Italian Swiss Colony used to be Sonoma County’s biggest tourist attraction

The winery, mentioned in “Grease,” was once California’s leading wine producer.|

The most popular tourist attraction in Sonoma County during the 1950s and 1960s was — you guessed it — a winery. But not just any winery.

The Italian Swiss Colony was once the leading wine producer in California. It was based in Asti, an unincorporated area located along Highway 101 between Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

Known for its Tipo brand table wines, the Italian Swiss Colony was established in 1881 by Andrea Sbarbaro, who immigrated from Northern Italy to the United States as a teenager in the early 1850s.

Sbarbaro and the winery’s general manager, a chemist named Pietro Rossi, built large Italian villas as summer retreats where they could oversee the business.

“Sbarbaro could, with pardonable pride, look on the evidence of a success rather different from, but probably far greater than, anything he had imagined back in 1881,” wrote historian Thomas Pinney in “A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings To Prohibition.”

During the 1960s millions of Italian Swiss Colony postcards were distributed, according to the Sonoma historian. Workers in the postcard images wore Italian peasant costumes. And there was the “little old winemaker … me!” jingle in TV commercials, which not only attracted tourists but also inspired parody songs (including one sung by Dean Martin).

In 1967, The Press Democrat reported that the Italian Swiss Colony was Sonoma County’s top tourist attraction for drawing in about 300,000 visitors annually.

The winery had enough storage for 100 million gallons of wine, a picnic area, maintained flower gardens, Italian villas and a Roman statue of Bacchus. There was even a stone meditation center where Sbarbaro used to sit.

Visitors who took winery tours would have seen a stone structure that marked an underground vat built in 1897, which held 500,000 gallons of wine — the largest in the world at the time.

In 1978 the winery’s dessert wine was mentioned in the movie “Grease,” during the scene where the Pink Ladies are having a sleepover.

By the late 1980s, the operations ended at the Italian Swiss Colony. Its former site is now owned by E. & J. Gallo Winery.

See the gallery above for photo of the Italian Swiss Colony.

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