University of California Berkeley
Regional Oral History Office University of California
The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California
The Wine Spectator California Wine Oral History Series
Edward G. Sbragia
WINEMASTER AT BERINGER VINEYARDS
Interviews Conducted by
Copyright 2002 by The Regents of the University of California
Since 1 954 the Regional Oral History Office has been interviewing leading participants in or well -placed
witnesses to major events in the development of Northern California, the West, and the Nation. Oral
history is a method of collecting historical information through tape-recorded interviews between a
narrator with firsthand knowledge ofhistorically significant events and a well-informed interviewer, with
the goal of preserving substantive additions to the historical record. The tape recording is transcribed,
lightly edited for continuity and clarity, and reviewed by the interviewee. The corrected manuscript is
indexed, bound with photographs and illustrative materials, and placed in The Bancroft Library at the
University of California, Berkeley, and in other research collections for scholarly use. Because it is
primary material, oral history is not intended to present the final, verified, or complete narrative of
events. It is a spoken account, offered by the interviewee in response to questioning, and as such it is
reflective, partisan, deeply involved, and irreplaceable.
All uses of this manuscript are covered by a legal agreement between The
Regents of the University of California and Edward G. Sbragia dated November 30,
1999. The manuscript is thereby made available for research purposes. All literary
rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to The Bancroft
Library of the University of California, Berkeley. No part of the manuscript may be
quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of The Bancroft
Library of the University of California, Berkeley.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the
Regional Oral History Office, 486 Library, University of California, Berkeley 94720,
and should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use
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Sbragia requires that he be notified of the request and allowed thirty days in which to
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Edward G. Sbragia, "Winemaster at Beringer
Vineyards," an oral history conducted in 1999-2000
by Carole Hicke, Regional Oral History Office, The
Bancroft Library, University of California,
SBRAGIA, Edward G. Winemaster, Beringer Vineyards
Winemaster at Beringer Vineyards, 2002, vi, 151 pp.
Education at UC Davis; Gallo laboratories; Foppiano Vineyards; Beringer Vineyards:
winemaking techniques, private reserve program, vineyard management, Beringer
vineyards, other Beringer brands, Myron Nightingale.
Interviewed in 1999-2000 by Carole Hicke for the Wine Spectator California
Wine Oral History Series, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft
Library, University of California, Berkeley.
TABLE OF CONTENTS-Edward G. Sbragia
SERIES LIST "
INTERVIEW HISTORY vi
Italian Roots 1
Growing up in Healdsburg 8
Depression and Prohibition 16
H COLLEGE EDUCATION 20
Santa Rosa Junior College and University of California at Davis 20
Davis Professors 20
ffl EARLY EXPEREINCE AT GALLO 23
Hiring on at Gallo
A Trip to Mexico 24
A Trip to Europe 27
Work in Gallo s Lab 30
Another Trip to Europe 35
Leaving Gallo 36
IV GRADUATE SCHOOL, CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY AT FRESNO 37
Chemistry and Winemaking Classes 37
A Summer at Gallo, 1973 37
Work Study at the University Winery 38
Professors and Colleagues; Winemaking Principles 39
More on Gallo 42
V FOPPIANO VINEYARDS 44
Joining the Operation 44
VI BERJJSfGER VINEYARDS 48
How Hired 48
Starting in the Lab 5 1
Myron Nightingale and Winemaking 5 1
Chabot Ranch Vineyard 53
Private Reserve Program 54
Cabernet Sauvignon 54
The Nestle Company 55
Making the Private Reserve 57
Some Beringer History 59
Back to Private Reserve 60
New Presses 60
Additional Vineyards 62
The Sbragia Label 69
Wine Reviews and Customer Relations 72
Alluvium and Other Wines 74
Myron Nightingale s Colleagues 77
Cost of Wine 89
Bob Steinhauer and Vineyard Practices 90
Vineyard Properties 96
Ed Rossi, Jr. 105
VH WINEMAKER AT BERINGER 107
Assuming the Responsibility, 1984 107
Napa Ridge Brand 1 9
Changing Ownership 110
Number and Quality of Wines 113
Other Beringer Brands 1 1 5
Challenges of Winemakingn at a Large Company 119
Oak Chips and Corks 123
VIE PROFESSIONAL AND COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES 1 28
ADDENDUM TO ED SBRAGIA S ORAL HISTORY 133
TAPE GUIDE 134
The California wine industry oral history series, a project of the Regional Oral History Office, was
initiated by Ruth Teiser in 1969 through the action and with the financing of the Wine Advisory Board, a
state marketing order organization which ceased operation in 1975. In 1983 it was reinstituted as The
Wine Spectator California Wine Oral History Series with donations from The Wine Spectator
Scholarship Foundation. The selection of those to be interviewed has been made by a committee
consisting of the director of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; John A. De Luca,
president of the Wine Institute, the statewide winery organization; Carole Hicke, series project director;
and Marvin R. Shanken, trustee of The Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation.
Until her death in June 1994, Ruth Teiser was project originator, initiator, director, and conductor of.
the greater part of the oral histories. Her book, Winemaking in California, co-authored with Catherine
Harroun and published in 1982, was the product of more than forty years of research, interviewing, and
photographing. (Those wine history files are now in The Bancroft Library for researcher use.) Ruth
Teiser s expertise and knowledge of the wine industry contributed significantly to the documenting of its
history in this series.
The purpose of the series is to record and preserve information on California grapegrowing and
winemaking that has existed only in the memories of winemen. In some cases their recollections go back
to the early years of this century, before Prohibition. These recollections are of particular value because
the Prohibition period saw the disruption of not only the industry itself but also the orderly recording and
preservation of records of its activities. Little has been written about the industry from late in the last
century until Repeal. There is a real paucity of information on the Prohibition years (1920-1933),
although some commercial winemaking did continue under supervision of the Prohibition Department.
The material in this series on that period, as well as the discussion of the remarkable development of the
wine industry in subsequent years will be of aid to historians. Of particular value is the fact that
frequently several individuals have discussed the same subjects and events or expressed opinions on the
same ideas, each from his or her own point of view.
Research underlying the interviews has been conducted principally in the University libraries at
Berkeley and Davis, the California State Library, and in the library of the Wine Institute, which has made
its collection of materials readily available for the purpose.
The Regional Oral History Office was established to tape record autobiographical interviews with
persons who have contributed significantly to recent California history. The office is headed by Willa K.
Baum and is under the administrative supervision of The Bancroft Library.
The Wine Spectator California Wine Oral History Series
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley
CALIFORNIA WINE INDUSTRY INTERVIEWS
Interviews Completed as of September 2002
Leon D. Adams, Revitalizing the California Wine Industry, 1974
Leon D.Adams, California Wine Industry Affairs: Recollections and Opinions, 1990
Maynard A. Amerine, Tlie University of California and the State s Wine Industry, 1971
Maynard A. Amerine, Wine Bibliographies and Taste Perception Studies, 1988
Richard L. Arrowood, Sonoma County Winemaking: Chateau St. Jean andArrowood Vineyards &
William Andrew Beckstoffer, Premium California Vineyardist, Entrepreneur, 1960s to 2000s, 2000
PhiloBiane, Wine Making in Southern California and Recollections of Fruit Industries, Inc., 1972
William Bonetti, A Life of Winemaking at Wineries ofGallo, Schenley, Charles Krug, Chateau
Souverain, and Sonoma-Cutrer, 1998
Albert Brounstein, Diamond Creek Vineyards: The Significance ofTerroir in the Vineyard, 2000
David Bruce, The David Bruce Winery: Experimentation, Dedication, and Success, 2002
Charles A. Carpy, Viticulture and Enology at Freemark Abbey, 1994
John B. Cella, The Cella Family in the California Wine Industry, 1986
Arthur A. Ciocca, Arthur A. Ciocca and the Wine Group, Inc.: Insights into the Wine Industry from
a Marketing Perspective, 2000
Charles Crawford, Recollections of a Career with the Gallo Winery and the Development of the
California Wine Industry, 1942-1989, 1990
Burke H. Critchfield, Carl F. Wente, and Andrew G. Frericks, The California Wine Industry During
the Depression, 1972
William V. Cruess, A Half Century of Food and Wine Technology, 1967
Jack and Jamie Peterman Davies, Rebuilding Schramsberg: The Creation of a California
Champagne House, 1990
L. Doug Davis, History ofSebastiani Vineyards, 1955-Present, 2001.
William A. Dieppe, Almaden is My Life, 1985
Paul Draper, History and Philosophy ofWinemaking at Ridge Vineyards: 1970s-1990s, 1994
Daniel J. and Margaret S. Duckhom, Mostly Merlot: The History ofDuckhorn Vineyards, 1996
David, Jean, Peter, and Steven Ficklin, Making California Port Wine: Ficklin Vineyards from 1948
to 1992, 1992
Brooks Firestone, Firestone Vineyard: A Santa Ynez Valley Pioneer, 1996
Louis J. Foppiano, A Century of Agriculture and Winemaking in Sonoma County, 1896-1996, 1996
Richard Forman, Launching Bordeaux-Style Wines in the Napa Valley: Sterling Vineyards, Newton
Vineyard, and Forman Vineyard, 2000
Alfred Fromm, Marketing California Wine and Brandy, 1984
Louis Gomberg, Analytical Perspectives on the California Wine Industry, 1935-1990, 1990
Miljenko Grgich, A Croatian-American Winemaker in the Napa Valley, 1992
Joseph E. Heitz, Creating a Winery in the Napa Valley, 1 986
William H. Hill, Vineyard Development and the William Hill Winery, 197 Os- 1990s, 1998
Agustin Huneeus, A World View of the Wine Industry, 1996
Maynard A. Joslyn, A Technologist Views the California Wine Industry, 1974
AmandusN. Kasimatis, A Career in California Viticulture, 1988
Morris Katz, Paul Masson Winery Operations and Management, 1944-1988, 1990
Legh F. Knowles, Jr., Beaulieu Vineyards from Family to Corporate Ownership, 1990
Horace O. Lanza and Harry Baccigaluppi, California Grape Products and Other Wine Enterprises,
Zelma R. Long, The Past is the Beginning of the Future: Simi Winery in its Second Century, 1992
Richard Maher, California Winery Management and Marketing, 1992
Louis M. Martini and Louis P. Martini, Wine Making in the Napa Valley, 1973
Louis P. Martini, A Family Winery and the California Wine Industry, 1984
Eleanor McCrea, Stony Hill Vineyards: The Creation of a Napa Valley Estate Winery, 1990
Justin Meyer, Justin Meyer and Silver Oak Cellars: Focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, 2000
Otto E. Meyer, California Premium Wines and Brandy, 1973
Norbert C. Mirassou and Edmund A. Mirassou, The Evolution of a Santa Clara Valley Winery, 1986
Peter Mondavi, Advances in Technology and Production at Charles Krug Winery, 1946-1988, 1990
Robert Mondavi, Creativity in the Wine Industry, 1985
Michael Moone, Management and Marketing at Beringer Vineyards and Wine World, Inc., 1990
Myron S. Nightingale, Mating Wine in California, 1944-1987, 1988
Harold P. Olmo, Plant Genetics and New Grape Varieties, 1976
Cornelius Ough, Researches of an Enologist, University of California, Davis, 1950-1990, 1990
John A. Parducci, Six Decades of Making Wine in Mendocino County, California, 1992
Antonio Perelli-Minetti, A Life in Wine Making, 1975
Louis A. Petri, The Petri Family in the Wine Industry, 1971
Jefferson E. Peyser, The Law and the California Wine Industry, 1974
Joseph Phelps, Joseph Phelps Vineyards: Classic Wines and Rhone Varietals, 1996
Lucius Powers, The Fresno Area and the California Wine Industry, 1974
Victor Repetto and Sydney J. Block, Perspectives on California Wines, 1976
Edmund A. Rossi, Italian Swiss Colony and the Wine Industry, 1971
Edmund A. Rossi, Jr., Italian Swiss Colony, 1949-1989: Recollections of a Third-Generation
California Winemaker, 1990
Edward G. Sbragia, Winemaster at Beringer Vineyards, 2002
Arpaxat Setrakian, A. Setrakian, a Leader of the San Joaquin Valley Grape Industry, 1977
Elie Skofis, California Wine and Brandy Maker, 1988
David S. Stare, Fume Blanc andMeritage Wines in Sonoma County: Dry Creek Vineyard s Pioneer
Rodney S. Strong, Rodney Strong Vineyards: Creative Winemaking and Winery Management in
Sonoma County, 1994
Andre Tchelistcheff, Grapes, Wine, and Ecology, 1983
Brother Timothy, The Christian Brothers as Wine Makers, 1974
Janet and John Trefethen, Trefethen Vineyards, 1968-1998, 1998
Louis (Bob) Trinchero, California Zinfandels, a Success Story, 1992
Charles F. Wagner and Charles J. Wagner, Caymus Vineyards: A Father-Son Team
Producing Distinctive Wines, 1994
The Wente Family and the California Wine Industry, interviews with Jean, Carolyn, Philip, and Eric
Ernest A. Wente, Wine Making in the Livermore Valley, 1971
Warren Winiarski, Creating Classic Wines in the Napa Valley, 1994
Albert J. Winkler, Viticultural Research at UC Davis (1921-1971), 1973
Frank M. Woods, Founding Clos Du Bois Winery: A Marketing Approach, 1998
John H. Wright, Domaine Chandon: The First French-owned California Sparkling Wine Cellar,
includes an interview with Edmond Maudiere, 1992
Ed Sbragia, longtime winemaker for Beringer Vineyards and now Senior Vice President and
Winemaster for Beringer Wine Estates Holdings, follows his father and grandfather as a third-
generation producer of California wine. Growing up near Healdsburg, he began early working in his
family s vineyards, and thought he wanted to get away from it all. But after obtaining a degree in
chemistry at the University of California at Davis, he decided to get a master s in enology at
California State University, Fresno. Shortly thereafter, Myron Nightingale hired him as his assistant
He began using French oak barrels to ferment Chardonnay, and went on to renowned success
with Cabernet Sauvignon. When Nightingale retired in 1984, Sbragia took over all winemaking
responsibilities, with special emphasis on the Private Reserve program.
In his oral history, Sbragia describes the major contributions that Myron Nightingale made to
winemaking techniques, and outlines his own challenges and innovations. He includes much detail
about the growth of the winery, its vineyards and grape sources.
Sbragia was interviewed on December 29 and 30, 1999, and February 28 and March 1, 2000.
He reviewed most of the draft transcript and made substantial changes.
The Regional Oral History Office was established in 1954 to augment through tape-recorded
memoirs the Library s materials on the history of California and the West. Copies of all interviews
are available for research use in The Bancroft Library and in the UCLA Department of Special
Collections. The office is under the direction of Richard Candida Smith, and is an administrative
division of The Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.
Carole Hicke, Interviewer Editor
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
INTERVIEW WITH EDWARD G. SBRAGIA
[Interview 1: November 29, 1999] ##
Hicke: I want to start with when and where you were born.
I was born in Healdsburg, California, on December 11, 1948. My mom and dad were
named Julia and Gino Sbragia.
Hicke: Okay, now let s back up and tell me about your grandfather-your great-grandfather, if you
can get that far back. I know they came from Tuscany.
Sbragia: Well, I m in the process of trying to go back that far.
Hicke: Oh, good.
Sbragia: I have a document someplace that goes back five generations, but both my grandparents on
my mom and dad s side came from the town of Guamo, near Lucca, in Tuscany, Italy. My
grandparents came over in 1906.
Hicke: Do you know why?
Sbragia: No, not exactly. I think it probably had to do with economics and the availability of food,
and I guess, also, it was the end of the gold rush. The wine business in the United States
had started up, and I think one of the major factors was the Italian Swiss Colony, because
my grandfather came and worked at the Italian Swiss Colony, as my father did when he
came back in the twenties.
This symbol indicates that a tape or tape segment has begun or ended. A guide to the tapes
follows the transcript.
Hicke: Can you give me your grandfather s name?
Sbragia: My grandfather and grandmother on my dad s side were named Giulio and Cherubina. I
didnt know my grandparents. They died before I was born. My grandfather and
grandmother on my mother s side were named Fidele and Rosina. My dad s grandfather and
grandmother were Nicolao and Carlotta. And my mom s dad was named Fidele, and they
were actually cousins.
Sbragia: Fidele Sbragia.
Hicke: Oh, yes? So they had the same name.
Hicke: Did both sets of parents immigrate?
Sbragia: Yes, they immigrated. And my mom s mom and dad, Fidele and Rosina, stayed here and
my father s mom and dad, Giulio and Cherubina, returned. My dad was born at a Packson
Ranch in Healdsburg, at Dry Creek. It is now called Madrone Manor Restaurant and Inn.
He was born on January 18, 1910. When he was nine months old, my grandfather went
back to Italy to their home in Guamo.
Then my dad came back over-I guess it was the reason why the brothers came over. He
had three brothers and a sister and the three brothers came over in the twenties. My dad
came over in 1927 when he was seventeen years old, and he went to work at Italian Swiss
Colony. That was his first job.
Hicke: Oh, interesting. So your grandfather actually moved back and stayed in Italy?
Sbragia: Right. He never came back.
Hicke: Why did your dad and his brothers come back to America?
Sbragia: Again, I think they had connections here. I guess after World War I times were tough and
there was the promise of the New World and a better life. My father, one time he returned
to Italy and I went with him in 1969, but my grandparents had passed away.
Hicke: What s your father s name?
Sbragia: My father s name was Gino. My mom s name was Julia.
Hicke: I want to hear a little bit more about him, but first, what about your maternal grandparents?
Sbragia: I never knew them. My mom grew up in the Geyserville area, and her mom Rosina died
when she was thirteen, and her father Fidele died before I was born. I don t think he was
that old. I think he was around sixty.
Hicke: What did he do?
Sbragia: Both of them worked in the wine business and worked in the vineyards. My mom s dad had
a ranch. Actually, they moved from Geyserville to a little bit north of Windsor and had a
ranch there between Windsor and Healdsburg~they had a ranch there through the
Depression. And I think he owned it until he died.
Hicke: Did they have crops or cattle?
Sbragia: Well, I think there were prune trees.
Hicke: Prune trees, yes. That makes sense.
Sbragia: Prunes-and grapes, I think there were some grapes. Most of Sonoma County was prune
trees as I grew up in the late forties and in the fifties, with grapes in Dry Creek. I think it
was mostly prunes. We lived near Dry Creek, along the river. Those were all prunes,
almost to the freeway, in that area. It was a different place then, but I think even if you
look at the Napa Valley, this whole area was prunes and walnuts and stone fruit-apples,
lots of apples, and hops. I remember hops, when I was a child, growing along the river in
Hicke: The Russian River?
Sbragia: Yes. And Dry Creek.
Sbragia: My dad s name was Gino.
Hicke: Let s go to your dad now. What did he do? He grew up there?
Sbragia: And my mom s name was Julia.
Hicke: Oh, thank you, yes.
Sbragia: She was born actually on December 18, 1909. She was about a month older than my dad,
and because of the family, they knew each other pretty well growing up. My dad knew her
when they were young.
My dad, actually his first job was working at the Italian Swiss Colony for three years.
Then he and his brother Americo lived in San Francisco for two years. He returned to
Healdsburg and rented a vineyard with his older brother Italo~it had to be just after
Prohibition-they started a winery, then went out of business, just because the Depression
was pretty tough.
Hicke: Oh, after Prohibition was over?
Sbragia: Yes. And then in the thirties, my dad worked for a winery called Montebello Wine
Company, owned by Mr. Perroni, in San Francisco. Its crushing facility was where the
Montebello Winery was in Saratoga-where Ridge [Vineyards and Winery] is now. He was
the bottle manager/foreman in the city-in San Francisco. He worked there for a couple of
years, and in 1935 he won what he called the consolation prize for the Irish Sweepstakes
and won $500.
He left the winery in 1936 and bought an old restauran^ar for $900 right along the
Russian River in Healdsburg, right by the Russian River bridge, called the Ark. And that s
where he and my mom got together, because he got my mom to be the cook, and she was
the cook while he went away to war. When he came back, he had had it with running a bar.
During the time they owned the Ark, from 1936 to 1946, he had bought the house and
ten acres I live in now~and that s where I grew up. He paid $5,000 for the house and ten
Hicke: In Healdsburg?
Sbragia: In Healdsburg, in Dry Creek.
He sold the Ark in 1946 for $1 1,000, so that was pretty good in ten years.
Sbragia: Then he bought twenty-three acres, so I grew up in about thirty-three acres of prune trees,
back in those days. And he was a farmer the rest of his life.
Hicke: Where in Dry Creek is it?
