LeBaron: Wine and laughter in Asti
I took a ride to Asti last week, prompted by the news that mighty Gallo has purchased Italian Swiss Colony, the oft-shuffled winery that is right up there with Sonoma Valley’s Buena Vista in a bid to be the most historic in Sonoma County and beyond.
I wanted to see if ISC, one of the prettiest settings among wineries, still looks the same as the days when manager Joe Vercelli reigned as the acknowledged wine historian of the region, when Joe Frediani, in lederhosen and a Tyrolean hat, entertained tourists as The Little Old Winemaker. And when the tasting room managed by Jack Wilen drew enough people in the 1950s to put it in competition with Disneyland as California’s top draw.
I found it looking very much like it always has. California Historical Landmark plaque No. 621 is still there, saying: “Here in 1881, Italian immigrants established an agricultural colony …”
The chalet-style building that once housed what was believed to be the first public tasting room in the nation is still in its place, but the doors were closed. The landscaping is well tended, but the parking lot was empty.
Not a creature was stirring at the spot that once welcomed 100,000 summer motorists, drawn by highway billboards and that smiling Tyrolean on early television offering an opportunity to come and meet “The little old winemaker - me!”
Stopping at the largest dry wine producing winery in the nation for a taste of Tipo from a raffia-covered bottle - and a treat for the kids from the giant cookie jar - was an important part of the “trip to the redwoods.”
But wouldn’t you know - as always happens when you go off casting a historical eye, you find other stories that need telling.
Just to the right outside the gates, there is a little loop road called Asti Store Road that once led to the town of Asti. It was a designated rail stop for the train to Ukiah, named for a region in northern Italy where Andrea Sbarbaro, who founded ISC with partner Pietro Rossi, was born. A second rail stop, just up the line, was named Chianti.
In the 1930s, after Prohibition ended and the winery was back in production and the Italian immigrant families were back to work, Asti was, by all accounts, a busy place, with a population of about 300 at its peak.
The “business district,” on the knoll, included a general store and an auto repair shop and a gas station. The clusters of houses stretched north along the Redwood Highway, around tiny El Carmelo church, which looked like half a wine barrel.
After World War II, the railroad stopped running, the cars got faster, the big towns - like Healdsburg and Cloverdale - got bigger and, as air travel lured vacationers, Asti’s commerce faded.
Then, in 1986, a new chapter in Asti history opened, one that is exceedingly timely now, what with presidential hopefuls massing on the debate stage and Jon Stewart, the go-to guy for political humor, saying farewell.
This story is about Pat Paulsen. Pat was a “local,” went to Tamalpais High in Marin, joined the Marines and, by the 1950s, had moved to Sonoma County where he and his brother Loren were performing with a group called the Ric-y-Tic Theater in a Rincon Valley barn. He soon took his deadpan monologues to the San Francisco clubs where he met Tom and Dick Smothers, who enlisted him as a regular on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS in 1967.
Pat was an early “mouthpiece” for the Smothers’ first ventures into political humor. He made his first run for president as a bit on the show. It won him an Emmy. So Paulsen “ran” in every presidential election from 1968 to ’92.
Critics described him as a comic who “got away with satirical murder in prime time.” (Does that sound like Jon Stewart, or what?) With his crazy double-talk slogans such as “If elected, I will win,” or “I’ve upped my standards. Now, up yours.”
He pulled in “protest” votes, as many as 200,000, according to some sources, and met criticism with his standard answer: “Picky, picky, picky.”
In the 1980s Pat and wife Jane were growing grapes and producing wine near Cloverdale. Pat Paulsen Vineyards wine was good and it was selling well. Pat was still doing TV.
He appeared on a spectrum of popular shows including “The Wild Wild West,” “The Monkees,” “Get Smart” and even “Sesame Street” where he brought his famous fumbling delivery to the alphabet.
He had his own series in the ’70s, a one-season show on ABC called “Pat Paulsen’s Half a Comedy Hour,” with a series of famous guests, from Vice President Hubert Humphrey to Daffy Duck.
And he was still out there “saving the nation” while Jane was running their “Picky Q Picky Ranch” vineyard across the river from ISC.
In a project that was based as much on wine marketing as politics, the Paulsens bought the town of Asti.
The houses were gone - razed by the first new owners of ISC in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But the store was there and the gas station which Jane outfitted as a tasting room, later to be draped with bunting as Pat’s campaign headquarters.
Pat declared himself Mayor of Asti, providing a political base for his 1988 campaign, and the media and some tourists again found a reason to visit.
All this political fervor faded as Pat’s theatrical interests shifted to a summer stock theater he bought in Michigan.
He died of cancer in 1997, leaving a legacy described by critic Gerald Nachman, in his book, “Seriously Funny,” as “the thin, hangdog, shifty-eyed mock presidential candidate who resembled a shriveled-up Richard Nixon.”
You have to admit, that’s quite an epitaph.
Only two of the buildings in Asti Village remain. One is a well-kept, occupied house. The other is a ruin of what was, in different eras, a gas station and campaign headquarters.
Jane Paulsen and their daughter, Terri, who served for a time as Pat’s manager, still live in Sonoma County. Son Monty is producing wine with the Pat Paulsen label in Livermore.
Finally: I talked last week with Jack Florence, author of a fine book about Italian Swiss colony titled “Legacy of a Village.”
He told me: “In 1952, Gallo paid ISC $25,000 for the right to examine the books and evaluate the wine inventory with the intention of purchasing the winery if they liked what they found. They didn’t and Gallo walked away. Now, 63 years later …”
And what is the current industry estimate for the vineyards alone? $25 million?