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.