Sbragia: If you come into town on Healdsburg Avenue and turn left on Dry Creek Road, it used to be
you d go down Healdsburg Avenue and go straight down West Grant Street and it would
dead-end at the River, but then when the freeway carne in the sixties, there was a frontage
road, so you d go underneath the freeway and you go south on the frontage road, and you
turn right on West Grant Street and it s down between, on one of those dead-end short
pieces that dead-end on the Dry Creek. So that s the house I grew up in, and there s ten
acres of vineyard there. It used to be in French Colombard, and now they ve been planted
to Merlot and Chardonnay.
And there s twenty-three acres as the crow flies probably less than a mile away, but to
get there you d have to cross a bunch of people s property, so keep on going west on Dry
Creek Road, and just as you get down-there used to be a store down there, right there at the
beginning-and just as you get down at the bottom of the hill, you turn and go towards the
river on a private road, and we have twenty-three acres there. It s right next to where
Sanderson is and where Keegan used to be. It was all Colombard also, and we planted to
Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc.
Hicke: To back up a little bit, do you know what kind of grapes your father was growing when he
had his little vineyard?
Sbragia: Oh, way, way back?
Hicke: Way, way back.
Sbragia: I don t know. I m assuming it was Zinfandel. It was a variety that-and they made wine.
The reason they went out of business is it all went to vinegar, or something went wrong
with it, because when he went to sell it, they sold it for cents on the dollar. But someone
bought it, so I don t know, someone may have misled him.
Hicke: They only made one vintage?
Sbragia: They just had enough money to do one vintage.
Hicke: That s unfortunate.
Sbragia: There wasn t a lot of money in those days.
Hicke: Yes, I know, but I ll bet if he d been able to keep it up, he d have had a gold mine.
Sbragia: Well, watching him, that s how I got into the business, because for all the years that I lived
with my dad, we made wine every year. In fact, in the fifties, I remember when I was
young, there were large floods in 54, 55 in Healdsburg and my house, the same house I live
in now, was in three feet of water. Luckily it s about two feet off the ground, but there was
still a foot of water in the house. I remember playing with my tricycle and the door was
open, and my dad was using a hose during the day to get the mud out and the water would
come in the front door and out the back door.
Hicke: That was before the dam?
Sbragia: That was before the dam. My mom was deathly afraid of water, because when she was a
child, she was in the big flood, and she and her father were in a boat-which capsized, her
father grabbed onto a tree and put her up in a tree, she sat there two or three hours waiting
for a boat to come rescue her, so she doesn t like water.
Hicke: Yes. I can imagine that.
Sbragia: So my father bought five acres just at the top of the hill. Just by the Russian River Riders,
riding ring, those five acres were where we moved to in the fifties. So I actually didn t
grow up in this house, totally. I was there until I was about ten, and then the new house
until I was eighteen and went away to college. On that five acres my dad had Zinfandel,
Carignane, and Petite Sirah-mostly Zinfandel and Carignane~and I watched my dad make
wine every year. In fact, I always say that my old boss at Beringer, Myron Nightingale,
taught me how to make white wine, but my father taught me how to make red wine.
Hicke: Great. Great beginning.
Sbragia: Well, I remember he always said, "Keep your barrels clean and keep them full," and that s
something I always remembered.
Hicke: He was way ahead of [University of California] Davis on that, I think.
Sbragia: Yes, he definitely knew what he was doing. During and after Prohibition, you could make
200 gallons of wine in every household. I think the government did that so they wouldn t
have total rebellion, because you had so many immigrants who were used to drinking wine.
So he made his own wine, and he d break it down from about a sixty-gallon barrel into five-
gallon demijohns, and then he d break a demijohn down into gallons and gallons down into
fifths. He never really bottled his; he kind of just kept them full. I d look at those wines
and they were just perfectly clear, perfectly stable, and all he did was ferment until dryness,
press off, and then just put it in barrels, and rack on a regular basis to get it clean.
Hicke: No fining, filtering?
Sbragia: Nothing, that s how he d make wine.
Hicke: Did he learn it from his father?
Sbragia: Yes, I think he did. Plus both of them worked at Italian Swiss Colony with professionals.
My father was the bottling manager, who kind of assists the winemaker. He tells the story
about the man who owned Montebello Wine, that company at the time, was a man named
Mr. Perroni, and Mr. Perroni evidently liked my dad a lot, because when my dad told him
he was leaving, he took one of these old wrenches that they used to tighten up hoses and
threw it halfway across the cellar, he was so angry.
Hicke: [laughter] Not at him, I hope.
Sbragia: No, in fact, he told him any time he needed help or any money or anything, just to call.
That was a neat guy.
Hicke: Do you know if they were making just ordinary reds there, or what they were making?
Sbragia: Well, it s interesting because when I was at my first winemaking job at Foppiano
[Vineyards], there was a guy named Henry Bugato, who was actually the winemaker from
Montebello Wine Company. I guess the brand was still existing and it belonged to a
distributor named Romano. It made all sorts of wines. I m not sure what it made in the
thirties. I know that I had a bottle from there that I opened in my-well, what s the right
word-inexperience. It was a 1929 Chablis. Obviously it wasn t going to be any good any
more, but I opened it in 1972 when I got married. It was brown and oxidized, and I didn t
even keep the bottle, because you know the day you get married, you re kind of excited. I
never saw it again.
Hicke: You don t have a label or anything?
Sbragia: No, and my dad saved it all those years.
Hicke: Oh, too bad. Well, it was celebratory even if it wasn t drinkable, [laughter]
Sbragia: Yes. Well, I drank itanyway, it was my dad s wine.
Hicke: Henry Bugato. That s a familiar name, but I can t think why.
Sbragia: Well, he s worked for the distributor in the city. He must still be alive. This was 197675,
actually, when I was at Foppiano.
My dad ran his ranches until he was about seventy-two, all by himself. He retired, and
then managed the five acres until he was in his early eighties. It is managed by Enzenauer
Vineyard Management now-he manages it all. My dad started with him, and I stayed with
him because he does a good job.
Hicke: Did he pass along any philosophy about vineyard management to you?
Sbragia: My dad loved being outside. I think he told me the same thing that Myron told me:
"Attention to detail," and, "Don t do anything tomorrow you can do today."
Hicke: Oh, yes? That s a good one too. He didn t worry about the water and the sun and things
like that so much?
Sbragia: He was constantly worrying. My dad was very high strung. Very nice man. He had a lot
of Spanish laborers, Mexicans, who came and they d call him Gino [pronounced Yino], and
they all loved him. My dad died in December of 1995, and I ve had people come almost
every year just before harvest asking for Gino, because they wanted to come and work for
Hicke: That s quite impressive.
Growing up in Healdsburg
Sbragia: Let s see. My memories of working in the vineyardsone of the reasons I didn t go out for
sports was I was the only child and there was an expectation that you d come back and work
at the ranch.
Hicke: You mean after school?
Sbragia: After school and on weekends. I was spoiled rotten. My mom wanted me to learn
accordion, so I learned accordion, and so therefore a lot of times I d be practicing accordion
instead of out there with my dad, which actually was pretty nice, to be able to not have to
go out and work. Because in the winter time~I mean, even look at today, it s pretty cold out
there. You know, on a nice, sunny day in the spring it s different, but on a cold winter day
when it s kind of drizzly, it s pretty miserable outside.
Hicke: Better to be practicing your accordion.
Sbragia: Yes. Go to school. But I remember suckering vines, where you re taking the excess growth
from between the shoots out, and then hoeing. My job was to hoe, so probably one of the
reasons I decided to go to school was those rows were so long and hoeing vines was a
miserable jobcutting suckers from the bottom. I was a good hoer, but at the same time, it
was a lot of work.
Hicke: Yes, and it gets old after a while.
Sbragia: I think the best times were the harvests-mostly the prunes, because school would have
started by the time grape harvest came. So then that was always a hassle: you d go to
school and come back. And grape harvest was actually~as I was growing up in the fifties
and sixties, I think there were wetter winters, because I remember lots of sloshing around in
the rnud. Back in those days, you didn t pick into bins; it went into gondolas; you picked
into lug boxes-sixty-pound boxes. My job was to collect the boxes, help my dad dump
them. At the beginning we loaded boxes, and we used to sell to Seghesio Winery in
Healdsburg, so my job was to help them load the boxes and then go to the winery. We used
to actually dump the boxes into a conveyor that brought them to the crusher. Then I had to
stack the boxes. While he was dumping, I d take the box and put it back on the truck. As I
got older, I was pretty big by the time I was thirteen, I would start dumping boxes and
And then later on, probably in the early sixties, we had a conveyor and a tank, but we
still picked in boxes, so we would dump the boxes on the conveyer. The pickers would
pick in the boxes, drag them to the end of the row, and then we would dump the boxes on
the conveyor and then that would load into the tank. My dad would drive the tank to the
winery and he d be gone for a couple of hours, or I d go with him, but it was easier then,
because you didn t have to load boxes. It was a rest.
The best times were when my dad and Ed Seghesio would be sitting inside the winery by
some land of big filter. Ed would take a little drink-I d get water-they d take a little bit of
wine and talk about the wine. I think 71 and 72-and actually in the fifties, there were
some bad years where I remember catching my dad looking at the prunes. There was water
out there in the field, the boxes were sitting in water, the prunes had rotted. I think instead
of picking forty tons, we d picked four boxes, so he went to work at Seghesio doing
something in the winter that year to make money to survive.
Hicke: Was he selling to anyone besides Seghesio?
Sbragia: No, in the early days, the grapes went to Seghesio and the prunes went to Sunsweet.
Hicke: And what kind of a contract? Do you have any idea?
Sbragia: I remember him saying he was selling Columbard for $90 a ton, but that was probably in
Hicke: And that was just from year to year. The price was determined whenever--
Sbragia: Yes. Seghesio had a contract with Gallo at that time. Now they ve started their own
Hicke : They did bulk wine?
Sbragia: They did bulk wine. My dad sold to Seghesio and Seghesio was selling to Gallo-bulk
wine. But we only had whites, because the land was mostly low level-close to the river. I
don t think it was really good, except for right on the hill where my dad lived was good
Zinfandel ground. I ve planted eight acres of Merlot right next to the house and hopefully
that s going to come out okay.
Hicke: Is it cool enough there?
Sbragia: Yes, I think Merlot grows in a lot of different places, versus grapes like Cabernet and
Zinfandel. They re more particular.
Hicke: Dry Creek is certainly famous for Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. You said you have that,
Sbragia: Yes, it does well.
Hicke: Well, let me ask you a little bit more about your younger days. One thing I like to ask
about, in view of the food and wine compatibility, is what kinds of things did your mother
cook when you were growing up?
Sbragia: My mom and my dad~my dad actually was a pretty good cook himself. In fact, during the
war they found out that he was Italian and that he could cook pretty good, so they grabbed
him right away. He ended up being a staff sergeant in charge of the kitchen. He tells a
story that they wanted him to go cook for the officers, but he wouldn t do it. He wanted to
stay with the guys, [laughter] I don t know if that was a wise move on his part.
Hicke: Probably was, yes.
Sbragia: He was in Japan during the war as a cook. Delivering meals at that time was pretty risky
businesshad to go with a gun. Well, actually he was on a lot of the islands as they moved
Hicke: That s what I was wondering. He went-oh, dear.
Sbragia: Scary stuff.
Hicke: That really was!
Sbragia: So I think that was probably why he had pretty much had it when he came back to a bar and
a restaurant which was a pretty neat place. My mom cooked and he tended bar. Talking to
the old timers, as I grew up, it was the place to go hang out.
My mom and dad were great. The typical meal would be she d take like artichokes and
actually even apples and cordonI m not sure what that is, exactly. I think it s a stalk, like
an artichoke tree, and made fried battered vegetables.
Pasta was always on the menu, but it was never a main course. Pasta was just one of the
starters, and it was always with a meat sauce, unless it was a Friday back in the days when
you couldn t eat meat on a Friday as a Catholic. Then it was with fish, and it was more of a
fast sauce, where she d take garlic and seasonings and tomatoes and kind of braise them and
start the sauce going and it was more of a raw sauce. And those were good. The meat
sauce was more serious.
And they made raviolis. My mom would make raviolis.
Hicke: From scratch?
Sbragia: Yes. It was interesting. One thing I didn t tell you before, my mom was married before,
and so I have a half brother and half sister, but they are twenty-five years older than I am.
My mom and sister would make raviolis, and usually after that there was either some kind
of meat-you know, roast-she would stick the garlic inside and then sage and rosemary and
olive oil. Salt and pepper. And then cook it to almost medium rare. That was always
She d make these potatoes in the roast, I don t know how she did it, because I keep on
trying to make it, but they come out soggy, where hers came out crispy. I think she d take
the roast out and then just turn the heat way up, pour the oil on to coat them, and they get
real crisp. She was a really good cook.
Hicke: Did you raise any chickens or anything like that?
Sbragia: Well, that s the only thing I think that I ever had was chickens. I remember this one rooster
used to chase me around~I must have been really small, [laughter] And that was scary. I d
have to go get the eggs, so somehow the rooster disappeared the next time I went out there.
Sbragia: Fortunately, yes. I was pleased, [laughter] Yes, besides a dog and a cat, or dogs and cats,
chickens were the only thing we ever had.
Hicke: What kind of equipment did your dad have?
Sbragia: Dad had a D-2 tractor for as long as I can remember, and I still have that tractor. He had a
big truck to haul prunes around-it s a 1950 Chevrolet flatbed.
Hicke: Something like a pickup truck?
Sbragia: Well, they didn t have a pickup early on. He had a little Willys Jeep that was cut down, that
had a little kind of box frame in behind. Then he had a 1929 Chevy truck that we used on
the ranch to move boxes around, so that was the one I drove. I usually didn t drive it off the
Hicke: You drove it by age thirteen or something like that?
Sbragia: Yes, well, actually I was probably driving it when I was seven or eight.
Hicke: Oh, my!
Sbragia: But my job in prune season was to spread boxes ahead, so they could pick. Then help load
them. We would dump the prunes in a caustic-soda and water~and what it would do is
sterilize the prune and it would crack them, make a little tiny crack in them, and then they
would be sorted into big ones and little ones, firsts and seconds, and then we had to
Hicke: Oh, you had a dehydrator.
Sbragia: The harvest usually started in mid-August. Prunes were spread on trays and put in the
dehydrator and about nineteen hours later they come out, so the rotation was that somebody
had .to be up all nighteither my dad or my mom-usually my mom, because my dad would
work all day.
Later, when they moved up to higher ground, where the chicken coop was we made a
little house. We lived in that little one-room shack, because we rented out the old house.
Hicke: Oh, for prune season.
Sbragia: Yes, prune season, itself. And everybody used to come every night and visit because they
knew we were always home, [laughter] It was like an ongoing party. You d work all day
long and then friends would come and play cards at night-play poker and talk, and their
kids and I would run around the fields at night.
Hicke: You would have to change the trays or something?
Sbragia: They were actually like a car. It was stacked with twenty-three trays of prunes and each
tray held about a sixty-pound box. They would go in spaced at one hour intervals and then
you d mark and add nineteen hours to them and then that s when they d start coming out.
They had numbers on them at the bottom. It was like a railroad. Then you d move them
over and pull them out, my mom s job.
I remember one night we caught her crying about five o clock in the morning. She had
dumped a car out~a whole car about three o clock in the morning, and we ended up having
to pick them all back up and put them on the trays. But they were dry, so it was fine.
Hicke: Didn t hurt the prunes?
Sbragia: Didn t hurt the prunes, but it was very hard work.
Hicke: But it hurt your mom.
Sbragia: Yes. Hurt her feelings.
After that you d have to scrape trays. You d pull them off and you d have to scrape into
boxes. We d load the boxes of dried prunes, and then dump them into a ton box, about
twice the size of a bin you see people carrying around todaythese were ton bins, and you d
dump the boxes into those bins. That was a tough job, because we would stack the boxes
on the little 29 Chevy and then pull it into a garage. Then we d dump the boxes into the ton
bins, and then later on my dad hauled them off to Sunsweet.
Hicke: Did you have to pick prunes?
Sbragia: I picked prunes a couple times, but I wasn t very good.
Hicke: I understand that isn t fun.
Sbragia: No. I was lucky I was the boss s son. I got to drive the truck, route the boxes, and shake
prunes. You had to shake prunes.
Hicke: The tree.
Sbragia: Yes. Well, as I got older and stronger I d shake prunes. Luckily my dad finally got a
mechanical shaker, so I got to run that thing and drive the tractor. So I pretty much did
Grape harvest was a lot easier because you basically picked them and brought them
away. You didn t have to process them.
Hicke: Yes. About when did your father start changing prunes to grapevines?
Sbragia: I remember we planted Easter vacation of my senior year, which was 66, so he started
probably with one block around 1962, 63.
Hicke: What did he plant?
Sbragia: He went from prunes to grapes, and the variety was French Colombard. I think the last
vines he planted were Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, because we had so much
Colombard, and I m the one who convinced him to use the AXR1, which [laughter] became
susceptible to phylloxera. I would have been better offto have the French Colombard,
which was planted on St. George, which is resistant.
Hicke: Yes, but Davis was saying you should plant AXR1 .
Sbragia: Actually, if you look at AXR1 in terms of the industry, it did a pretty good job. It took us
from being a mediocre winegrowing region to one of the players of the world.
Hicke: Yes, good point.
Sbragia: It gave a good yield at a very high quality. It was a good rootstock. Unfortunately
phylloxera got stronger.
Hicke: Who convinced your dad to plant French Colombard? Was it the extension people?
Sbragia: He probably talked to the farm advisor, but I think it was other farmers. They d see who
was spraying, who was planting, and they d go over and talk and say, "What are you
planting?" "What rootstock are you planting on?" The nursery guys had a lot of influence,
because they were friends of my dad. He knew them all his life.
Hicke: Who were they?
Sbragia: I can t remember the name now. In Dry Creek. We usually got dormant bench grafts, so
that you would trim the roots, then plant them. My job was to dig the holes.
Hicke: You got those great jobs! [laughs]
Sbragia: I got the nasty jobs.
Hicke: Do you recall which neighbors he knew and would confer with?
Sbragia: There was a guy directly behind us, who was a Foppiano.
Hicke: That s not the winery Foppiano?
Sbragia: No, actually it was a guy named Andy Foppiano. They re all kind of related, but that
Foppiano is not related to the Lou Foppianos.
Hicke: Anybody else that you remember?
Sbragia: There was another grower named St. Claire right next door to us.
Hicke: Related to Maxine and George St. Claire? They live in Alexander Valley.
Sbragia: No, no, different one. And down on the flats in Dry Creek, Leroy Rasmussen was a
neighbor. A guy named Logan King was a neighbor. And a guy-last name was Butts.
And then later, Butts left it to his son-in-law, Bob Keegan. And Bob s son, Tim, just sold
Hicke: Interesting. There are still a lot of local growers around Dry Creek.
Sbragia: Yes, there are. The Lupes were out there. My dad actually managed a vineyard for a guy
named Guido Guidi. And Guido owned a store in San Francisco. It was a great Italian
store with all this-
Sbragia: Groceries and Italian goods. And actually Guide s brother owned the olive oil factory in St.
Helena, which is still in operation. Guido s brother sold it to the new owners, and they still
run it as a family. It s an Italian market, essentially. The olive oil factory is mostly olive oil
and cheese and meats, and it s a great place to buy Italian goods.
My dad managed Guido s ranch and it s still owned by the Guidis, Guido s daughter, I
think. It was all prunes then and now it s all grapes.
Hicke: Are there any prunes left in Dry Creek?
Sbragia: There are some. Actually there are some on Magnolia Drive, which technically I don t
think is Dry Creek. It s where Alderbrook Vineyards is that whole peninsula there.
One of the problems with prunes was a disease called gumossis, which basically killed
off the tree after it was about two or three years old. It started talcing the trees and so
replantings wouldn t work. Then it started taking older trees, so it was kind of like dead
arm or Eutypa in grapes. It was passed on by prunings. I remember my dad pruning with
Lysol-dipping his shears in Lysol and similar things that you d have to do to sterilize
between cuts with Eutypa. He always said, "You think those guys in Las Vegas gamble? I
put it on the red or the black every year."
Hicke: Well, agriculture is such a chancy business.
Sbragia: Yes. It s unbelievable.
Hicke: It s really like living on the edge.
Sbragia: It is. You look at frost and weirdness during bloom and set, and then the harvest.
Hicke: And that s just nature. There s man-made price dips and market gluts and all the other-
Sbragia: Oh, yes, lots of things.
Hicke: I wanted to ask you about school. Was there anything about school that you particularly
liked or didn t like?
