snapped up by esteemed Russian River Valley wineries like Gary Farrell, Williams Selyem Winery and Holdredge Wines, with a waiting list of producers in pursuit of the prized grapes.
“It would be hard to overstate the impact Joe Rochioli Jr. had on the Russian River Valley. His vision for winegrowing and experimentation with clones helped set the course for generations of growers and vintners,” said Jesslyn Jackson, executive director of Russian River Valley Winegrowers. “He was integral to putting the Russian River Valley on the map and establishing our region as a prime destination for exemplary wines, particularly Pinot Noir. He will be deeply missed.”
Davis Bynum was one of Rochioli’s first customers, according to son Tom Rochioli. Its 1973 bottling had Russian River on its label, a decade before the Russian River Valley became a designated American Viticultural Area. In the mid-1970s, the winery added Rochioli on the label.
In 1985, when Williams Selyem put Rochioli on its label, “it catapulted us into fame,” Tom Rochioli said. “The quality of the grapes were so high, it helped bring (Williams Selyem) to stardom.”
Rochioli was credited for championing small yields and higher quality grapes. He was awarded the Copia Wine Grower of the Year Award in 2003.
“My father had farming practices that brought out the best in the field and the grapes,” Tom Rochioli said. “Consistency is the key.”
Born in 1934 at the height of Depression, Joe Rochioli Jr.’s family spoke Italian at home, so he understood little English when he began school at 6 years old. By 8 years old, he was pruning grape vines and by 12 he was lifting 60-pound sacks of hops, which his home ranch was initially known for growing.
As a freshman at Healdsburg High School, he stood 6 feet tall and weighed 160 pounds, and he earned his spot on the football squad, where he’d go on to become a star player on both offense and defense. He also played on the baseball team.
While in high school, Rochioli helped organize the first Future Farmer Fair in Healdsburg and later majored in Animal Husbandry at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. His interest in grapes was piqued when he took classes in agriculture.
He played semi-pro baseball for the Healdsburg Prune Packers during summers while at college. In 1957, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was discharged in 1959.
He married Ernestine Reiman in 1956 and the couple had two children. They divorced in 1972.
On the ranch, he would work six days a week, 10 hours a day, including as his own mechanic.
“He used to build his own equipment,” Tom Rochioli said. “He’d build bins for picking, tanks for hauling grapes on the back of a truck and cane cutters for field work. He was a classic farmer, the son of an immigrant.”
“Pioneers like him don’t come around that often. You have to have the passion and work hard. He was by far the hardest working guy I’ve ever known,” his son added.
Tom Rochioli, who joined his father in the vineyards at age 7, is now at the helm of the family wine business, where he said his father’s legacy lives on.
“He was a perfectionist and I’m even worse,” Tom Rochioli said. “It’s still in me. I’m just like him. I believe with hard work, good things happen.”
In addition to his son Tom Rochioli, and Tom’s spouse, Theresa Rochioli, Rochioli Jr. is survived by his wife, Vivienne Rochioli; daughter, Becky Richardson, and her spouse, Jeff Richardson; and Vivienne’s three children, daughter Laurie Brendlinger, and her spouse, Bert Brendlinger; daughter Sue Maddigan, and her spouse, Bob Maddigan; and son Tracy Tillinghast, and his spouse, Hilary Tillinghast; and by 11 grandchildren.
Services are Sept. 7 at St. John’s Church in Healdsburg, with viewing at 9 a.m. and Mass at 11 a.m.
Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at email@example.com or 707-521-5310.