LA's virtual Swiss neighborhood!

Italian-Swiss Colony

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Statue at Asti

Drawn by the name, today I ventured to Asti, former home of the Italian-Swiss Colony winery in Northern Sonoma County.

In 1880, California viticulture was rising in prominence. For Andrea Sbarboro, an Italian-American businessman, a winery seemed a natural fit for his Italian countrymen who were looking for work. He formed a new association chartered to fund an agricultural investment. Membership would be limited to Italians, but given the closeness of the Ticinesi both culturally and linguistically, Swiss were also allowed to join. He would name his venture the Italian-Swiss Agricultural Colony.

Sbarboro was an Italian immigrant who had arrived in San Francisco in 1850 at the age of 13. He started in the grocery business but later shifted his activities to local loan associations. He would famously found the Italian-American Bank, which merged in 1927 with A. P. Giannini’s Bank of Italy to become the Bank of America.

“When Asti was founded more than 125 years ago as Italian Swiss Colony, the goal was to create a thriving community that revolved around wine. For a while, that plan worked – at one point in the 1960s, the winery was the No. 2 tourist attraction in the state, second only to Disneyland.

Italian-Swiss Colony Plaque

The modern history of the Asti Winery began in 1881. An Italian immigrant named Andrea Sbarboro founded it as a place to re-create life in the old country. Sbarboro invited anybody of Italian or Swiss descent to join him and work the land for a share of the profits – and, of course, wine.

Within months, nearly a dozen families had answered the call, taking the train north from San Francisco to form a 1,620-acre community.” (1)

Early on, the Colony only grew grapes for other wineries, but in 1887, the price paid for a ton grapes had fallen to only $8, which didn’t even cover costs. Sbrarboro had to make a decision to either close down or move forward as a vintner himself. He chose to make his own wine.

The first winemaker he hired was from Switzerland and tragically an old-world technique did not translate to California. “Sbarboro had hired a winemaker from Switzerland, where they had to close the door and windows of the winery during harvest to get the winery warm enough to support fermentation. When the unfortunate winemaker closed the doors of the winery at the broiling Asti, he was rewarded with a winery filled with vinegar.” (2)

Vintage Cellars

Afterwards, Sbarboro would hire Pietro Rossi as his winemaker, an Italian with a degree in agricultural chemistry.

“Incorporating high-quality Charbono, Mourvedre and Zinfandel grapes, Rossi released his first vintage of cheap, simple red table wine in 1886. He called it Tipo Chianti.

As interest in Tipo Chianti grew, so too did the Asti winery facilities. The first building, a two-story concrete-and-timber structure, opened in 1887 and housed the colony’s presses and nine 12,000-gallon redwood tanks. It also included cellars where Sbarboro aged his barrels of red wine. One of these was Cellar No. 8.

By the late 1800s, the Asti Winery was cranking out 2 million gallons of wine per year. To manage this volume, Rossi had to improve upon traditional winemaking techniques. He pioneered temperature-controlled fermentation and became the first California winemaker to use sulfur dioxide as an antioxidant.”

Little Old Winemaker

From the beginning, the colony had been popular with tourists, but the numbers of visitors exploded in the late 1950s and early 1960s thanks in part to the “Little Old Winemaker” ad campaign. In the late 1950s, ISC served visitors a whopping total of 4,000 gallons of wine annually. Few modern tasting rooms pour more than 2,000 gallons a year. The imagery of that time seemed to veer towards a Germanic Swiss appeal, rather than Italian. A great commercial for Italian-Swiss Colony’s Vin Rosé can be seen here.

“Amid an evolving wine business and a string of ownership changes, the Asti Winery shut its doors to the public in the late 1980s and essentially became an industrial wine factory. Now the facility is back under the brand Cellar No. 8, a tribute to one of the locations where it all began.”

(1) Cellar No. 8 a tribute to Asti Winery’s birth, San Francisco Chronicle

(2) Legacy of a Village, Jack W. Florence

Written by jdeburen

August 29, 2010 at 9:54 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Hi, I enjoyed your article. A nice piece of history. What is the region like, today? Is is worth a visit?


    July 27, 2013 at 5:25 pm

  2. Funny, I do remember when my dad and bought half-gallon bottles of Italian Swiss Colony wine (around 1958 into the early ’60s). I was quite young at time (8 to 10); but I do remember the distinct bottle and the label.
    Been many years since I ran across the Italian Swiss Colony brand.


    December 6, 2013 at 4:20 pm

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