Sbragia: Well, my mom and dad were good Catholics, but Italian Catholics are a little different than
your devout Catholic. The Catholic religion is part of your life, but it doesn t tend to lead
you. They were totally ready to put me into public school, but I was born December 11,
which is about one day past when you could get into first grade, and I didn t go to
kindergarten, so they went to see the nuns and they took me. Therefore I was the youngest
kid in my class for most of the time until a guy moved into high school and his birthday was
the 6th. [laughter]
Hicke: So where did you go?
Sbragia: I went to St. John s Catholic School in Healdsburg to the eighth grade, and then I went to
Healdsburg High School, and graduated from Healdsburg High School in 1966. I went to
Santa Rosa Junior College for two years.
Hicke: Let s back up here. What about high school? What do you remember about that?
Sbragia: Well, I guess I must have done fairly well up to eighth grade, because it was at the
recommendation of the sisters to the counselors in high school that I go into college prep
classes. As I remember it then, you were either tracked for college prep or you weren t.
Hicke: So you got biology and chemistry
Sbragia: Yes, and physics and all that stuff.
Hicke: And Latin?
Sbragia: Three years of Spanish. I kept on saying I wanted to be a math major, because I liked math.
My chemistry class my senior year, I just loved it, so all of a sudden I wanted to be a
chemist. I remember sitting in a counseling meeting with a lady named Mrs. Sullivan, and
she told my parents, or my mom, that I couldn t take agriculture and I couldn t take shops
because I needed to be in this college prep to go to college. And I think that disappointed
He was kind of building his empire and wanted to buy more land, and he wanted his son
to work next to him. I think I disappointed him in that til later, and then he was very
proud. He was happy.
Hicke: Oh, when you went back to it?
Sbragia: I kind of went back to it, anyway, and he understood what a winemaker did. I think he had
worked by himself a lot of years when I was away at school.
Hicke: Yes, sure.
Sbragia: I was going to be a math major, and I did fairly well in high school. Not by today s
standardsI mean, to get into UCLA, my son had to get a 4.0, 1 think I was a 3.6 or
something like that, which was good for me. I m the first one in our family to get a college
degree of any of the Sbragias. My mom went to the eighth grade and my father only went
to the third grade. But my father went back to school in night school and could read and
write English and Italian perfectly.
Hicke: Sounds like they believed in education.
Sbragia: Yes, they were smart people, just not educated, because of the times. I mean, if you think
about that-two world wars and the Depression.
Hicke: They were survivors.
Depression and Prohibition
Sbragia: My dad, when he worked at Asti, worked for somewhere between fifty cents and a dollar a
day. He owed twenty-five cents for his living, because they used to live in the colony.
Actually, that s what I forgot. My grandmother was a cook for the Italian Swiss Colony.
Hicke: Your paternal grandmother?
Sbragia: Maternal. And on my dad s side, my grandfather worked at the Paxton Ranch in
Healdsburg, now a beautiful bed and breakfast, Madrona Manor. There was actually a
winery back there. In fact, people complain about all the wineries in the hillsides today: he
says that that whole area was clear-cut. When I was a child-just after the first rain is
mushroom season, we d be up in those hills looking for mushrooms, and there were
grapevines and apple trees and pear trees. I think they planted corn in the flats and they
planted their trees and vines on the hillsides.
Hicke: Well, that s interesting. What period are we talking about? The early century?
Sbragia: Well, he was talking about when he came back in the twenties-probably from the turn of
the century to the twenties. As I understand it, with the Napa Valley, there were about
20,000 acres planted in Napa Valley at the turn of the century. And there were about 120
wineries. Sonoma County was probably less, but pretty close. My dad s friend had a bulk
winery at their vineyard. They never reopened after Prohibition.
Hicke: They all just made their own wine?
Sbragia: Yes. Andrew Sodini and Trentadue opened up again, but there were a number of them that
Hicke: Did they sell this bulk wine?
Sbragia: Well, I guess they did before Prohibition.
Hicke: Where? In San Francisco, do you think?
Sbragia: Yes. My dad had some interesting stories. And that s what I forgot.
Hicke: Oh, good.
Sbragia: During Prohibition, he did manage vineyards, but they didn t try a winery, so this was
during Prohibition. He was running a ranch, they would pick grapes, and then in the 1929
Chevy, he d drive to Tiburon and go across on the ferry-this was before the Golden Gate
Bridge~and he d deliver grapes to all his old buddies or his clients in the city. He d have to
help them take the boxes down, dump the boxes and crush the grapes.
Hicke: Individual families?
Sbragia: Yes, and then he d come back.
Hicke: I don t suppose you know how much he sold them for, would you?
Sbragia: No, I don t. I might be able to find it.
Hicke: That would be interesting.
Sbragia: My first cousin, who is Janet Pisenti, did a table top book called Thirty-two Cousins from
Italy about the Rochioli family, which was my uncle Italo~my dad had three brothers: Italo,
who was a farmer in Healdsburg; Americo, who worked in San Francisco; and then
Aladino, who actually lived at the family home until the mid-fifties and then came over
from Italy. Italo married a woman named Teresa Rochioli, who was in the family of one of
the brothers. That family now owns Rochioli Winery.
Hicke: Was that Joe Rochioli?
Sbragia: Well, Joe s dad was her brother. When we tried to do the same kind of book, Janet went
back to the priest in Guamo and no amount of money would convince him to go into the
Hicke: They must have all the births and deaths
Sbragia: The only thing is, I think there was a fire once and they had to move everything and it may
be all just in a mess. They wouldn t be able to find it unless they hired somebody to go
through each file.
When I talked to my cousins in Italy-because my father had one sister, Maria, who
never came to the U.S. She lived there. And my cousins say, "I know who my grandfather
was and that s all I want to know," so they have no inclination to go farther. But Janet did a
pretty good job with the Rochiolis. She went back quite a ways.
Hicke: And they come from the same area?
Sbragia: They come from up in the hills not very far, maybe an hour from Lucca, a place called
Hicke: It strikes me that we went past Italian Swiss Colony too fast. Do you have any recollections
that your father or grandfather, or grandmother passed along?
Sbragia: My dad tells a story about my grandfather Giulio. This gentleman that told the story was
working with my dad in 27 and he said, "I remember your father. I was holding the ladder
and he was up on top of a tank, topping the tank and filling it up. He kept shouting down,
Stop shaking the ladder! It was 1906-it was the earthquake." [laughter]
Hicke: Oh, that s a great story.
Sbragia: My dad also remembers there s a.giant, million-gallon wooden tank -a buried wooden tank
there. They used it to make blends. And it s still there, but it s a water tank now. It s
divided into thirds. There are pictures of people being lowered down into the empty tank.
They had a band and a formal dance inside this space. A million-gallon tank s pretty big.
Hicke: That s one to challenge the redwood tree dance platform.
Sbragia: Right, right.
Hicke: And it s still there?
Sbragia: It s still there. In fact, Beringer bought Italian Swiss Colony in 1986, and I brought my dad
up there and walked him around, and he remembered a lot of things that he did, and that
Hicke: Since you mention it, did nostalgia have anything to do with that purchase?
Sbragia: No, no. The only thing was, "What shall we call the new winery?" And I said, "It has a
name. It s called Asti." [laughter]
Hicke: Very good. I m glad you ve got a sense of history here.
Sbragia: And that s what it s called.
Hicke: That s great. Now let s see, we were in high school and you were just getting interested in
chemistry. And if you have anything in your notes~I appreciate your having made them
let s not pass anything up.
Sbragia: Well, the teacher, a guy named Dr. Volt-well, I guess I don t know if he was "doctor"; I ll
call him Mr. Volt-he was a great chemistry teacher and he turned me on to chemistry. I did
well. I got an A in the class.
II COLLEGE EDUCATION
Santa Rosa Junior College and University of California at Davis
Sbragia: When I went to Santa Rosa J.C., I took two years of physics, chemistry, and English and
math-calculus. I took history and a couple of other courses during the summers. Then I
graduated with an AA degree from J.C. and transferred to [University of California] Davis.
Hicke: Now what were you thinking about at this point?
Sbragia: At this point I was getting away from hoeing those vines, [laughter]
Hicke: I can t blame you.
Sbragia: I finished my chemistry degree at Davis in 1970, graduated with a Bachelor of Science
degree in chemistry.
Hicke: Tell me about your professors there.
Sbragia: The closest I got to wine business was Dr. Kepner, who was my advisor. He was working
with Dr. Harold Berg on wine projects, whom I met later. I walked into the wine
department one time, but no one was there and I just back to the library to study.
And I met my wife, Jane, there.
Hicke: What s her maiden name?
Sbragia: Her name was Jane Lee Carr. She graduated in psychology and child development. Then
we both went back to graduate school, we were in school together-poor students in Fresno.
Hicke: When were you married?
Sbragia: We were married in 1972. She was in graduate school then. Then I quit Gallo and we both
were students for a year. She went to work and I was a student for one more year. She
started one year ahead of me.
At Davis, I remember Dr. Friedrich, who did advanced organic analysis. That class
almost killed me. It was back in the days when there were a lot of protests for the Vietnam
War, and they actually closed-[Ronald] Reagan was the governor at the time--the campus.
Now, I was a chemistry student, who might have attended the rally [laughter] but was on
his way to the chemistry classthis was an advanced organic class where they handed me a
solution that had three water soluble unknowns and another solution that had five oil
soluble unknowns. I had six weeks to find out what they were. They pretty much handed it
to you and said, "This is it." And the lectures had nothing to do with what the lab was.
Advanced organic analysis and the TAs [teaching assistants] were all from some foreign
country [laughs] and they were barely understandable.
Hicke: Couldn t speak English.
Sbragia: I finally was able to understand the TAs. About three quarters through the class was when I
was just starting to understand, and they shut the campus down for a week. So the last day
of the last class, I crystallized one out: prodichlorbenzane, which I think is moth balls,
[laughter] I got a melting point, and identified it at the last minute. I got a B in the class.
Hicke: They wouldn t make any allowances for having lost a week?
Sbragia: No, no, nothing. Well, this was when you finally realized that it was almost impossible to
do what they wanted you to do. The only way to do it was to live in that lab, so that every
waking hour was spent in that lab.
Hicke: You had to do continuous experiments.
Sbragia: Yes, just basically trying to extract, purify, and analyze somehow. If it was an oil, you d
probably do boiling point, or melting point if it was a solid-you know, a number of
analyses. So anyway, it was a great education.
Hicke: Was this about the time of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley?
Sbragia: Yes, same time. 1968 through 1970. It was the time of the draft lottery. I remember
washing dishes listening to the radio, and my number was fifty-nine. It was my junior year
and some people were jumping around for joy because they had high numbers; and all of
us under 100 were sitting around with our heads in our hands, moaning. We had to pass
fifteen units, or you were reclassified from student deferment to 1-A, which meant you
were ready and able-not necessarily willing-for military duty.
EARLY EXPERIENCE AT GALLO
Sbragia: They were going to give me my diploma and my physical papers at the same time~my
induction notice. So I was looking at other things-the Peace Corps. Wasn t really sure
about the war. I was not really sure that going out and killing people was a good thing,
which I don t think anybody thinks.
Sbragia: Well, I think in World War I and World War n it was a little more clear, at least in people s
minds, whereas this one, we questioned so much as students. Then all of a sudden, people
who weren t students started questioning politicians--! think, civil opinion was one of the
reasons we got out of it.
I was looking at coast guard or the navy. Jane was trying to convince me to be a
physical therapist. I was considering all these things and then I started interviewing.
Well, I d interviewed with IBM, DuPont, Dow, and then Gallo came along. All of a
sudden they were talking about things that I knew about, because I was a chemist, but I
hadn t worked as a chemist anywhere; I worked on the ranch all my life.
Hicke: Yes. Hoeing dirt.
Hiring on at Gallo
Sbragia: The only thing I knew about working in a lab was what I d learned in school. I didn t have
any place to put all this information. When Gallo started talking about grapes and wine and
analyzing wine, a light went on in my brain. I must have interviewed well, because I got
called back about a month later for an interview at the winery, and during the interview, I
talked to Art Caputi. Art was head of research, and is still at the winery. He works a lot in
research and is involved in the American Society of Enology and Viticulture. He was
talking about Major Sanford, who was a major in a national guard unit, and I m saying,
"Well, why would you want me to get in the national guard in Stockton?" And he says,
"Oh, don t you know? I forgot to tell you. You got the job." [laughter]
All of a sudden, in my senior year, springtime, not only is the black cloud of the draft
lifted, but I have a job. So it was a great end of school.
Hicke: Whom did you talk to at Gallo besides this Art Caputi?
Sbragia: Well, the guy I eventually went to work with, a guy named Bruno Trumbella. He and I
worked together in a lab. He was my mentor at Gallo.
Hicke: When was this?
Sbragia: This was spring of 70. After I graduated in June, I went to work for my wife s father, Ford
Carr, as a camp counselor. He was famous in the camp directing business and Boy Scouts
as a professional camp director. My wife has been a camp director for twenty-six years. So
I went to work at an Easter Seals camp for her dad, and I worked that summer, which was
Hicke: Doing what?
Sbragia: Well, it was with developmentally disabled kids-cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. It
made you realize that also, you were in a different society, where 90 percent of the people
were handicapped and you were the weird one, and gave you insightshow lucky we all are
to be mobile and verbal.
A Trip to Mexico
Sbragia: Then I had to report for active duty. I had to go to Fort Dix, New Jersey. My only trip had
been to Mexico with a high school friend when I graduated from junior college.
Hicke: Oh, you didn t tell me about that.
Sbragia: Oh, that was my first adventure.
Hicke: You had years of Spanish to draw on.
Sbragia: Well, do you want to digress?
Hicke: Yes, let s go back to that.
Sbragia: In high school, a guy named Roberto Ramirez--who later became a physics teacher at high
school and now he s in Windsor, and actually got the Mesa Award, and has been given
credit for getting a lot of people on the right road-came to the school. He didn t speak any
English, but he d graduated from an equivalent high school, so he knew physics and
chemistry. By our junior year he spoke perfect English and became our study mentor. We
were all taking physics. Roberto knew how to do it already, so we quickly developed this
group, and we re still friends together: Yvonne Kreck from Mill Creekshe married Bill
Kreck~is one of them. A number of the other people weren t in the wine business, but we
would study every morning. And all of a sudden the group got bigger and bigger,
He and I went through a lot of the science classes in high school, and then in junior
college we were in classes together. He was more towards physics, and I was in chemistry,
but we had physics classes together. When we graduated, we were going to drive back to
his home in Mexico. He had a 65 Chevelle Super Sport, bright red. One night we left at
eight o clock, we set off south, and went through the valleys, stayed overnight, and then
drove to Guadelajara, where my girlfriend was.
Her name was Victoria Sherard. She was spending the summer on a six-week course
and living with a family, so I promised her I d pick her up at the airport and drive her to her
house. We got there at the airport, picked her up, and drove her to her house. We met the
family she was going to be with, and took her and her roommate out for dinner.
Then we took off south, and drove from Guadelajara to Mexico City and stayed with
Roberto s aunt in Mexico City for about a week. Then we drove south to his home town. I
can t remember the name of the town where he grew up~way out in the sticks. We had a
great time. We stayed with his sister, and swam in the river.
Hicke: Oh, that s great to go with somebody who s at home.
Sbragia: Yes, and then we drove part of the way with them when they took a little vacation to
Oaxaca. That s when things started to happen: we broke a universal joint on the
transmission and spent three days trying to find it. Finally got a guy after his work hours, a
welder, and he welded it and it worked! It got us all the way home, except for a couple of
minor problems. I went back to Mexico City and saw his aunt again. And his cousins were
there-beautiful girls, who would just sit and watch me, so I had to learn how to speak
Spanish, [laughter] I was just this oddity, I guess. So it was fun-you know, when you re
eighteen and you ve never been anywhere.
I think I was in Nevada once, and Fort Bragg once with my parents, because in our
family we spent a lot of time together. My dad would take breaks when I was small, we d
go swimming in Dry Creek at lunchtime and have a picnic. We d do that on a regular basis.
In the evenings, family would get together. We d go down to the river and have picnics,
and they d play cards and have a bonfire and the kids would run around and play. We d do
a lot of that. Go to the ocean, because Healdsburg s only about forty miles from the ocean;
but no vacations, per se, because he d work six days a week.
Hicke: Yes, he had to take care of the ranch.
Sbragia: So this big trip was pretty interesting. Then on the way back to Guadelajara~at that point,
we went back to see Vicki and I had a date with her, and Roberto had a girlfriend in a place
outside of Guadalejara by a lake called Lake Chapala. We were late. A man had stopped
his car for some animals on the road.
Sbragia: Yes, range animals that belonged to people, but they were feeding everywhere. They were
walking across the road, and he had stopped. We came around a turn and Roberto was
going pretty fast, and we slowed just enough to just crunch the front end of the car pretty
bad, so after we got towed into town, we found out it would be like two weeks of tinkering
to fix it. They didn t get new parts there. They weld it and fix it.
So we spent about ten days in Guadalejara. Luckily his father had a friend who had a
hotel and we stayed in the hotel free until our parents sent us money. It was a great
adventure there, living in a big city-because I d never really been in a big city for any
length of time.
Our parents sent us money. Since the car wasn t ready, we flew to Puerto Vallerta,
before there was a road, and spent three days in Puerto Vallerta. It was my first plane ride.
When we returned to Puerto Vallarta, we had enough money to drive home. Forty hours
straight! I got home with a nickel in my pocket.
So I walk in, and my mom and dad were with their friends, and they didn t know I was
coming home. I didn t call. We didn t use phones very much then. Now, you call someone
over there [points across the hall] with your cell phone, [laughter]
My mom was so worried. I understand now, being a parent--! have three children, and
thinking about sending someone 2,000 miles away to a foreign country, that had never been
away from home-I wouldn t do it. I don t know how she did it, but she was so relieved.
She gave me a bath.
Hicke: But you were with a guy who knew his way around. That makes a considerable difference.
Sbragia: Yes, and they trusted him. They knew Roberto. But it was still scary. This wreck scared
Hicke: Oh, yes, sure. And driving all night-that would worry me. But she didn t know that,
Sbragia: No, I didn t tell her. So where were we?
Hicke: Now we were just when you were at Fort Dix, or you went to Fort Dix.
Sbragia: Oh, I was at Fort Dix, went through basic training. And I was older than most-you know,
most were eighteen, nineteen, and twenty, and I was twenty-one. Actually basic training
doesn t seem that bad now. I was a little bit bigger, so I was made road guard, which means
as your platoon passes on a march, you block the crossroads so people don t run over them.
And then they re way ahead. You have to run up and catch up and then you block the road,
and then you run and catch up. That means you re the second guy. And the whole idea is
that you have the extra running, because they re running too, so you have to run twice as
fast to catch up.
A Trip to Europe
Sbragia: I passed all the tests and made it through basic training and then my wife was doing her
senior year in England. I was a year ahead of her because I started early, even though I m
only a month older than she is.
She did her senior year in Birmingham [England], so I jumped on a military charter for
$150 and I flew into Frankfurt and then took the train to Birmingham.
Hicke: Oh, you re talking about England.
Sbragia: Yes, she was doing social welfare and psychology there. She did a whole year at the
University of Birmingham.
Hicke: So you went?
Sbragia: We traveled around England then straight to Italy and stayed with my aunt. That was great
because my wife got to know my aunt and my uncle. My uncle s name was Tobere. My
aunt s name was Maria.
Hicke: Did you know any Italian?
Sbragia: I grew up understanding Italian. It was because they spoke to me in Italian, and my parents
said I spoke Italian as a child. But then, you know, TV and school took it away.
When my parents spoke Italian, I understood everything. So it was like this miracle, I
could understand this other language. And the Italians in California are kind of funny,
because they get all these Americanisms, like "la boxe," and "la fensa," and
Hicke: "La weekend!"
Sbragia: "La weekend!" My household then was more Italian than the households in Italy today.
Hicke: You mean culturally?
Sbragia: Yes, more pure Italian.
Hicke: Or are you talking about the language?
Sbragia: No, the language wasn t, but just the household and the way we lived.
Hicke: Yes. Traditions.
Sbragia: The way we lived was almost identical to Italy. I went with my parents in 1969 to visit my
aunt. It was like being in Healdsburg. I brought my kids over to Italy this year, and they
saw the cousins and the second cousins. And it s much more Americanized than when I
first went. Even the food. It s Italian, but I think the food was better when I was a kid. I
don t know-it may be old age. [laughter]
Hicke: Well, certainly polenta has been discovered.
Sbragia: Well, there s all these things. My dad used to say that back before he came from Italy, they
used to eat polenta every day and they used to be able to look at meat once a week. So
that s probably why they moved. They were really poor.
