Monday, March 29, 2010

That's Italian

The V. Sattui winery in Napa Valley, the most visited winery in the most visited wine country in the United States, is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Sattui family in the wine busines, and late last week I attended a luncheon in San Francisco’s Italian North Beach neighborhood to help celebrate. It was held at the venerable North Beach Restaurant -- worth trying if you visit San Francisco – just two blocks from where Vittorio Sattui, great grandfather of Dario Sattui, the winery's owner, first established the V. Sattui family wine business in 1885.

It turns out, according to Victor Geraci, a historian with the enviable title of “Food & Wine Historian” at the oral history office at U.C. Berkeley, that Italians have played a pivotal role in founding and cultivating the California wine industry.

During Prohibition, the Sattui family went into the insurance business. But in 1972, Dario Sattui – a true Napa Valley original -- restarted the family wine business while living in a windowless van with his girlfriend -- “soon to be my wife and then soon to be my ex-wife.”

Things were promising back then in Napa Valley. “I had everything going for me. No money. No knowledge. I had a one year plan to make money. If I’d known a lot I would have done it like everyone else and it would have taken 10 years to get a nickel back,” Sattui told the luncheon crowd.

When the V. Sattui Winery opened, “You name it we didn’t have it -- no cash register, no bottling line, nothing but a $15 calculator, a bare bones budget,“ said Sattui, who has taught classes at U.C. Davis in how to start a winery with no money. From the beginning, he only sold his wines direct to winery visitors -- the first in Napa Valley to do so -- and had picnic tables “where other wineries had signs that said ‘Keep Off The Grounds.' " He used to pay customers to sit at the tables when it drizzled to attract people cruising by on Highway 29. “The simplest things worked. Thank God I didn’t really know what to do.

"My dad was a cab driver. I’m just an average guy. I believe that average people -- as long as they don’t realize how average they are --can accomplish a lot. If you try long enough and hard enough, you can only fail so many times.”

You still can’t buy V. Sattui wines anywhere but through this winery in St. Helena with a cult following. The values this cult worships have nothing to do with today's hot new wine but rather with a warm, family atmosphere and a relaxed, non-snobbish approach to quality food and wine.

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