Hicke: Yes, that makes sense.
Sbragia: That s one thing, though, my grandfather then had a rock quarry and they
Hicke: In Italy?
Sbragia: In Italy, yes. And they did stones, so my father grew up on a rock quarry-not marble, but
just the rocks they build the buildings with. Because the house that they lived in in Guamo
had walls almost three feet wide. They re just solid rock.
Hicke: You were lucky. You just had to hoe dirt, not rocks.
Sbragia: Yes, that s what my dad said. "This is easy." [laughter]
Hicke: How did he know about making wine? Where did the winemaking come in?
Sbragia: Oh, if you go to Italy-especially then, in the seventies, and earlier, their farming was kind
of interesting, because there wasn t an abundance of land. Having two acres was a lot of
land. They had fruit trees, and vegetables in the flats and olives and vines on the hills.
They planted tomatoes and com between fruit trees, so they had a lot of little pieces. And
they d make their own wine, make their own olive oil. They had chickens, a goat and a
cow. It was how they survived. Rural America at that time was very similar.
Hicke: So the women did a lot of that, probably.
Sbragia: Yes. The men would harvest and take produce to the market and sell it. Most people didn t
work outside of their own little area. I got to know my cousins. My oldest cousin s fifty-
seven -I just turned fifty-they worked in insurance and were more educated.
Hi eke: When you say it s more American, are you talking about things like TV and movies?
Sbragia: TV and cell phones, yes, and travel.
Hicke: Well, some of that has to do with more affluence, doesn t it?
Sbragia: Sure. I thought I had everything I needed, but in comparison, my kids cycled through toys,
while I still have some of my toys that I had when I was kid, because you just never break
them, you never lose them, you took care of them. Not that I felt I was deprived. I thought
maybe that my parents instilled in me that you take care of your stuff. I don t know.
Hicke: This is a throw-away society. I mean, comparatively speaking, I guess. Well, we left you
in Birmingham, and traveling.
Sbragia: Yes, so that was a great respite after basic training. All of a sudden I was in Italy having a
wonderful meal. It s funny then, because in England~in the sixties men had long hair, so
the people who went around on motorcycles that were the bad guys were called skinheads.
And here I am with a shaved head, [laughter]
Luckily I had an army coat on. I remember when I got to Frankfurt, I needed a flight to
England, and I just walked up to TWA and they automatically gave me a military discount.
They just knew.
Hicke: Looking at your hair.
Sbragia: They just knew.
Hicke: That s good, [laughs] Was this about the end of her year, or did she stay there when you
Sbragia: She actually had an interesting time there. She traveled with me and then with one of her
classmates. They traveled into Yugoslavia and they had all sorts of adventures.
Hicke: She went into Yugoslavia?
Sbragia: Yes, back in those days.
Hicke: Yes. It was totally different.
Sbragia: Then on her next break-she had large breaks, like a month break she went and worked at
a kibbutz. This is 1970.
Hicke: She went to Israel, right?
Hicke: Is she Jewish?
Sbragia: No, she was a psychology/social welfare major, so I guess every social welfare major needs
to work on a kibbutz, or wants to. She worked there. She really enjoyed it. Being the
daughter of a camp director, working and living in groups, she loves that kind of life; where
I m used to more family and not a lot of people.
Hicke: So she did that for a month?
Sbragia: Yes, she did it for a month. She had all sorts of adventures. She talks about hitchhiking to
the Golan Heights with Arabs and Israeli troops, and being picked up by one and then being
picked up by the other. Looking at her Jewish friend as they re being hauled around by a
bunch of Arabs saying, "This is really stupid." [laughter] Because they would have shot
him, you know, if they found out he was Jewish.
Work in Gallo s Lab
Sbragia: So then I came back and in March of 1971 went to work for Gallo.
Hicke: What were you doing there?
Sbragia: I went to work for a guy named Tom Wong, who still works for them. Tom was in charge
of organic analysis of wines, so I was hired as a research chemist in the research
department. I worked for him for about three days doing viscosity of wine, I remember.
And he was working on projects, trying to develop materials for filtration of wine. Because
what Gallo would do is not buy stuff off the shelf, but make their own, so he was working
on cellulose fibers and using them to do better filtration. Then I went to work with Bruno
Trumbella in the lab right next door to Tom. They had Ph.D.s working on big projects, and
Bruno had worked there a long time.
Bruno had this ability to look at a problem and solve itit was great. It was like going
back to school. We were working on unroutine analysis. In every winery, you have an
analytical lab which runs analysis, using the standard laboratory procedures for wineries.
We were doing pesticides and preservatives analysis. Gallo was importing a lot of apple
concentrate and grape concentrate from around the world-South America, Austria-for
their wines. .Remember Boones Farm Apple?
Sbragia: Okay, well, these were apple wines, but they d make them out of concentrate.
Hicke: So you were looking for traces of pesticides?
Sbragia: Well, because what would happen is they d get to the docks and then the Food and Drug
Administration would post quarantine on them until they had a chance to test them. Gallo
wanted to know they were clean before they got there. They didn t want to have anything
turned back, because they knew how long the Food and Drug would take to get it through
their labs. So they could keep their production going.
I remember talking to Julio [Gallo] in Spain one time on some red grape concentrate,
and I worked until eleven o clock at night making sure that there wasn t anything in it. My
job there was gas chromatographic analysis of pesticides, chemical methods of extractions
and purifications, solvent extractions, and then running different analyses with pesticides
Hicke: Was this any easier than your inorganic analyses?
Sbragia: It was about the same kind of thing.
Hicke: It sounds like it.
Sbragia: But then what Bruno would do is we would go back to the basic formula and then just sit
and work them out. We would try to work calculations out to find out how to derive the
Hicke: You did this on paper?
Hicke: The formulas?
Sbragia: Yes, it was a great education in terms of analytical chemistry and looking at what the
reaction was and how many moles of this were reacting on moles of that, to make the end
product. The byproduct took so much of the reactants, and to figure out how much that
was, and then down to just the plain old mass of equations and weighted averages.
Hicke: So your math came in handy.
Sbragia: Yes, all that came in handy. Yes, I remember for the first time seeing electric calculators.
Hicke: Really? That was the first time you worked with calculators?
Sbragia: Yes, they had Wangs. They were pretty big. They were about eight by ten inches. When I
was in college and junior college, they had calculators, but they were mechanical
calculators. They would do complex multiplications and divisions, but they were like a
giant abacus. You remember those big calculators. They were ridiculous. And when I was
in college, I used to have to punch cards to do computing work.
Hicke: Those little IBM punch cards?
Hicke: Slide rules?
Sbragia: Yes we used slide rules all through junior college and college. That was the mode-slide
rules. So when I went to Gallo, in the seventies was the first time where-basically you had
something where you d go two times three, and then it d give you a six in big neon letters,
[laughter] It was like dying and going to heaven.
Hicke: We take that all for granted now.
Sbragia: Oh, I know. I showed my kids my slide rules and they said, "What s that for?" [laughter]
My daughter was working on her math homework and she s in advanced algebra and
trigonometry and they re doing quadratic equations and y=x 2 , and minimums and
maximums, and the curves are parabolas. In order to get your equation right, you do it on a
graphing calculator. You put your points into the calculator and it graphs it for you. You re
supposed to do it on paper, if you check it on this calculator, you know you re right. Pretty
Hicke: Okay, so here we are still at Gallo.
Sbragia: Still at Gallo. I worked there from March of 71 until June of 73. My roommate was a guy
named Ralph Lonn, and Ralph still works there. He s in charge of stabilities. Stability is
when you make wine, you look at heat instability, which is basically protein instability, and
you look at cold instability, which is potassium bitartrate instability. For all the wines that
Gallo makes, Ralph Lonn checks the stability, and Ralph s been doing that for twenty-five
It s probably one of the more important factors in making wine, because you don t want
things to deposit in the bottle, a little bit of crystal, a little bit of haze is not going to kill
anybody, but if you have just like curdled milk floating aroundwhen proteins denature,
they just basically look like white haze or flocculate, which is very unpleasant in a glass of
Hicke: Yes. Does every winery have to do that?
Sbragia: You always have to check and decide. You say, "Okay, slightly hazy: I ll let it go," or "I
won t let it go." It s got a couple of crystals in the bottom: I ll let it go, or I won t let it go. If
it s got a half an inch of crystals in the bottom, some people decide to let it go, but that
probably is a mistake because if you get a bottle of wine with half an inch of crystals at the
bottom, it s not good!
I don t do anything to red wines, I just settle and rack and age. My wines will precipitate
crystals after years, depending on how cold you get them. If you let them sit at 60 or 58
degrees, they will probably be fine. You drop them down to 50 degrees, which my cellar
never is at 50, it s at 55, then you re going to drop out color and crystals that never would
have been dropped out before.
Hicke: If you check this and you decide you can t let it go that way, can you recover?
Sbragia: What you do is you d chill the wine in a tank, or in the case of heat instability, the most
common way and probably the only good way, other than heating a wine-you wouldn t
want to heat a wine -is a clay called bentonite and its proteins are positively charged.
Bentonite has a negative charge, so it grabs them. It kind of traps the proteins and then
settles down because it s heavy. Which is the way most fining agents work. They basically
trap the molecule and then they re heavy and they drop to the bottom, and you rack or
decant the clear liquid off the solids.
Hicke: And how does this affect the wine?
Sbragia: Well, it takes something out, so that s why most of us try to minimize anything that we do
to the wine.
Hicke: What do you do to prevent that happening? Anything?
Sbragia: Nothing. It s a natural phenomenon of wine. In the whites I fine the juice. I add some
bentonite, because I feel that I haven t produced a lot of the aromatics yet, so therefore, I m
not going to have to fine it after, hi the reds, they are sitting aging for two years, they go up
to 80 degrees Farenheit in fermentors, and usually after a couple of years in barrels, they re
stable-all the proteins and tartrates have dropped out of the wine. Tannins are negatively
charged, too, so tannins will drop some of the proteins out. The tartrates settle out over
time. It s temperature and time, so usually time will do it too.
Whites are bottled in the first year, whereas reds will be a year to two years. Ralph has
been doing stabilities ever since I worked there. People kind of joke with him about doing
the same job for so long. I look at it as he s doing a very important job.
Hicke: Yes. He obviously knows how to do it.
Sbragia: Dr. [Richard] Peterson had worked there before me~a lot of winemakers have worked
there. We used to call it the University of Modesto. A good friend of mine is head
winemaker for the Gallo Sonoma operation, the old Frei Brothers Winery. His name is
Marcello Montecelli. Marcello was working for a man named Guido in dry wines. Their
winemakers were in different departmentsdry wines, fruit wines, the Boone s Farm Apple,
the Strawberry Hill, and then they had dessert wines. Really good winemakers, but just
kind of hidden away from everybody. At Gallo it s not like you work for a winery and you
do all the tastings, then you go travel around, and you re spokesman for the winery. Ernest
and Julio were the spokesmen. That was it.
Hicke: And you stayed in your lab?
Sbragia: And I stayed in my lab. Ralph was probably what I d call a social director for Gallo, and
being my roommate, all of a sudden, I became part of all these other people s lives.
Marcello and I became very good friends. By hanging around them, I realized that what I
was, wasn t really a chemist. I had a foot in chemistry, and I had a foot in farming, and the
realities of it were that I would probably make a pretty good winemaker, or I would like it
Now how do you do that? I could apply there and try to get a start on my way, but
talking to a couple of guys that had a man named Mike Hardy, and a man named Mark
Shauss they both had a master s degree. One had done it one way went to Fresno first,
and then went to Davis; another one went to Davis, then went to Fresno. I went to CSU
Fresno. When I got there, a man that I worked with at Gallo was moving there as director
of the Enology program~Dr. Shandrelle. And Dr. Shandrelle s father had been the head of
the Geisenheim Institute. Dr. Shandrelle had done lots of research on phenolics. While I
was still at Gallo they would videotape all of the lectures of Dr. Harold Berg (Wine
Production), Dr. Vernon Singleton (Oak and Phenolics), Dr. Ralph Kunkee (Microbiology),
and Dr. Dinsmore Webb (Sensory and Production), and then show them at lunchtime. So
as often as I could, I d go listen to these lectures. It was like sitting in on a class.
My first job at Gallo was analysis-was to develop white wine standards and evaluate
this new instrument called a white wine colorimeter. Dr. Angela Little developed it. I was
supposed to compare the machine against standard specrrophotometry in terms of
measuring different wines at different wave lengths. What it did was approximate what the
eyes saw. It took into account the visible spectrum and dominant wave length-luminence
and purity. So I worked on that for six months.
Hicke: Are these standards for clarity?
Sbragia: No, just color. Wines had to be a minimum color, like vermouth, which people would
make light so it looked like distilled spirits. They had to be a certain color level.
Hicke: Like port?
Sbragia: Yes. And so therefore the color levels were based on things that didn t make sense when it
came to wine. Myron [Nightingale] knew all this stuff. We ll talk about that later. So it
was a great job. But first thing, when I got all these samples, was to pour myself a little bit
and taste them all, [laughter] so I knew that these weren t just strictly analytical. I had an
interest in the product and how it was made.
An interesting thing, I was going along and all of a sudden I got to one called Twister. It
was a peppermint-flavored wine and it was only sold in certain places in the country, and at
certain times. That was a Christmas wine. It looked like a barber s bowl, a peppermint
stick, but Bruno and I used to use it to gargle in the morning, [laughter] It was kind of like
Hicke: Well, I don t know if this is the right place, but at some point I want to talk about how you
developed your palate. It sounds like maybe you were starting here. Of course you already
had been drinking wine.
Sbragia: Well, just to finish this point, I was hired there and was making $700 a month in 1971 ,
which was a lot of money. Because I remember my chemistry teacher, Mr. Volt, saying
that his son was working in chemistry making $800 a month. You could build a house with
$12,000 then. It was a different world.
Hicke: Sure. And that was your first job! That s pretty good, I think.
Sbragia: Yes. I worked for almost three years and saved $2,000 to go back to school. And that was
$75. I think the final thing was that Jane was going to go back to school and get a master s
and I couldn t have a wife who was more educated than I was.
Hicke: [laughs] Have to keep up with the people next door.
Hicke: So what year did you-oh, let s see, you told me. 73?
Another Trip to Europe
Sbragia: Yes, so I quit in June of 1973 and actually Jane and I went to Europe for six weeks and
traveled around~a belated honeymoon.
Then I worked the harvest with my dad and started school in the fall at Cal State
University of Fresno. We both looked at me going back to Davis and then Jane going to
Sac State [Sacramento State University] that had a master s in social work, MSW program.
Fresno had a better program. It was easier for me to get into Fresno, so I went back there.
With Dr. Shandrelle going back, the head of the program was a man I used to work with, so
it was kind of fun.
Hicke: On this trip to Europe did you visit wine countries?
Sbragia: We went to Oporto, and went through Callun s Port Cellar, but that was it. I don t think
they imported it to the United States. We traveled mainly into Portugal and Spain, and
being on the beaches and eating the food and drinking the wine. Drank the wine
everywhere. When Jane had finished school at Birmingham, she signed on to be a nanny in
Finland and spent the summer in Finland, so we went and visited the family.
Hicke: She s really adventurous, isn t she?
Sbragia: Yes, we went to Finland, and her mom bought us a Europass. We had two student
Europasses, so we went all over the place. We went back and visited my aunt again. And
we had a great time. Spent an afternoon in Paris, because you could get on the train at
night, and you d get off in the morning, and then the next train isn t for six or eight hours.
So it was fun.
Hicke: Yes. So now you were a seasoned traveler from Dry Creek.
Sbragia: Yes, all of a sudden I d been to Europe twice.
Hicke: Yes, and Mexico.
Sbragia: In three years.
Hicke: Great. Let s see if there s anything we passed up. Did you continue pretty much doing the
same thing at Gallo that you had started out doing?
Sbragia: Yes. What started out to be a research project ended up being something that needed to be
run all the time, so it ended up being that I was going to be doing nonroutine organic
analysis. I had small projects. We d get a red powder from a box car in Chicago and we
wanted to find out what it was. We d have to run our spectrometers on it and match it up
and find out it was color crayon or something.
Hicke: It sounds like maybe it wasn t such a challenge any more.
Sbragia: It wasn t as much as when I walked in the door. You know, after two years you re ready to
move on. What it did was give me a good foundation for what I needed to know.
IV GRADUATE SCHOOL, CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY AT FRESNO
Chemistry and Winemaking Classes
Sbragia: I knew I wanted to get into winemaking so I went to graduate school. It was a great
experience. I was well prepared for my graduate study, having worked in a winery for three
years directly. I remember going into a class, having a test and getting a seventy-three, and
walking out with a ninety-two by the time I was done talking with the teacher. My
experience gave me the confidence to challenge and question.
Hicke: [laughs] That s great.
Sbragia: A lot of chemistry in winemaking is pretty basic. It s complex chemistry, but our analysis
and how we determine things is not really complex. It s just equations of how one thing
reacts with another thing.
Hicke: You said you really enjoyed graduate school. Tell me more about why.
Sbragia: Well, Dr. Shandrelle was more of a storyteller than a teacher. He told lots of stories about
his dad, and about different food industries. My degree was a Master s in Agricultural
Sciences, specializing in winemaking. The courses covered dehydration and freezing and
canning in upper division food processing classes. We ran all over Fresno and Sanger
looking at freezing and canning plants. Dr. Shandrelle would lecture, but-his way of
teaching was to bring in people from the industry and have them lecture. We had a lot of
people come through, from suppliers to winemakers to production people.
A Summer at Gallo, 1973
Sbragia: Having only $2,000 for Jane and I both to go to school that year, I worked the harvest of
1973 at Gallo in Fresno. My favorite memory there was sitting in a lees tanka 600,000
gallon lees tank. I worked from four to midnight, starting out at my knees, or above my
knees, and in eight hours, getting down to my calves, just squeegeeing.
The funniest thing I saw that harvest happened to two of my co-workers. The wines
were racked off for fermentations in lees (grape solids at the bottom of the tank). The lees
were being moved with a pump called a Marlow Mudhog. It was a double diaphragm pump
on a little trailer. It was used for pumping out trenches in World War I and World War n,
pumping mud. I m on cleaning detail, and two of us are cleaning the winery from one side
of the winery to the other, scrubbing and cleaning, we turned around when we heard an
explosion we come around the corner and there s two people standing next to this pump
and they were coated with lees. All the way up the tanks, all over the cellar floor, the
pump, and all the people were coated with this brownish-gray-looking material. We looked
at each other and started to laugh and run the other way, because we knew if they caught us
laughing, we d be in bad trouble, [laughter] They were so upset.
Hicke: Yes, they needed somebody to kick around, too.
Sbragia: Yes, right. Luckily it was the end of my shift and by the time I got back the next day it was
all cleaned up. What happened was one of the rubber diaphragms had torn.
Hicke: Were there many accidents in the winery?
Sbragia: None. None where anyone got hurt. Occasionally a hose would break and you d lose some
wine same thing as happens in my work today. Someone hooks up a hose to the wrong
tank and pumps a little bit of something into the wrong tank.
Hicke: That s a little more serious.
Sbragia: If they pumped Private Reserve Chardonnay into the Private Reserve Cabernet, I m in real
trouble, because it would make a Private Reserve of Rose, [laughter] But I have people
who have been working here for twenty years, and started working when I started in 1976,
and they re professionals. They re really good.
Hicke: Yes, it takes constant attention, doesn t it.
Sbragia: Yes, working there at Gallo taught me that I didn t want to work in the cellar,
Work Study at the University Winery
Sbragia: So then I did work study at the winery.
Hicke: At Gallo?
Sbragia: At Fresno, at school.
Hicke: The school had its own winery?
Sbragia: Yes. That was basically my first harvest that I worked. You know, I worked for my dad,
but working at the university winery helped give me experience. When I graduated, I knew
which side of the pump to hook up to, I knew the way a filter worked, I knew how the press
worked. I knew how to work a crusher. I knew how to filter wines.
Hicke: You did everything?
Sbragia: Everything. After a day s work, we would get together in the back of the winery where we
had picnic tables. We d send out for sandwiches. A couple of the guys had gone through
all the old casks and put together what we called our Hearty Burgundy. We d sit in the back
and have a couple of glasses of wine and have our sandwiches. Conversations were
interesting, it was always hard to leave to go to class.
Hicke: It was sort of an ongoing thing?
Sbragia: Well, it would go on for a couple of hours, which is a lot longer than you usually spent for
lunch. I think a lot of my education was gained just by sitting and talking to people. The
contacts I made in graduate school continue to be meaningful for me today.
Professors and Colleagues; Winemaking Principles
Sbragia: Dr. -well, he s a doctor now-but Kent Fugelsang was the T.A. then and he was this whiz
kid in microbiology. That was his field. He later on got a Ph.D. from Davis and he is now
an instructor at Fresno. He was really, really good, and Dr. Shandrelle was really good.
I met Pat Heck there. His father was Paul Heck, whom Myron already talked about
working with at the Italian Swiss Colony in the fifties. Patrick and I later worked together
at Beringer. And then Pat and I play in a rock and roll band together.
Hicke: What do you play?
Sbragia: I play the rhythm guitar and accordion.
Hicke: Terrific! That s great.
Sbragia: Patrick worked at wineries and he now works for Scott Laboratories. Robert Scott was one
of the people who came and talked to us then in graduate school. Later on when I was at
Foppiano, Steve Scott, who passed away, and a guy named Steve Lariat, who actually
works for Scott Labs now, were people that I depended on to tell me whether I was doing
the right thing. Was I using the right chemicals? Was this the right thing to do?
Hicke: You mean when you were working?
Sbragia: Yes, just what were other people doing? Were people racking yet? How did they do it?
What did they see?
Hicke: Is this a fairly usual type of back and forth between winemakers?
Sbragia: Yes, this industry shares knowledge. Patrick was a winemaker and a lot of the suppliers
have winemakers working for them, so they function as kind of mini -consultants. Steve
Scott and Steve Lariat weren t winemakers, but they were schooled enough and had been in
the industry long enough that they knew what needed to be done and what people were
doing. We are open with each other in terms of how we do things, what techniques we use.
The ideas and the sharing are importantif someone runs out of a certain thing, a nutrient or
filter pad or something, they go to their neighbor and they ll help. Then you ll order it back
Hicke: I interviewed Edmond Maudiere when I was working on Domaine Chandon. He was their
French winemaker very early on, and he said one of the most surprising things to him was
how open the exchange of information in California was as opposed to France.
Sbragia: It is funny, because now the French are very open with us. When we go over there, they
tell us everything. But they won t tell their neighbor.
Hicke: They re not open with each other.
Sbragia: Take two winemakers with the same grapes, hypothetically grown on the same vine. We
make decisions based on our palates, which is subjective. You might taste an apple, we
don t taste the same thing. It s amazing that we can even communicate, because what my
receptors and your receptors are saying are probably very different. So talking about taste
is difficult. It s especially true with wine, because you have to describe it by other terms,
other fruits, because nobody knows what Chardonnay tastes like or what Cabernet tastes
Sbragia: From the day you harvest until you put it in the bottle, all those subjective decisions color
the wine and give it a signature. Myron told me a couple things. He said, "Attention to
detail," and a second thing was, "To thine own self be true." And I think Jane s father said
it better: "You know what s right, do it." You do what you think is right. Also the wine
takes on characteristics that are similar from year to year because of your decisions. Those
decisions give it a signature or identity, which is really important for a winery. So I ve
made wine for twenty-five years; I have been a winemaker at Beringer since 84.
The wines have a certain style and a certain characteristic. If someone would take the
same grapes they would make a different wine. I think that takes the competition out of it.
We have a research departmentwe have lots of wineries in our group. We try to get all the
winemakers together, and when we taste wines, we will all have good reasons for our
decisions, but we never agree.
Hicke: Oh, really! So how do you arrive at a decision?
Sbragia: I think the whole idea behind it is that we all go away with options. In other words, there
are A, B, C, D variables, and these things have different effects on the wine. As a
winemaker you choose whether or not you want to do one of these. If you consistently
choose certain variables, then this effect becomes a smell and/or a taste on the palate, and
you re putting these together to make a particular flavor. And there is no right or wrong-it s
what you want a wine to be.
Hicke: So you went back to graduate school.
Sbragia: Yes, and I enjoyed people and classes, in terms of being able to sit and talk to people who
were interested in the same field. I think Pat Heck was really interesting because he was a
teacher s assistant and he gave a practical sense, with his background, in terms of working
with his dad at Korbel.
Hicke: So Gary Heck?
Sbragia: Well, actually what happened was that Pat s father, Paul, and his uncle, Gary s father,
Adolph, bought Korbel in the fifties. Paul and Adolph worked at Italian Swiss Colony, and
Myron worked for Paul. They went and started Korbel, so Pat grew up at Korbel, and then
later on Paul and Adolph split, and Adolph got the winery and Paul left~so Pat kind of got
aced out by Gary. And that s a whole other story.
Hicke: Yes. Not an unfamiliar one, from what I ve heard, [laughs]
Sbragia: Yes. I mean, I ve only heard one side. It wasn t pretty.
Hicke: Yes. You told me what Pat was doing now, but I can t remember.
Sbragia: He works for a supplier, Scott Labs. And they re very nice people.
Hicke: Yes. And do they work with you?
More on Gallo
Hicke: Okay, so what did you decide to do when you got to the end of graduate school, besides
Sbragia: Well, Gallo offered me a job working in that same cellar that I d squeegied lees in at
Fresno, [laughter] I was missing being home. At this point I d been gone for two years at
Davis, three years at Gallo, and two years at Fresno, so it was getting close to eight years.
Hicke: You were missing the dirt?
Sbragia: I was missing those hoes, those vines. And that was one of my ideas of going back to
school to get a winemaking degree. But I thought I was going to go back to Gallo. I mean,
Gallo was great. They had an engineer who came and helped me fix the gas
chromatograph. For my master s thesis I did a comparison between mechanically harvested
and hand-picked French Colombard and Chenin Blanc grapes.
And I was looking for Hexenal and Hexenal compounds in the wine, which would have
been broken down from fatty acids, acid, that would come from leaves. A lot of the
research had already been done. If I found those compounds, I would have shown that
mechanical harvesting s ill effects were showing up in the wine.
Hicke: Causing a little difficulty?
Sbragia: Yes. They have green and grassy characteristics. So one thing that was happening in most
cases and what was being done, was that the wines were settled before they d started
fermentation, so all the small pieces of leaf that would have been extracted in fermentation
settled out. So I saw no significant differences in my analysis.
Hicke: So that was okay.
Sbragia: Yes. So if you fermented directly on it, you probably would get characteristics. Because
Gallo saw differences and I didn t. Because they were doing similar analyses at the time.
Hicke: Do you think that only applies to those two varieties?
Sbragia: Since then, we ve looked at mechanically harvested versus hand-picked for Chardonnay and
Cabernet Sauvignon. As long as the machines are run properly and you do it on the right
varieties, you have no problems. There are some varieties that don t pick very wellbut
mainly because the grapes are so broken up that they re getting oxidization and
fermentation before you arrive at the winery. If you mechanically harvest you should
harvest when the fruit is cold and bring the fruit to the winery immediately.
Hicke: Yes, sure. So you have to decide on an individual case-by-case basis almost.
Sbragia: Right. So Gallo was great-they helped me fix the machine. We had a gas chromatograph
which was in the chemistry department, but it belonged to the enology department, so all of
a sudden they had an enology student who was going to use a gas chromatograph, which
was pretty interestingso we had to steal it back from the poor chemistry guys, [laughter]
They had lots of gas chromatographs, but in the enology department this was the only one,
so he put it back together and made it run. I got samples from all over the place of pure
chemicals. We made the wineswe went to Mirassou and Wente and hand-picked fruit.
We collected mechanically harvested in Monterey and Fresno. We did two counties, two
different locations: cold and warm, both grapes, and both machinery and hand. Made the
wines, and then I analyzed it. And Rick White, my partner, did sensory evaluation, and he
didn t find any differences either.
Hi eke: Was Gallo convinced?
Sbragia: Gallo was still not convinced. Herb Wildenrod was the man in charge of the experiment at
Gallo. He had a lot of literature and I went and found more information. My partner was
Rick White, and Rick actually works for FP Packing. He was a winemaker. He worked in
the wine business and then went to a supplier. The supplier made him a good offer.
Hicke: Oh, good, [laughs] Well, supplies are important.
Sbragia: He helped develop the Diemme Tank Press. He actually worked for Biicher and then went
to work for FP Packing which handles Diemme Presses.
Hicke: So then was Gallo convinced?
Sbragia: Well, I was really just doing it for my thesis. They had already decided that there was a
Hicke: So they didn t switch to machine?
Sbragia: No, well, I think they eventually did. Machines got better and they did it again.
V FOPPIANO VINEYARDS
Joining the Operation
Sbragia: Well, we were talking about where did I go to next.
Hicke: Yes. You said they offered you a job.
Sbragia: So I had a lot of allegiance to Gallo and I wanted to go back to work for them, but one
weekend we came home and there was a job in the newspaper for a winemaker at Foppiano
and a job for a regional center counselor requiring a master s degree in social work.
Sbragia: Santa Rosa. And my mom and dad said we could move into my old house. And my wife
always said that was the reason she married me, to live in that big, old, white house. She
didn t know until she got in that it was all windows and doors. It would take a fortune to
redo it. [laughs] So I interviewed on a Sunday at Foppiano, and she interviewed on
Monday, and we both got jobs.
Hicke: Oh, fantastic. Were you interviewed by Lou?
Sbragia: Yes. Lou Senior. I d gone to school with his two sons, Rod and Lou Junior, so I knew
them. At first they didn t want to give me a job because I had a master s degree.
Sbragia: They offered me $650 and a house. I said, "Oh, we ve got the house, why don t you give
me $700?" [laughter] So here I am with a master s degree starting out with what I d started
out with five years before at Gallo.
Hicke: Less, unless they agreed to $700.
Sbragia: And my wife got $1,250 a month.
Hicke: Oh, ouch, [laughs]
Sbragia: I worked there for a year, a great place. It was me and this other gentleman, Gus Foppiano.
Gus had been working there for thirty-five years and knew that winery upside down,
backwards and forwards. I did the analysis and did some of the work, and he d come in
three days a week and I d give him a job two or three jobs that we had to do for that day.
He had no lost movementhe d walk across and pick up a piece and drop it off here and
pick up a new hose there and a clamp there and next thing I knew, everything was running.
Amazing man. He taught me a lot about organization. He s an old Italian that I knew when
I was kid and they went to all the Italian Catholic Federation meetings and Knights of
Columbus and all the dinners.
Hicke: What relation was he to Lou and Rod?
Sbragia: He was the other side. He was related to Andy Foppiano.
Hicke: Oh, the ones that lived
Sbragia: down at the end of my street. In fact, my half brother, Albert, married his cousin, Andy s
sister, Ada. Anyway, on a typical day there I would be working a filter, pumping wine,
running the pad filter for bottling, and even maybe working on the bottling line. You d do a
lot. I would analyze wines at the same time. It was a great place to get good experience-it
was a million-gallon winery.
Hicke: That s what I was going to ask.
Sbragia: Because they were buying wines-they had a Russian River label, but they were buying
wines from the Central Valley and making table wines. So I got involved with people from
the Central Valley, I got involved with trucking wines in and out, making big blends, and
also doing premium wines. They were just starting to use barrels. They had open-top
fermenters with wooden planks over the top, and you d walk over the top and pump over the
I had to shovel my own tanks and it was a lot of work.
[Interview 2: November 30, 1999] ##
Hicke: We left off at Foppiano yesterday and I don t know if you had anything more to say about
that or not.
Sbragia: I talked about Gus Foppiano and how much I learned from him being there all the time. He
had worked in the vineyards and also in the winery. It was a great job for me in that I
learned a lot about structuring my time~I had time enough to do different jobs. I set up the
labs and also did quality assurance. I had a breadbox for an incubator. We put a light in it.
We used to turn on the light and that s how we varied the temperature of plates for
incubating yeast bacterion and moldswhich was a lot better than the old stove and using
the pilot light, [laughter]
Hicke: Yes. Improvement in technology.
Sbragia: Yes. I had all I needed to do basic analysis. I remember when we used to do blends, Henry
Bugato, who was a skilled blender who was working for the distributor that handled
Foppiano, would come up with his graduated cylinders. I didn t have graduated cylinders,
so he d come up with this hundred ml [millimeter] graduated cylinder. He had a big
cylinder and we d make the blends. And all the boys would sit aroundLou and Rod, and
then Lou Senior and myself and Henry, would make the trial blends, which was a pretty
Hicke: You were tasting all of these?
Sbragia: Yes, I d get all the components together and then we d make and taste the trial blends, and
then I d make it happen. I think that was a learning experience from a lot of points of view.
Then they d all go off for lunch and I d get an order for the warehouse, so I d have to go get
the order and load the truck at the same time my filters were running. It was a real busy
time, but I think I learned a lot in a year.
Hicke: You were doing Petite Sirah, I suppose?
Sbragia: Yes, Petite and Zinfandel, but they also had Cabernet [Sauvignon]. No Merlot, yet. Not
much Merlot around in the industry at that time.
Hicke: Yes, right.
Sbragia: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc-I think I bottled their first Sauvignon Blanc in 1976.
Hicke: Was that your idea?
Sbragia: Actually it was a 75 Sauvignon Blanc-they had planted it, and it was just coming into
So I got to work with the older wines and bottle them. We bottled the 74s when I was
there, and I helped with the harvest and then bottled the 75 whites. But I think that the
main reason I left was, again, because of the opportunity at Beringer. We could move on to
VI BERINGER VINEYARDS
Hicke: Okay. I d like to know how you heard about it and what attracted you.
Sbragia: Well, I had a good friend here, Pat Heck, who called me up and said there s a position open
as assistant winemaker at Beringer. What happened was that Steve O Donnell was Myron s
assistant, and Eli Galloway started Galloway Vineyards down in Temecula and hired him
away. So the opening presented itself and this was about February or March.
I called another friend of mine that I went through school with-Dennis Martin, who is
the winemaker at Fetzer-and asked him about it, and he said, "Well, I think it s a good
What finally cemented it was Henry Bugato. I talked to him a little bit about it, and he
said, "Well, Nestle is a good, good company-one of the best food companies in the world."
They owned Beringer. At that point I think Schlitz had gone into wine business. I also
think Coca-Cola had gotten into the wine business, Heublein had gotten into the wine
business, and he said, "Of all the big companies that are in the wine business, Nestle will
probably be the one that stays the longest and does the best job." I was a little apprehensive
about going to work for a big company.
Hicke: Right. Had you met Myron [Nightingale]?
Sbragia: I had met him during the Easter break of our graduate school in 73. A group of us went on
a tour and one of the stops was at Beringer. I met Steve O Donnell, who gave us a tasting.
We all met Myron and he talked to us, so I was impressed with him. He was a very
straightforward, honest man, and he took real good care of the people that worked for him.
He had a temper, but usually most of us let that pass. He really was a very caring, loving
Hicke: Did you know some of these things before you came here?
Sbragia: No, I didn t. I knew that he could have a little bit of a temper, but so could the Foppianos. I
figured that if I could, deal with the Foppianos, I could deal with anybody. And I think he
thought that too. [laughter]
Hicke: And the fact that he took good care of the employees, did you know about that?
Sbragia: No, I didn t, but I noticed that later on. Any new person in the lab, he d single them out and
talk to them and take them to lunch and make them feel welcome.
So I essentially called him up. My family was going to Baja California on a vacation,
and I called up and asked if I could come and interview. I said, "Well, I m going to be gone
for the next week."
He said, "Well, I ll be gone the following week."
I said, "Would it be okay to come today?"
He said, "If you can be here in half an hour."
I said, "Yes, sir." [laughter] So I jumped in my Volkswagen van and drove faster than
I ve ever driven anytime after. I got here and talked to him and we had a great talk together.
Nothing happened for months.
I finally saw him at the American Society of Enology and Viticulture Convention and I
said, "Hi, Myron. Have you guys made any decisions?" And he said, "No, nothing yet."
So I said, "Well, I have to tell you honestly, I m not going to leave Louis just before harvest
unless you ve given me enough notice." So the next thing you know, I had a second
interview with a man named Guy Kay. Guy Kay was the vice president of operations.
Hicke: Their Nestle guy?
Sbragia: Yes, he came from Nestle. He d been working with Nestle a long, long time. Another great
man and a wonderful man. Myron worked for him, and later on I worked for him, and
Myron and he and I went out to dinner, and we had a good dinner.
Then I had a third interview with Dick Maher, who was the president at the time. Dick
looked at me and said, "Do you think you can do the job?"
I said, "Well, I ve got a strong back."
He said, "I didn t ask you about the back." He said, "I asked you if you could do the
job," and he got kind of serious.
I said, "Yes, lean."
They essentially doubled my salary.
Hicke: I was just going to hope you didn t have to take another cut in salary, [laughter]
Sbragia: Yes, eventually I was getting close to my wife, [laughter] And so I went from $700 a
month to about $1,400 a month.
Hicke: Oh, great.
Sbragia: So that was a big jump for me-at a time when I hadn t actually finished my thesis yet. And
one of the requirements that they gave was that I finish my thesis in a year.
Hicke: Oh, he was interested in that.
Sbragia: So he allowed me days off, usually on a Friday afternoon, probably for about six months,
which really helped a lot. I finished my literature search, wrote up all my research, and
then started writing my research paper. By summer of 1977 I had completed it, so I
fulfilled my requirement.
Hicke: Did you ever publish an article or anything on that?
Sbragia: We did a couple presentations, but no abstracts were published. It was a great change. I
went from an old, old winery to a brand-new winery. The new production facility at
Beringer was just completed in 1975, so I came in when it was a year old.
Hicke: Myron had done all that, I thought.
Sbragia: Right. Myron was doing it.
Hicke: What was the day or month?
Sbragia: I started August 9, 1976.
Hicke: That was right before harvest.
Sbragia: Just before harvest. I had given Louis Foppiano a month s notice, and he still hadn t hired
anybody, so I worked both jobs for two weeks. I went to work here and then I d go over
there and work, [laughs] It was very busy.
Sbragia: But finally they hired someone and I spent about a week with him and finally left. But we
still stayed good friends. I m still friends with the Foppianos.
Starting in the Lab
Hicke: Do you recall your first day at Beringer?
Sbragia: Yes, I do. I walked in, didn t have an office. There was a desk that was right by the fume
hood, so when I needed to make phone calls, I had to make sure they turned the fume hood
down, or else
Hicke: The hood?
Sbragia: In the laboratory they usually have a fume hood, so that if someone s doing some kind of
work that has volatile components in it, it takes it up and goes through a scrubber and
doesn t let it go into the lab.
Hicke: You needed gas masks!
Sbragia: Yes, and it made a lot of noise. So I essentially went to the lab and did analysis for, oh,
about a week.
Hicke: And you started doing that right on the first day?
Sbragia: Yes, just to get used to what their analysis was and you meet everybody. Then all of a
sudden Myron started slowly piling the work on me.
Mvron Nightingale and Winemaking
Sbragia: The nice thing about Myron is that he was a really good teacher. He was able to let you do
what you thought was right just to the point where you were about ready to fall off the cliff,
and he would pull you back. He gave me lots of responsibility. I think I convinced him to
maybe do things more my way in terms of reds, and he taught me a lot about making
Hicke: Can you elaborate on that? What did you give him and vice versa?
Sbragia: Well, I kind of alluded before to the fact that the men and women that came out of
Prohibition and graduated in the forties and early fifties were working in really, really old
wineries, like Foppiano, that had severe bacterial problems. There wasn t the luxury to
.them of allowing wine to sit on the lees or wait, because you didn t have a lab that ran every
analysis. You still used your palate, but trends-for instance, if the volatile acidity is slowly
climbing, 0.02 grams per a hundred mis, that s a really low level, but if it jumped up to .03
and then .04, that suggested that there is some problem going on, but you couldn t taste it.
It still tasted fine. You don t really see a VA until you get up to .08-0.1 grams per hundred
Sbragia: Volatile acidity. That would suggest that maybe your tank s leaking or someone didn t
clean the tank, and when the wine was pumped into it, there was a good shot of vinegar
bacteria sitting on the bottom and basically inoculated it. So you would do something
before the problem existed; you would be proactive rather than reactive. And being
proactive, I tend to do everything squeaky clean, so that you didn t have the problem in the
Sbragia: I think that a lot of winemakers that had been making wines for a long time tended to make
wines a little too clean, they did maybe too much fining. They even fined the reds, but
reds, if you tested them, were pretty stable after they d been aged. So I kind of said, "Well,
why don t we just not do anything and then we ll do this stability check for hot and cold
stability and see if any fining is required," and in 99 percent of the cases, there was nothing
that needed to be done.
Hicke: This came out of your previous work?
Sbragia: Yes, just watching my dad and what I felt I had seen in the last years making wine with
Fresno, and making wine with Foppiano.
Hicke: And what did he teach you about whites? Or what was his philosophy about that?
Sbragia: Oh, well, attention to detail. I mean, white wines can go south on you quickly, so making
sure that you pay attention to them. I was fermenting in barrels. Fermenting in barrels is
something that s been done in Burgundy for centuries, but in the United States it was
relatively new. I think Brad Webb at Hanzell did it in the sixties along with Joe Heitz, but
we in the early to mid-seventies were still fermenting in stainless steel and then putting
wine in barrels.
Hicke: Myron had just gotten all these new stainless steel
Sbragia: Stainless steel fermenters, yes. So we were getting out of wood and going back to wood,
was kind of scary for him. So we started experimenting, but just making sure that we
watched the white wines and didn t let them go too far. You make sure that, in this case,
they were clean and the sulfur levels were up. Later on you were able to monitor them, and
we realized that, for instance, Chardonnay can be put in barrels without any SO 2 and that
whatever browning that occurs in the juice will drop out with the lees, so that you end up
losing a lot of those browning componants that would brown the wine later, so that by
protecting them, you actually made it more difficult down the road.
And there were no negative effects in terms of the wine. In fact, actually by removing
these oxidized materials early, you ended up making more fruity wines, and the wines
lasted longer. And it s essentially the way they make wines in Burgundy. We moved
slowly over the years from 1976-1 think the first time we tried it was 1977, when we
fermented in fifty barrels. We did a little more each year. Today all Chardonnay is barrel
Hicke: He let you go ahead with that even though he was reluctant?
Sbragia: Yes. Basically his and Louis Martini s favorite statement was, "If you want oak, go bite a
tree." [laughter] In essence, if you look at places around the world, most wine-drinking
countries don t appreciate as much oak as American public do, except for maybe Burgundy
and Bordeaux. But I think what we ve done in California is try to match what we thought
the best wines were being made, and not necessarily make the same winebut I d be foolish
not to take advantage of techniques that have been used for centuries that work well with
the same variety and see what it did with my wine. And what it ended up doing was
making good wine, but different-which is good.
Hicke: Are you talking about Burgundy, or other California wines?
Sbragia: Chardonnay has been a Burgundian wine, and using the barrel fermentation techniques and
sitting on the lees, malolactic which is one thing that they would never allow to happen to
a white wine. Myron didn t want any malolactic fermentations. Malolactic s a secondary
fermentation that converts malic to lactic acid, but it also produces a buttery characteristic
from the Diaceytal produced. And it also softens and rounds the wine and gives it more
texture. So in the case of Chardonnay, which you re trying to make richer and more
complex, malolactic really improves it. And what you have in the stainless steel, where
you ve adjusted sulfurs up right away and cleaned it up right away, there s no chance for
malolactic other than occasionally a strain would come in and spontaneously start tanks,
which would drive us all crazy.
Hicke: So that would be a more austere white?
Sbragia: It s a little tighter style, and it takes a lot longer to mature in the bottle. Most white wines-
the Chardonnaysgo through malolactic. There are a few people today that still don t do
that, and it s another style and preference. Now I like the softer, rounder wines. I think
they re higher in the yummy factor.
Chabot Ranch Vineyard
Hicke: What else was evolving during these years when you were an assistant winemaker?
Sbragia: The other thing that happened in 1977, a man named Bob Pecota, who has his own winery
now-he actually had worked for Nestle before, purchasing coffee in South America-
helped with the aid of a scientist that Nestle brought over. They were responsible for all
the land purchases and the land leases that we have today. We have vineyards from Napa
all to way to Calistoga. Also in Knight s Valley. A little sub-appellation in Sonoma
County. And he and, well, essentially Dick Maher found the Chabot Ranch, which was
called the Lemmon Ranch then.
Chabot actually had a winery called Villa Remi, because his name was Remi Chabot.
I m sure they started it around the same time that Beringer started in 1870s, but I don t think
it ever reopened after Prohibition. It s in that book the Ghost Wineries of the Napa Valley}
The vineyard had been going to Louis Martini. He used it in his Special Select. And
Mrs. Lemmon, who was Remi Chabot s direct descendent, wanted the name to be used. At
the time she was married to Mr. Lemmon, but later on they divorced, so therefore the
ranch~we called it Lemmon Ranch at first, but then changed it to Chabot.
Hicke: She kept the ranch?
Sbragia: Yes, the ranch still is owned by her. But like a lot of the other lands, they re thirty- to fifty-
year leases with first right of refusal.
Private Reserve Program
Sbragia: So anyway, getting this vineyard started our private reserve program, so we bottled the
1977 Lemmon Ranch separate Cabernet Sauvignon 1980.
Hicke: As a vineyard designation?
Sbragia: As a vineyard-designated private reserve with a special label on it. We went to our
marketing man, Jim Tonjum, who had worked with Dick Maher at United Vintners, along
with Walt Klenz, who is now the president. Dick Maher was the president and Jim Tonjum
was the vice president of marketing and he came up with this great label that we still use
Hicke: Oh, he did that label.
] Haynes, Irene W., Ghost Wineries of Napa Valley, Napa, California: Wine Appreciation Guild,
Hicke: And this was in the late seventies.
Sbragia: Yes, 1980.
Hicke: Yes, the private reserve.
Sbragia: Chabot s a very big wine: rich characteristics of cherry, cedar, and mint. And the 77 I put
in tanks for six months and I put in barrels for about a year and a half.
Hicke: This is Cabernet Sauvignon?
Sbragia: Cabernet Sauvignon-- 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1978 I realized that it needed
brand new barrels for the full amount of time, which was difficult at first with Nestle,
because they didn t like oak~they used their own palates and being Swiss and having their
own vineyards, they tasted with their own desires versus what the American public wanted,
and they didn t like oak, like Myron. I was pushing for oak and needed oak with these
wines, and I grew up in a household where my dad always put wines in barrels not
necessarily for the oak flavor, but for what happens in a barrel slow aging at the same time
extracting oak. Both the new wine and new oak aging together. It matures the flavors and
condenses the tannins and softens the wine and slowly changes from this harsh, angular
liquid to hopefully the ambrosia that comes out of a barrel. 77 was one of the latest and
longest vintagesI think it started August 15 and ended November 15. So it was two solid
months. And a very nice vintage not as dense and rich as the 78, but a beautiful wine. It s
still alive today. So that I know that our wines will last twenty-plus years.
The Nestle Company
Hicke: Fabulous. The Nestle officers or company people would taste the wines, too?
Sbragia: Yes, usually there was a technical person that came from Vevey, or from White Plains,
where the United States division was, and we d vary over the years from reporting directly
to Vevey to being under the Nestle USA.
Hicke: That must have been confusing.
Sbragia: I think we were such a small, company, compared to the larger companies that Nestle was
used to managing, that they didn t know what to do with us. They were involved, and they
were a very far-reaching, long-ranged company. I think they were looking at what they
would be selling in the next hundred years. Nestle at the time had already been in the
United States a hundred years, they were in coffee, chocolate and tea and condensed milks
and then soups. It was an amazing amount of things that are made by Nestle that none of us
expected to be part of their company.
Hicke: They re selling their U.S. coffee now, I heard.
Sbragia: Oh, really?
Hicke: Yes. So maybe they re changing their philosophy a little bit.
Hicke: Do you happen to know why they bought Beringer?
Sbragia: I think they thought wine would probably be an important beverage in the next century, and
I think they re right. I think what finally happened was that like a lot of companies, when
they finally sold us in 1996, it was that they felt they hadn t paid enough attention to us,
which we didn t mind.
Hicke: Yes, I would think that would be a plus.
Sbragia: I think they also felt that they needed to do what they knew how to do, which was foods-
but not alcoholic beverages.
Hicke: A whole different
Sbragia: They .do waters and fruit juices-they were a great parent. You know, they put lots of
money into the winery, and essentially bought almost 2,000 acres of vineyard-bought or
long-term leased~so they set us up for the future. And that s a basic philosophy of mine,
that you secure your own destiny when you have your own vineyards. You think about any
vineyard in the world that is great-you don t know the winemaker s name, you know the
vineyard. Like the vineyards of [Chateau] Latour-who s the winemaker there? But you
know that Latour is a great, great wine.
Hicke: That s an interesting point, but it doesn t work quite like that here.
Sbragia: Great vineyards are constant. Winemakers flow through the vineyards over centuries.
Beringer is starting our third century, we re 125 years old with five or six winemakers.
Probably the same in other countries, but who are those winemakers? The vineyard is the
constant and it stays as the factor that makes a winery great.
Hicke: Yes, I can see that.
Sbragia: I think I m lucky in that respect in that we in this country like to know who the winemaker
is and and like to talk to him~which is a good thing for me, because it allows you to be
known and form a little bit of a reputation as a person who does something that people like.
Hicke: A little more rewarding than hiding in your lab.
Sbragia: Yes, you get credit for what you do before you die. [laughter]
Hicke: Yes, right.
Sbragia: I think that s all any of us want, is to be able to work really hard for something and get
credit for it, and have a little bit of say. So having your own vineyards was great.
But anyway, one of the things they did was make sure that we were secure when they
sold us. They did a good job.
Making the Private Reserve
Hicke: Let s put off the sale for now, and go back to the late seventies.
Sbragia: Okay, so that was 1977 and 1978, and we also made Private Reserve Cabernet and we made
our first Private Reserve Chardonnay. What Myron and I did was, in tasting all the
inventory, we would find certain blocks that were better than others. Better means more
flavorful, richer, more intensity. So we picked that group of wines and made a small lot of
Private Reserve Chardonnay.
Hicke: Were you keeping the vineyards separate?
Sbragia: We kept the vineyards separate from the beginning. All the vineyards came in separate, the
blocks came in separate, so we identified them by block and by vineyard, and by barrel type
Hicke: Whose idea was this to do the private reserve label?
Sbragia: In any winery, the person who runs the company, the president, needs to be behind it. In
our company, it was either from sales or marketing it s kind of a marketing-driven
company, so a lot of the ideas come out of marketing: either instigated by winemakers
saying we can do this, or they asked a question and we d react. So sometimes it comes from
winemaking, sometimes it comes from marketing. In this case I think it was mutual. We
were relatively small then. Marketing would always taste with us and in conversation say it
would be great to have a Private Reserve Chardonnay to go with the Private Reserve
Cabernet. So that was the beginning of the whole private reserve regime.
As our vineyards grew and production increased through the seventies and eighties, the
private reserve was always picked as an aftermath. When I finally convinced them that we
needed oak~and this was instigated by a trip to France, actually~we got oak for
Chardonnay first and they seemed to understand that people in the United States liked oaky
Hicke: The company, you re talking about?
Sbragia: Yes, Nestle.
Hicke: Yes, okay. You finally got that.
Sbragia: Actually what happened was, Nestle didn t want to give us oak, but Jim Tonjum in 1977
and 1978 gave up his marketing budget so I could buy barrels. Dick Maher essentially said,
"I m sorry, but you told me to run this company and this is what we need. I m going to buy
Hicke: So he was for the barrels?
Sbragia: Yes. And in spite of what they told him to do, he went ahead and we were successful in
77. So then they understood that. And that s kind of immediate, because you need the
barrels right away, whereas the reds you can let sit in tanks.
I had about 1,400 barrels then. Actually when it came in, it was about 500, but there
were about 900 barrels-there was a red barn right here where the administration building
stands, this was a big red bam, and they were sitting in here, but they had no place to set
them up. So I said, "Well, I know how to set them up. I did it before, so I--."
Hicke: Stacked, you mean?
Sbragia: Stacked and set up and started filling them. But then we needed them for reds. I had made
a Cabernet in 1980 that we bottled without barrel aging. It was rough and angular. I knew
we needed barrels.
Jean Jacques Zell, at Nestle, who was in charge of the beverages, and Guy Kay and I set
off on a trip to France. We visited every first-growth Bordeaux, and so we went to Chateau
Latour, Chateau Lafite, Chateau Mouton, Chateau Haut Brion, Chateau Assone, and
Chevel-Blanc, and repeatedly these wineries used new barrels for every vintage of their
best wine. Then they had second wines that they used about 30 percent to 60 percent new,
depending on the wine and the vintage. But the big wines always got 100 percent new oak.
Usually they used local coopers-the guys closest to them.
Hicke: And where was the oak coming from?
Sbragia: The oak was all French oak~usually from Nevers. I liked Limousin oak with Chardonnay
but I later changed my mind and went to the Nevers with Chardonnay also.
Hicke: What year was this trip?
Sbragia: This was 1983. It was a great trip for me. Jean Jacques Zell loved to eat, and he was from
Alsace, so we had to read at least three menus and then we would choose the best.
Hicke: Did you go to Alsace and do the Rieslings there?
Sbragia: No, I haven t done Alsace, yet. I spent the whole time with him, and then I later continued
on to the Rhone and then into Italy and then I went home.
Hicke: Still doing wines?
Sbragia: Yes. Unfortunately my mother passed away while I was on the trip. My wife had come
over and joined me with our four year-old son, Adam.
Hicke: Let me back up just a minute. Did these 77 and 78 private reserves get high marks from
wine writers, or were they purchased quickly by the public? How did you measure
Sbragia: We were getting good marks. The Wine Spectator hadn t really started yet. [Robert] Parker
hadn t started yet. But the reviewers had reviewed it relatively well. The reactions were
not necessarily with the public, but with the trade.
Some Beringer History
Sbragia: If you look at Beringer at the turn of the century and all the way up to Prohibition, they
were highly rated and the wines were great. I think they suffered during Prohibition. After
Prohibition, the industry in the United States produced five million gallons of wine-four
and a half million was dessert wine and 500,000 gallons was table wine. So the American
public wasn t really drinking good wine, and therefore it was very different than the
immigrant population at the turn of the century. The Beringers, because of that and
because of the market and also because one generation was leaving the winery to the next
generation, it was slowly being depleted of capital. That s probably the reason they
suffered. The winery went down in the eyes of the trade, so that we were considered in the
late sixties as a big winery making just standard wine.
Hicke: And who owned it then?
Sbragia: The Beringers owned it until 1971. It was third generation, and they were getting older,
and I think the younger generation had lost interest.
Hicke: Of course.
Sbragia: So when we started, Myron s job was to get it cranked up again, clean up the winery, get rid
of all the old barrels, the old tanks, a lot of old German ovals in the tunnels across the
street. The nice thing about the winery is it was built as a two-story winery in 1 876. In
1883, they dug the runnels going into the winery, and underneath in the mountain. What
they would do is crush on the top floor, for fermentation, they d gravity flow to the second
floor to the tanks, and then they would go from the tanks to these ovals in the caves.
Hicke: Ovals are barrels, right?
Sbragia: Well, ovals are more like 100-200 gallon tanks.
Hicke: Of wood?
Sbragia: Of wood, yes. And it s Yugoslavian or German oak, similar to what they use in Italy for
Barolos and for Chianti. The barrels were really for shipping, you know. I think they
bottled, but they also sold wine by shipping barrels, and a person would buy a barrel of
Back to Private Reserve
Sbragia: When we started making private reserves, it slowly brought up the esteem of the winery.
Right around 1979, they hired a young man named Tor Kenward as public relation director.
We d had people before, but Tor worked really hard at making relationships with the wine
writers who were coming in. He enjoyed that world and fit in well, and did a great job of
getting people to give us the benefit of the doubt and try our wine.
I remember in 1980 we had this 78 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and we had the
1980 Private Reserve Chardonnay, and that s the year I saw some turning points, because
we walked into any tasting and could compete with anybody in the industry. That feeling
of confidence I think helped me feel like we could be better. And then I really pushed hard
for better equipment.
Sbragia: In 1980 we went and got our first tank press versus the continuous presses we used to use.
Continuous presses were kind of like big meat grinders. They were a machine where the
grapes would go into this screw, and this screw was basically pushing the grapes against a
screen. Problem is that it would grind the skins and then the pressure was up to 100 pounds
per square inch. So the tank press did a much better job.
Actually, the 78 Private Reserve-one of the best wines I ever made-- went through a
continuous press, but I couldn t use all the wine fractions.
Hicke: You re talking about the press and comparing that
Sbragia: Like I said, the 78 Private Reserve came out of that press, and was one of the better wines I
made, but it produced what we call hard press, and hard press was very high on the
phenolic content. It was bitter. The unfortunate part about it is that the hard press also had
lots of flavor. The last pressing is kind of like the meat next to the bone.
Sbragia: If you can save it, it s great, but in order to get the tannin content down, you have to fine it
with some kind of proteinaceous material that you could use-egg whites or something that
would take tannins out. But it would also take a lot of good things out. So these tank
presses, rather than pressing at 100 psi, we received 90 percent of the juice at less than one
atmosphere, which is fifteen pounds per square inch, so they were doing the pressing at
one-tenth of the pressure that was done with a tank press.
Sbragia: So then, this ten to fifteen gallons a ton became useable. If you think about that-at that
time wine was selling for five or six dollars a gallon, and now it s twenty dollars a gallon-
the press basically paid for itself in one harvest.
I soon got more tank presses. And I think that allowed us as a winery to compete with a
lot of little wineries; their tank presses were just smaller. A tank press is basically a big
tank, and inside it has a diaphragm. It has air on one side and a screen on the other, and the
grapes are on the screen side, and the air just slowly pushes against the whole surface of the
tank and essentially squeezes the grapes, but very gently. Then you d roll it to break up the
grapes and then you d do it again, so by learning how to do it, you minimize the rolling so
you don t get a lot of maceration and optimize your juice yield. You get all the juice back
as useable juice.
Hicke: Who makes these presses?
Sbragia: The first ones were the Biichers, which were Swiss, Swiss-German. There were presses by
Vaselin, but those were French presses and those were basket presses, kind of similar to the
old, old style, just they were on their sides. The old, old style would be a basket kind of
like a barrel, but the slats were wide, they had little spacings between the slats. You would
fill the basket up with grapes. It would have a trough underneath it that would collect the
juice, and you would slowly apply pressure. That was pretty much how the Vaselin was
done. It usually has a disc of some sort pressing against the grapes. It presses very gently,
but you still had some maceration.
Hicke: You said you could compete with the smaller wineries in quality, right?
Sbragia: Yes, we then, had the ability with good vineyards, good equipment. We were finding out,
within the 2,000 acres we owned, where our great vineyards were, and also when we found
one like Chabot, we went after it.
With the advent of presses that would do fifty tons in one press load versus our
continuous presses, which did twenty tons an hour, we could keep up with our vineyards.
By adding more presses, we were able to process fruit in a better way, which allowed us to
compete with people who had these presses, but they were smaller. We bought one, but it
wasn t enough to keep up with what was going on in the vineyards, and when they
developed larger sizes, we went completely to tank presses.
Hicke: This was for all the wines, not just the private reserve?
Sbragia: For everything. So it not only helped the reds, but it obviously helped the whites a lot.
Hicke: How much of the private reserve label were you making?
Sbragia: When we first started I think we were making 5,000 cases of Cabernet and Chardonnay, and
today we re making about 20,000 cases of Chardonnay. In a good year I can make 15,000
cases of Private Reserve Cabernet, so it hasn t grown that much in twenty years.
Hicke: Well, it depends on the grape supply, right?
Hicke: And the kind of grapes.
Sbragia: Just to follow the progression of Private Reserve. In 1986, Jim Bancroft, who s a lawyer in
San Francisco in the seventies had bought a piece of land up on top of Howell Mountain,
which is on the eastern side of the Valley at about 1,800 feet. He realized what potential
for grape growing his land had. He started clearing the land, trying to keep as many trees in
as he could. He blew up the rocks that he couldn t haul off because they were the size of a
house, and planted Cabernet and Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Bob Steinhauer, who came in 1979 as a our vineyard manager, called me and said, "I
found this great vineyard. It s on top of Howell Mountain. Want to come look at it?"
I said, "Yes, I ll come look at it, but tell him I want it sight unseen." [laughter] It was
Hicke: How can you tell?
Sbragia: Well, it was rolling kind of hills at 1,800 feet. The vines at that point were about four years
old, just coming in to their first crop, and we both had a feeling. You know, you just knew
in your bones. Our first vintage off of that vineyard was in 1986.
Hicke: Which variety?
Sbragia: Cabernet and Merlot and Cab Franc.
Hicke: You didn t do a varietal for Cab Franc, did you?
Hicke: So he had a Bordeaux mix?
Sbragia: Yes. The St. Helena home ranch was a component because at that point, we d planted the
vineyards in 1979, so by 1986, this vineyard was a component of the Private Reserve. We
have a vineyard down almost past Oakville, between Oakville and Yountville, called State
Lane. So Bancroft, St. Helena, State Lane, and Chabot. By that time, in reference to the
Chabot vineyard, Mrs. Lemmon had divorced Mr. Lemmon. We had leased it for fifty
years and one of the agreements was that we wouldn t call it by her former husband s name
(Lemmon), we called it by her great grandfather s name, Remi Chabot. That s what it was
known as~Chabot Ranch.
Hicke: It was the local name?
Sbragia: Yes. Actually Chabot is from the same family name as Chabot College and Chabot Lake in
Oakland. Influential man.
Hicke: Yes. You had a fifty-year lease?
Sbragia: Well, usually that s how leases are, you have them for fifty to a hundred years with options
to buy at that point if they last.
Hicke: Were leases that long popular then?
Sbragia: This is not a grape contract, this is we actually leased the land. So in a lot of cases, if it s an
old vineyard and an old variety, we pull it out and replant it at our own expense, but it was
our vineyard. The owner of the land got a lease payment for the land.
Hicke: And your vineyard manager manages it?
Sbragia: Yes, in conjunction with the finance department. So we ve got 2,000 acres, and we just
bought another piece of 800 acres in the Carneros region, so we have 2,800 acres.
Hicke: All this long-lease?
Sbragia: It s a combination of owned outright and long-term leases.
Hicke: Mark told me yesterday that something like 80 percent of the vineyards are owned, and he
said he wasn t sure about the exact amount.
Sbragia: Yes, I don t know either. Essentially long-term lease qualifies as owned, because we own
Hicke: Then for the rest, you buy a few?
Sbragia: Yes. For Beringer, most of it is what we own. Chardonnay and Cabernet, Sauvignon
Blanc. We buy Zinfandel, a lot of Zinfandel.
Hicke: From Dry Creek?
Sbragia: All over. The addition of Bancroft I think was the turning point in terms of boosting the
quality even higher. In the first year I put it in the P.R. Cabernet. Since I had Cabernet
Franc, also I tried to blend some in. The rest of my counterparts were adding 10 or 15
percent and I added 10 or 15 percent in a trial blend and didn t like it. I tried 5 percent and I
didn t like it, so I ended up going through 3, 4, 5 and I picked out 1 [percent], which didn t
really seem enough to make a difference.
But upon tasting the 1 percent I liked it. The Cab Franc elongates the finish. It adds
intensity to the aroma. We didn t need to blend too much into the Cabernet Sauvignon. If
picked at optimum maturity, it s physiologically ripe. For example, a melon when it is not
ripe has green flavors. But if it s too ripe, it gets soft and the flavors are washed out. Just at
that optimum, you get the best flavors. Actually the Cabernet has almost a sweet finish, so
that the Cab Franc adds just a little bitter component to the finish, makes the taste last
longer. But if you added too much, it changed that sweet finish into something else. Then
it became another wine, and I didn t want another wine. I liked that Private Reserve the
way it was. The Bancroft Cabernet was a wonderful Cab from day one.
That s the year we were the Wine Spectator #1 Wine choice.
Hicke: Which year was that?
Sbragia: It was 1986. It was actually in 1990 when it was released.
Hicke: But it was for the 86 Cabernet?
Sbragia: Yes. The wine stays in the winery about six months and then it goes in barrels for twenty
months-twenty-two months it s in bottles, so it s almost been in the winery for three years.
If I bottle it then, it stays in the bottle for a year before it s released, so it s four years until
Hicke: And when is it drinkable? I suppose that changes.
Sbragia: I think with really good Cabernets, if you don t try them in that fourth or fifth year, you
miss some of the intensity of fruit that they have, even though the tannins are still kind of
rough, and they improve. The 1977 is still improving, there is still a lot of rich fruit
character, and at the same time, tannins that will allow it to age for ten to fifteen years
more. So it s good to try wines young and watch them as they mature. I always tell my
wife, I m really glad I knew her when she was nineteen, but she is more beautiful now than
she was then.
Hicke: [laughs] She s mellowed a little?
Hicke: Oh, that s great.
Sbragia: For me it s like children. It s nice to know them when they re young and watch them grow
Hicke: Do you taste your wines every year?
Sbragia: Try to. When I first started, we didn t have a lot to taste. Now the last time I did a tasting,
we had a vertical of twenty years. It was an auction lot that came up last February in
Nashville, someone had actually taken it out of his own cellar and offered it as an auction
lineup at a local auction.
Shall we continue with Private Reserve?
Hicke: Okay. But I want to go back and pick up when Bob Steinhauer came and some of those
Hicke: But go ahead. Let s finish up the Private Reserve.
Sbragia: In the Private Reservewe knew that phylloxera was in the Valley from 1986 on because of
the big floods, and we felt we needed to start replanting. In fact, we just finished replanting
Bancroft, which is a big shock to me, but luckily we bought a piece of land, real red soils, a
little bit farther north on Howell Mountain. We initially called it Terra Rouge because of
the red soil, but another winery has that name, so we changed it. It has three little hills, so
we called it the Tre Colline, which means three hills in Italian. And that started being used
in P.R. around 1993.
Hicke: What grapes?
Sbragia: Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab Franc. It has exceptional Cab Franc. State Lane is also a
reserve vineyard. A small amount is bottled separately, but I use it in our Napa Valley. I
use it often in the Private Reserve. Mainly the blend is Tre Colline, Bancroft, Chabot, and
We ve gone on and planted another vineyard called Quarry, which is on the west side of
Napa Valley a little bit farther south. We also contracted with the Marten property, which
is an old vineyard that s been around that long and made into wine by Phil Tagni when he
was at Cuvaison and made some really nice wine. It s a little bit closer to the St. Helena
characteristic. It s on Spring Mountain. These are all potential reserve vineyards.
Hi eke: Do you use about the same blend?
Sbragia: I use the same vineyards but it changes in composition. I ve used the Cab Franc off of Tre
Colline. It also depends on the vintagewhich one is better, Bancroft Cab Franc or Tre
Colline Cab Franc. The most of it I ever made was 1987, when I used the 7 percent. The
Cab Franc was just great. I seldom go down to 3 percent.
Hicke: And it s Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc?
Sbragia: Yes. In reference to the Merlot on the Bancroft property, I make a separate Bancroft
Merlot. We had Merlot in the early seventies, planted at the Gamble Ranch, which is
between Oakville and Yountville. It was mainly Chardonnay and Merlot planted there, and
the Merlot they had then was planted on the wrong part of the vineyard it was light and
grassy then. We did not like the quality. We pulled it out, and grafted it onto something
else. I said to myself, if I ever had a Merlot good enough to blend with Cabernet, I would
bottle it separate. The Bancroft Merlot is probably the most Cabernet-like Merlot I ever
tasted, but compared to Bancroft Cabernet, it s softer. Compared to other Cabernets it
probably could fool people that it is Cabernet Sauvignon.
Hicke: It s got so much flavor?
Sbragia: Flavor, intensity, and basically just body and strength as a wine. In 1987 we bottled our
first Merlot: the Bancroft Howell Mountain Merlot. I did the same thing with Cabernet and
Cab Franc with Merlot, but I settled on about 5 percent Cabernet and 4 percent Cab Franc,
so the Merlot had about 91 percent. Over the years it s been somewhere between 91 and 93
percent Merlot, depending on the vintage. The Merlot actually is quite nice by itself, but
the Cabernet adds a little strength and structure and the Cab Franc does the same thing it
does in the Cabernet: adds a little dimension to the nose, and a nice finish.
Hicke: When you re making a private reserve, do you use various amounts from these different
Sbragia: Right. Now, in the case of the Bancroft Howell Mountain Merlot, it is all Bancroft.
Hicke: Oh, yes, because that s vineyard designated. But the rest of it, you blend from different
Hicke: And do you blend in fairly similar percentages from vineyards each year?
Sbragia: No, we keep all the blocks separate, but there are certain blocks, like I said, you know, that
are better than other blocks, and some of those blocks don t even go in new barrels, they go
into older barrels, because I know I m not going to use them in private reserve. That s a
difficult thing to decide, you know, three years before, what s going in the bottle, where are
you going to use it. If I have the luxury of enough new barrels, then I ll put it all in new
barrels, just on the basis that one of the blocks will turn out better as it ages. I do see this
occasionally, where what you thought wouldn t turn out well actually turns out really, really
nice. It may not be big, but it has luscious flavors that blend well.
Usually Chabot is at least 20 percent of the blend and Bancroft came up to 50 percent of
the blend and St. Helena has been somewhere between 10 and 40 percent, depending on the
vintage. And Tre Colline now is coming up strong. It started small; it may have been 10 or
15 percent percent, and now it s up to 25 percent.
Hicke: It sounds like you use all of Bancroft.
Sbragia: All of Bancroft, most of Chabot-some of them are replantings now, I have the luxury that
when I first got here in 77 their vines were somewhere between twelve to thirty years old.
It isn t an old wives tale that vines need to be ten to twelve years old before they are used in
the big wines. I think even in the first couple of years, because it s a real small crop, grapes
produce bigger wine, but then they lose a little bit, then they come back.
Bancroft, even when it lost a little bit, was really, really good, so I didn t have a problem
there. But Chabot, being farther down the hill at about 800 feet, has suffered more from
replanting and is beginning to come back now. What we try to do in these vineyards is not
take the whole vineyard out at once, but take one block at a time.
Hicke: For replanting.
Hicke: What about the Chardonnay Private Reserve?
Sbragia: Private Reserve Chardonnay s 10 percent of the total Chardonnay production. I use 85
percent new barrels in the Private REserve. Our Napa Valley Chardonnay is spread over
different ages of barrels. I put one fourth new barrels, one-fourth one-year old, one-fourth
two-year old, and one-fourth three-year old. I take each vineyard and make sure that I have
a good amount of each barrel, so that I have a choice.
What I realized is that sometimes for a certain block, all of it should go in new barrels,
and other blocks would never make the private reserve and they probably should go into the
Hicke: But how can you tell?
Sbragia: How can you tell? In 1990 I started walking around the vineyards, looking for reserve.
I go out there a couple times, before and during harvest, to see how they taste and what
they look like. Besides looking for ripe grapes, look for flavor and intensity. We pick them
separately. They are harvested as reserve grapes and go into new and one-year-old French
As the vineyards have been replanted, they get better. The maturity range of the old
California sprawl versus these smaller trellis systems produce more uniform grapes and
better maturity, better flavors.
We went to each Chardonnay vineyard, and I took ten years worth of documentation as
to where blocks were that we used, and certain blocks came up a great portion of the time.
It changed from year to year, things would switch around. So I went to all the blocks that I
had used and then I said, "Well, now that we ve tasted all these blocks, let s go to blocks
you think are really good." And we finally realized that every year it s different. Actually
we went around and we tasted where we thought the best wines were going to come from,
and let those grapes sit longer, rather than harvesting them right away. That s Private
Reserve. I wanted a 24.5 brix for private reserve. That gives us about a 13 [percent
alcohol] versus almost a 13.9~you know, right at the edge of what table wine should be. I
did all the new barrels and all the one-year-old barrels that way, and so I did roughly 25
percent new barrels. I did 40 percent of the harvest that way. So not only did I get more
good blocks of grapes into new barrels and one-year-old barrels, I also ended up with a
surplus of wines versus having to hunt for them. I had a much easier time when I picked
Chardonnay. The 30 percent I didn t use went into the Napa Valley, which improved the
quality of the Napa Valley immensely. Not only did I make a private reserve with it-I
made a better Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay.
I choose which vintage of barrels, and all different suppliers and say, "Okay, I m going
to put this wine in these barrels." So I essentially assign the barrels. We fermented in
25,000 barrels last year.
Hicke: My word! And you looked at every one of the barrels?
Sbragia: Every one of the barrels and every one of the lots.
Hicke: Do you have a computer?
Sbragia: I m trying to get it on a computer. I ve done this assigning the barrels for years, which is
kind of neatI can go home now and know the lots I have to put in barrels, and I can assign
the barrels and then email it in, so I ve been able to do that a couple of Sundays while I was
watching football, [laughter] But mainly I m sitting here until twelve and one o clock in
This last year we got a brand new machine that actually is an automated barrel washer
and filler. They are washed and drained. Filling spouts drop down to the barrel and people
fill them up. Then they pour yeast starter in and forklift them back into the barrel cellar.
So rather than people running around the barrel, we have barrels moving past the people.
Hicke: They re on a belt or something?
Sbragia: They re on a belt. Yes. That increases their ability to fill more barrels every day, which
made my life even more hectic.
Hicke: Hectic, yes. [laughter]
Sbragia: I had to assign more barrels, ended up being the limiting step. If I didn t assign barrels,
everything came to a grinding halt. But it s been very successful. We ve been able to make
better wines every year.
The Sbragia Label
Hicke: I tasted the Private Reserve Chardonnay and the Sbragia label. Tell me about the
Sbragia: Well, right around 1991, 1 found a little corner of a reserve block where the vineyard
foreman said there were grapes just hanging out there, bright gold, and already at 24.5 brix.
I took a little block here and there. I let the grapes sit until Mother Nature says, "You better
pick these grapes or else I m going to take them back." [laughter]
If they ferment dry on me, because the alcohols are quite high, I select individual
barrels. Now you re getting to the point where the wine is a bit more woody, the flavors are
of butterscotch and caramel. And I go for the caramel-vanilla barrels versus the woody
barrelssmoky, toasty barrels. So I ve got extract of Chardonnay in these real soft,
Burgundian barrels. And that s bottled as Sbragia! This makes my relatives real happy.
They think it s their Chardonnay. [laughter] But it s pretty limited. It s hard to find.
Hicke: And that takes a huge amount of time, too, I would think.
Sbragia: Yes, it does. It does. Goes back to what Myron said: "Attention to details."
Hicke: Yes, but you can only do so much. When are these wines drinkable?
Sbragia: The Chardonnays are actually good quite youngthey re in barrels for about nine months,
and then they re bottled in the fall. Harvest is September-October, they re in barrels all the
way until the following July, and then they re pulled out and bottled in September. I release
the Napa Valley sometimes just before Christmas or just at New Year s and Private Reserve
soon thereafter. Usually by January or February the Private Reserve is released. The
Sbragia is released in April.
Hicke: I know you have a 97 Chardonnay Private Reserve label, is that drinkable now?
Sbragia: Oh, yes.
Hicke: They re all drinkable now?
Sbragia: They re all drinkable. I just had some 98 yesterday and it s quite nice. The Chardonnay I
think benefits from about a year, a year and a half bottle age. If you like the taste of an
older Chardonnay, which loses a lot of the fruit and gets a little oily tasting and a little
leaner in the mouth then you would like wines that are five to ten years old. I had a 93 not
too long ago.
Hicke: But that defeats the purpose of the way you make it, if you-
Sbragia: Yes, well, it depends on what you like. The older Chardonnays-- in about a year to two
they are rich and full flavored and I think are probably at their optimum, up to about five
More on Merlot
Hicke: Just to finish off the Private Reserve, are you going to stick to those two varietals, or are
you going to branch out?
Sbragia: Well, the Bancroft-Howell Mountain Merlot was kind of a private reserve vineyard
designate and in that line we ve started taking a little bit of each of the private reserve
vineyards, and bottling them separately as kind of a reserve vineyards series. I bottle a
couple hundred cases of each. We always did a little bit of the Chabot vineyard, Private
Reserve Cabernet. In 1981 it went to the blend and Chabot was being used in the blend.
But then when Bancroft came, it added more volume to the blend, so in order to keep the
percentage of Chabot, I had to bottle less, like 200 cases. So in that line we bottle about
200 cases of each of the State Lane, the Chabot, the Bancroft, the Home Ranch, St. Helena-
-each one of those vineyards.
It depends on the vintage. Some years, for instance, the vineyard doesn t make the
private reserve. It is light. I don t want to put it in private reserve. It s a nice wine, but it s
just a little lighter in texture than what I want. But we d still bottle a little bit separate
under the vineyard series.
Then, it s funny, sometimes some of those vineyards do just as well as my big vineyards
like Bancroft and Chabot. It s a matter of taste. One of the nice things about being a
winemaker is that, first of all, you get all the credit, which is good, even though Bob
Steinhauer does all the work, [laughter]
Hicke: I don t think I quite agree with that, but okay.
Sbragia: But that subjective decision-making allows you a certain continuity in style, the wine takes
on a uniformity even though it goes up and down from vintage to vintage. I think that s a
positive thing, because people can expect a certain character and a certain style and density
in the wines. Also, having the same vineyards year in and year out allows us to have a
certain flavor profile. Usually it s pretty consistent, unless the vintage is totally different
and the wines taste different just because of the vintage. 1981 was like that. It was
different from all the vintages around it.
Hicke: Oh, was it? How come?
Sbragia: It was really earthy. It was different. It just didn t have a lot of the fruit components. It had
more like coffee, tea it tasted like an older wine. And it was the first early vintage in the
line of early vintages in the eighties.
Wine Reviews and Customer Relations
Hicke: I think continuity is important because from my own experience, you can t taste every bottle
of wine before you open it.
Hicke: And so if you know you ve got a 96 Chardonnay that you like, you probably will like the
Sbragia: Yes, because in our case, it s the same vineyards. And that s been one of the positive
factors that has allowed Beringer to gain esteem and credibility with the trade. And then
they get consistently good scores by not only just one wine writer, but most of the major
Hicke: Yes, there are a few of them listed.
Sbragia: There s a whole list of wine publications. I think the Spectator, Marvin Shanken s
publication, and Wine Advocate, Robert Parker s, are probably the two most touted and
most read. There are California Grape Vine and the Wine Enthusiast, the Wine News a
number of them are, Food and Wine Magazme-and if you do well in everything, then you
know you re in the pack.
Hicke: Oh, yes.
Sbragia: And then there are all the fairs. Sometimes one gold medal and a bunch of bronzes aren t as
good as ten silvers. If you ve consistently gotten good scores from trade people, from your
colleagues, fellow winemakers, from press, and in some cases just consumers then you
know you ve definitely made a wine that is one of the top-rated that year.
Hicke: Do you think those fair judgings have a lot of impact on the buying public?
Sbragia: I think they used to. I think that with the trade today, since there are so many fairs, unless
you get like ten gold medals, a comment and a high score from Parker and the Spectator
will do a lot for us.
Hicke: Yes, I would think so.
Sbragia: Which gives the Spectator and Parker a lot of power.
Hicke: Well, since we re on that, that s kind of an interesting topic. Do you think that rating the
wines has added to the knowledge of the public?
Sbragia: When we look at people enjoying wines,, I think that the trade is really the front line. It s
not the distributors, but the actual retailers. They re the ones that interact with the public,
and their saying, "This is a good wine because Parker said, but also because it is really a
good wine," then it s conveyed to the public. And I think that s where the exchange is.
Now there are a lot of wine enthusiasts that read the Spectator and the Wine Advocate,
but in terms of percentages, it s probably less than a fraction of a percent. How many
people drink premium wines? Probably 10 percent of the wine-drinking population. The
wine-drinking population is a fraction of the percentage of people in the United States. It s
a small amount of people who are talking and that the Spectator and the Wine Advocate
I think that the larger population is reached by people who are influenced by the writers.
They re invaluable in what they do, because they publicize wine. They promote wine, they
give people a way of discerning what is supposedly higher quality versus lower quality.
They also describe them, and someone may look at a description of a wine that gets an 85
and say, "Wow, if the price is right, this is something I would want to buy versus these
other big wines," because you taste these big wines and they re full of oak and you might
want a softer wine that s not so intrusive on your meal, just something that you enjoy
Hicke: One thing I think those fairs do, if you go in a grocery store, where you re not going to get
the kind of help that you talk about, they put a hanger on some of the wines
Sbragia: Yes, the medals.
Hicke: And they got a gold medal in some-like the Orange County fair, something like that.
Sbragia: Right, and usually it separates the wines. I ve been a judge at Orange County, I ve been a
judge at Riverside, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to an international tasting in
Paris that happens every other year, and I m a judge there. And what does happen is the
judges cull out the really bad wines. I like big, rich wines, so I m always trying to give
them medals. But there s a whole group in the middle, that in the fairs sometimes gets a
consistent silver in lots of fairs, that is sending the message, "That s a nice wine." It s a
I think also it s kind of like the rating system in France. The First Growths get to charge
more, so supply and demand basically drives the price up. In California, a vineyard that
consistently gets in the nineties every year, for example Kistler [Vineyards] Chardonnay or
the Williams Selyem [Winery] Pinot Noirsthose prices have just gone skyrocketing.
Diamond Creek [Vineyards] Cabernet, I m hearing, are approaching $200.
Hicke: I think he sells one of his vineyard-designates for $300.
Sbragia: And that s scary. My dad always said when a wine costs more than a bottle of whiskey, it s
Alluvium and Other Wines
Sbragia: I really think that the price sometimes separates who s going to buy the wine. Myron was
making Sonoma Cabernet when I got to Beringer, and the first bottle of Knights Valley as a
vineyard was in 1976, which was my first year, so I kind of grew up with that vineyard.
Hicke: Does Beringer own that?
Sbragia: Yes. It s our vineyard, and when Merlot was planted there, nobody knew what to do with it,
because I at the time wasn t really enthralled with Merlot. But then with the success I had
with Howell Mountain Merlot, I said okay. So I think it was in 1991, 1 started making a
Merlot-based wine called Alluvium from Knights Valley. And I made it the same way as
the Howell Mountain Merlot.
Over the years we ve had people I like using as consultants. They tell you what they
think and then they go away and you do what you want, [laughter] With Cabernet we used
a man named Patrick Leon, who was the winemaker for Chateau Lascombes. He worked
with us. He went on to be the winemaker for Chateau Mouton and with their relationship
with Mondavi, we both felt he needed to move on. He had a friend named Jean Louis
Montreaux, who worked for Latour for ten years-1976 to 1986. When Patrick left, he
convinced Jean Louis to come and consult. Jean Louis had his own estate in the Entre
Deux Mers, Chateau de Mazarde. He became a farmer again-like I think some of us may
do when we retire. His advice for Merlot was to pick it one brix higher than you pick
Cabernet Sauvignon. You pick Cabernet Sauvignon at 23, and you always pick the Merlot
with a brix higher, so I did the same thing here and it worked. That s a little secret I m
giving away, [laughter]
Hicke: It s not going to be a secret anymore!
Sbragia: So the Knights Valley Merlot turned out quite good.
Hicke: Were you doing that at Howell Mountain before that?
Hicke: It just turned out good?
Sbragia: Yes. The industry term for Bordeaux blend was Meritage. It was an attempt to go from
varietal designation, which we d established as the criteria for bottling in the United States,
to appellation like in Europe. It was a category for these blended wines. The laws require
75 percent of a varietal to be labeled as that varietal. When I first started it was 51 percent
varietal. It went up to 75 percent, 75 percent of the varietal and 25 percent of the blender.
But say you wanted to go to a 60-40 blend, say 60 percent Cabernet, 40 percent Cab Franc?
Then you couldn t call it a varietal. It would have to be called red table wine. In a
competition it would be grouped with the jug wines. That was not good. So the idea of a
category of blended wines called Meritage (Bordeaux blend) made sense.
Hicke: You were talking about Meritage and why this new idea was establishedAlluvium, and
about making Merlot.
Sbragia: We entered the Meritage category with our Knights Valley Meritage Red, being mostly
Sbragia: The Merlot turned out quite well. What happened with the Alluvium was that we went
from making a Meritage, which I wanted to make different from Knight s Valley Cabernet,
so we made it at least 75 percent Merlot, which means it could qualify as a Merlot, but then
it took about 14 to 20 percent Cabernet. Then we added some Cab Franc, about 5 percent
by volume, to the total. There was a little bit of Malbec and Petit Verdot-1 percent of
Hicke: Is this the Alluvium now?
Sbragia: Yes, so what happened was we changed Knights Valley White Meritage. It was Semillon
and Sauvignon Blanc. And before Meritage it was Knight s Valley Sauvignon Blanc. The
progression is that I wanted to put more Semillon in itit went to Meritage white. Then I
wanted to add a little Chardonnay, so what do you do now? Because you have a Bordeaux
variety and you want to add a Burgundian variety into it, and on top of that I wanted to add
a little Viognier a small percentage, like 3 percent and that s a Rhone variety, so all of a
sudden Meritage didn t qualify any more. So we had to come up with a proprietary name.
They didn t want to go with Ed s Big White, [laughter]
Knight s Valley is an old river bed. There s a belief that the Russian River used to come
through that area and run off into the Napa River into the Bay. Then some upheaval
twisted it and it went to the ocean out by Jenner. It is all gravel beds with little rivers
running through it. It is very shallow soils. According to geologists, it s an old dejection
cone, where a glacier kind of spun around and ground out this long, wide, sloping area and
ground up all the rocks into small stones. Then with rivers running through it, you ll have a
lot of deposit. It is pretty restrictive. The grape crop usually is at three to three and a half
tons per acre. And it produces some really intense wines. We mentioned alluvial fan to a
marketing person, and thus Alluvium arose. So Alluvium is the red wine and Alluvium
Blanc is the white wine.
Hicke: Do you grow all of the grapes there?
Sbragia: The grapes are all Knight s Valley grapes.
Hicke: Is Alluvium also the vineyard?
Sbragia: No, it s not. Alluvium is just a proprietary name. Actually when I first started, we had two
proprietary wines. There was a Rieslingessentially a Riesling, which was called
Trabengold. And a red wine called Barenblut, blood of bear. Before my time, it was a
blend of Pinot Noir and Grignolino. When I got to Beringer it was a blend of Zinfandel and
Hicke: It s discontinued?
Sbragia: We bottled it into the early eighties. But varietal labeling became so strong and everybody
was so 100 percent crazy, proprietary names kind of fell from favor. The trend is very
interesting, though, because in the mid-eighties we wanted these blends, and we didn t have
a way of doing them with varietal labeling, so we went to names like Meritage, which I
think still exists, because of the desire to blend varieties that normally go together from
Europe. But we re not tied to those traditions. If it grows well, and you want to put a Sirah
in your Cabernet, what do you call it? Well, you come up with a proprietary name. So here
we re back again-it s a full cycle-to the way they were doing it before.
I think the Italians have come up with the same concepts with Chianti, where they have
Sossichia and Tignanello. These are all Sangiovese-Cabemet-Merlot blends. So it s funny
how the wine industry went full circle there.
Hicke: Yes, that is interesting.
Sbragia: Another thing: since we re a relatively young industry, with this little gap in the middle of
Prohibition, people don t know where Knights Valley is. For instance, Ridge [Vineyards
and Winery] have a wine out named Ridge Lytton Springs. They bought Lytton Springs,
which is a little winery, and they produce a Zinfandel, and the last labeling I saw, it just
said Ridge Lytton Springs; it didn t say what variety it was.
Hicke: That s unusual.
Sbragia: Yes, but we all know it s Zin. So eventually there ll be a Knight s Valley. It ll be obvious
it s a red wine, or a white wine. The wine consumer will be familiar with the location and
varieties grown there. Kind of like in Bordeaux, it s the Cabernet varieties. In Burgundy,
it s Pinot varieties and Chardonnay.
Essentially it s a wine associated with an area, which I think has merit, because they are
so different. Just comparing the Cabernet from Knight s Valley versus the Private Reserve,
the Knight s Valley s is very fruit-forward, almost ripe-cherry fruit, whereas the Napa
Valley Cab is much more intense in terms of spices and some of the herbal components-
cedar, more the bright cherry flavor versus a ripe cherry. Which is another strange thing
about our wine industry: how we try to describe wine.
Hicke: Don t they do that in France?
Sbragia: Yes, they do. You use every term under the sun, from old wet socks to all sorts of fruits
and spices. Someone who really has good ability to pull out what spices smell like and
flowers smell like has an advantage in this. When I make comments about wines, I tend to
be more brief in my descriptions because you re doing so many, you can t do a two- or
three-page dissertation on each wine, it s a couple of comments and a score.
Hicke: So you have one or two flavors that you think are most descriptive?
Sbragia: Yes, unless there are defects, where you smell vinegar or you have odd smells that you try
Hicke: Well, maybe is this a good place to stop?
Sbragia: A good place.
Myron Nightingale s Colleagues
[Interview 3: February 29, 2000] ##
Hicke: I m just going to start today by asking you to go back and talk about a few of Myron
Nightingale s associates. One of them was Harold "Hod" Berg?
Sbragia: Yes, Harold Berg was one of the mainstays of the wine industry. He taught at the
University of California at Davis, and all my generation going through school had classes
from him. I actually didn t take any of his classes because I was in the chemistry
department. Later on, when I went to Gallo, they had video-taped all of his lectures.
Hicke: What did he teach?
Sbragia: He taught wine production. And he had actually made wine. I can t remember the winery
he worked for, but
Hicke: Is that the same thing as enology, wine production?
Sbragia: Yes, rather than sensory evaluation or microbiology. The professors at Davis specialized.
Dr. Singleton was more specialized in oak, Dr. R. E. Kunkee in microbiology, and Dr. Berg
was the production specialist. He taught winery techniques and about different instabilities
and binding agents and what happens in fermentation.
Myron Nightingale was good friends with if you look at your book 1 here, [laughter] he
was good friends with all his men; he knew them all. Dr. Olmo was a really good friend of
who did a lot of early research on viticulture and propagation. Dr. Burg and Myron used to
go on houseboat trips on Lake Shasta. They would spend two weeks there. They d load up
with wine and Myron would fish and Hod would read books, Myron said. I never was
privileged to go on one of those, but it sounded like a lot of fun.
Hicke: You mentioned Phil Possum.
Sbragia: Phil Possum, when I came into the business in the mid-seventies, was running a company
called Sierra Wine Company in Tulare [County]. Phil was entrenched in the wine business
there and was one of the winemakers that made really good wines there, sherries and
dessert wines. Then Beringer had Los Hermanos, which was an everyday-priced wine, and
a lot of grapes were sourced in that area south of Fresno.
Hicke: What kind of grapes?
Sbragia: Chenin Blanc and French Colombard for the whites, and Zinfandel and Carignane for the
reds, and Thompson s Seedless, which they called Valley Chardonnay. [laughter] Anyway,
he was a really nice man and a really good winemaker, and we had very good success with
working with Sierra. It was bought out by Golden State Vintners.
Hicke: Did you buy bulk wine from them?
Sbragia: Yes, we bought bulk wine, and they made wines on contract for us.
One of Myron s philosophies that I ve adopted is that it s good to make wines close to
where they re grown-trucking grapes too far is not good.
Hicke: Okay, shall I just run down the names here in the book?
Hicke: Bruno Bruscellia.
Sbragia: Bruscellia. Actually, I think that Bruscellia s family initially owned the building we call
Greystone. It was Christian Brothers for a long time and is now the Culinary Institute of
America. Bruscellia had a small winery--! think it was near Manteca, and it was used to
make something called "light sweet white."
What you would do is basically take juice and then fortify it to 14 percent alcohol. You
could have both the sugar and alcohol high enough, which would inhibit yeast fermentation.
^California Wine Pioneers: Profiles of the State s Wine Industry Leaders, sponsored by the Wine
Spectator Scholarship Foundation.
Then if you have wine that you want to add a little bit of sweetness to, but you don t want it
to ferment cold and arrest [fermentation], you could add back this light sweet white. They
used to make light sweet white for us.
Hicke: Bottle it?
Sbragia: No, we would just buy itagain, it was another source of bulk wine. These were all people
that we had dealt with that Myron knew for a long, long time that had worked in the wine
business. They d been in business, I guess, since after Prohibition.
Hicke: But they aren t well-known names, so I m really pleased that you re telling me about them.
Sbragia: Myron also talked about Colonel Burtor, who was his boss at National Distillers, and
Schenley. He was a major influence.
Hicke: He was another winemaker?
Sbragia: Yes. Actually, someone to talk to about that is Alice Nightingale. Alice is still alive.
Hicke: Is that right? I didn t realize that.
Sbragia: Yes, and she would probably know a lot of things about Myron and the past and the people
involved. Myron used to talk about when the American Society of Enology and Viticulture
started, and they used to meet at a place called Hobart s up in Lake County. It was probably
about fifty people who got together and had a party once: "I think we should start an
organization." And right now, I think the last ASEV we had was in Sacramento, which
6,500 people attended.
Hicke: That small beginning really started something. Okay, the next name I have is Lee Stewart.
Sbragia: Lee Stewart was a winemaker in the Napa Valley. He started Souverain, and Souverain
made wines here, I guess, in the sixties and maybe before. Souverain was up where
Rutherford Hill is. Lee Stewart used to come and visit Myron when I was here in like 77
and 78. He was a relatively older man at that point, and I m not sure when he passed away,
but those old wines that he made at Souverain are still regarded as some of the better wines
from the Valley.
Sbragia: Cabernets and Petite Sirahs and Zinfandels.
And then I think what happened is that Pillsbury bought Souverain and then they had
Souverain of Napa and Souverain of Sonoma County, and later Souverain of Sonoma
became Chateau Souverain. It went through various owners and then was a co-op and then
Beringer Wine Estates bought it.
Hicke: That is interesting. Okay, Louis Martini.
Sbragia: Well, Louis M. Martini and Myron Nightingale both graduated in the class of 1941 from
the University of California School of Agriculture at Berkeley. Myron was in microbiology
and Louis, I think, was chemistry, but they specialized in winemaking. There was a very
famous teacher of viticulture, William Vere Cruess, and of enology, Dr. Winkler.
Louis M. -Martini s father was Louis P. Martini, the founder of the Martini Winery he
was still alive when I was here. I know Myron knew him, but he and I together never had
any interaction with Louis P., who passed away in 1974. I m very good friends with Mike
Martini, Louis M. s son. He and I play in a rock and roll band together, "Private Reserve."
Hicke: Yes, [laughs] you told me about that before, but I didn t know that Mike Martini was in it
Sbragia: Louis and Myron were always good friends, and Louis had stories about Myron, about his
study habits and how intense he was about getting everything done on time.
Hicke: And you apparently sat around listening to stories occasionally.
Sbragia: Yes, I can t remember right now old stories about Myron and Louis together. I remember
Louis was very fond of Myron and they were good friends. Louis Martini was one of the
most prominent people in the wine business in terms of his dedication to making selections
of varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Those selections live on today, because they
became the selections that Davis used in their trials. Both Myron and Louis were very
close to Davis in terms of all the professors. In the the fifties, Napa Valley only had
twenty-four wineries. It was a pretty small industry then. There are over 200 today.
There were twenty-four people, and the university had four, and those people got
together on a regular basissocially and also for business, trying to work out some
problems. The whole wine business had been shut down over Prohibition and there were
problems that arose from that. When Prohibition hit, I think most of the people with the old
knowledge from Europe left. The people who started up after Prohibition were also
immigrants, but they really weren t hard-core wine people. They were more farmers than
Sbragia: Yes. So Myron s generation started developing wine technology from all the good
techniques the university was developing and suggesting ideas about cold fermentation and
sanitation techniques. Stainless steel came in, and that was kind of a nirvana; you could
have a container that was really clean, it could be sanitized. A lot of the old ways weren t
as clean, and produced more complex wines. We were making very clean very simple
wines. I think you have to give Myron and Louis credit for coming through the difficulties
of post-Prohibition to modem winemaking. Another man would be Charlie Crawford,
another graduate of the class of 1941.
Hicke: He s the next on the list.
Sbragia: He was at Gallo~they deserve credit for developing the foundation business. Charlie
started at Gallo as winemaker in 1942. He was key to the success of Ernest and Julio Gallo.
Trips back to Europe were few and far between. I know Myron used to talk about going
on a business trip in the U.S., and you just didn t fly back East; you would go by train and
you worked your way across the U.S. You took a couple of weeks and you stopped at
major markets and worked your way back, and that was the public relations trip for the
year. He d be like a politician going across country, [laughs] What s that called-
Hicke: Yes, yes. Right.
Sbragia: It was very tedious and hard, but it was at a slower pace than today s trips. A train gives
you more time in between stops than an airplane.
Hicke: Yes. What was Myron doing? Selling?
Sbragia: Yes, usually. He did what I do now. You talk, first of all, to the trade. You re talking to
your distributor, because they want to see the guy who made the wine, and you talk to the
accounts, the key accounts. And then I m not sure whether there were wine writers in the
fifties. I m sure there were.
Hicke: [laughs] Not very many, though. Not like now.
Sbragia: Myron would stop and talk to them and tell them what was new and have them taste wine.
He d have cases of wine, so people could taste his wines.
Hicke: Winemakers dinners, do you think?
Sbragia: Yes, I m sure that he hosted people. They had dinner together, but it was probably smaller
groups, which I tend to do now, myself. I think it s more efficient. You get to know people
better than just having a hundred people in a room.
Hicke: I want to go back to something you said that made it sound like Myron and Louis Martini
influenced U.C. Davis.
Sbragia: I think they did. I don t think the professors worked in wineries very much, so that a lot of
the input to Davis was from people like Myron and Louis. Louis obviously influenced
Davis in terms of fruit propagation and the development of the heat resistant, virus-free
rootstocks. What we now have, which is planted throughout California, are Louis Martini
Hicke: Is that right? I had never heard that either. I always got the feeling that Davis was telling
the winemakers what they should be doing.
Sbragia: In many instances, they did, and it was good advice for the time. It is still good advice
today, but we have more control. That is where things have changed. We used to say yeast
didn t matter. That s because you had all these variables in the winery. There were so many
more strong variables~you had to be careful of bacteria in the wood, and no controlled
temperature, and probably not as good of yeast strains that would be strong against all the
different environmental predators that stop a fermentation. That made it necessary to be
very clean. Today we have great equipment-we are more in control. We can afford to take
more chances. We pick by hand, it s probably about the same as it was, but we know not to
haul in gondolas that are made of metal. The acid in grapes would extract metal and get
metal impurities in the wine that cause haziness and precipitates. This was a big problem.
In my first job working at the Foppiano Vineyards, we had an iron crusher bolted to a
copper mustline. Iron and copper cause haze and precipitates. They won t kill anybody, but
they look bad because you get this cloud and sediment on the bottom of the bottle. They
had iron tanks that were coated with glass or epoxy. They had cement tanks that as they got
older, the iron bars, the rebar inside the cement, would leach out metals.
So you had all these, and when you finished making a wine, you usually were above five
or six parts of iron. Anything above a half part of copper is potential -well, you could get
three parts copper and twelve, fifteen parts iron on a regular basis.
Hicke: It s like you re saying they had to clean up the process to the bottom line and then start
refining it and adding other improvements.
Sbragia: Like brass valves. They had all sorts of things because those were the metals available.
Stainless steel didn t come until later. It was probably available, but way too expensive.
When it finally got to a good price, or the wine industry got rich enough to be able to afford
it, they bought stainless steel tanks. They were a godsend. Because all of a sudden all of
these instabilities created problems. You had to do very careful fining and then a filtration.
It was all more work and more processing. Today, the way we pick, the way we crush, the
way we press, the juice is so pristine that I just put it in barrels.
And we re using new French oak and new American oak, so they re clean, new barrels,
they re temperature-controlled cellars. We don t have cellars that go up into the seventies
and eighties during the summer, and we have humidity controls so the wood doesn t crack.
All of a sudden, what you could get in a tunnel fifty feet below the ground in a French
cellar could be approximated anywhere in any winery.
We have tunnels dug into the mountains, so I think the Beringers had a leg up on most
people. But that was only a couple hundred barrels. As you grew, you couldn t just dig a
tunnel anywhere, and it used to be very expensive in the fifties and sixties to dig a tunnel.
They didn t have these tunneling machines that they have today that were developed to dig
the channel, the chunnel.
Hicke: The chunnel. Oh, yes, the tunnel between England and the continent.
Sbragia: Those machines now come in and dig a tunnel and it s still expensive, but it s cheaper, or
more comparable to building a building.
Hicke: Are you saying a tunnel is the ideal way to store it?
Sbragia: Well, if you look at insulation, they re making sod houses now, with grass roofs.
Hicke: [laughs] That s true.
Sbragia: The insulation capacity of a tunnel maintains humidity and then temperatures in our tunnels
are 55 to 58 degrees all year round. So trying to approximate that, it wasn t possible. They
didn t have those capabilities. Now I have them.
The wine is fermented, aged in barrels. I can control temperature by the temperature of
the room and by how much yeast I put in, because the yeast are very active, the cultured
yeast that we have today.
Hicke: You choose the yeast, too?
Sbragia: Yes, we use multiple yeast and because the process is so uniform and controlled, now the
difference of the yeast is very observable. As a winemaker, I can make a difference in the
wine by choosing a different yeast. Myron knew about those yeasts, but he never tried to
use them. He just used the yeast that fermented fast. He didn t want a slow fermentation
because if he did, he had a hot cellar and other microorganisms would ruin his
fermentations. Options weren t available to him, from a technological point of view.
Their philosophy said that oak wasn t necessarily a good thing in wine, and there are
some wine-drinking populations that still believe that. The Italians don t like a lot of oak in
the wines. I think that it was an interesting time. It was a time of rebuilding.
Hicke: That s a nice, encapsulated, little history of how the industry evolved.
Sbragia: Yes, and when you look at it, the renaissance really didn t happen until around the late
sixties, early seventies. That s when we went from twenty-four wineries to I think we re
over 200 wineries now. We were over a hundred wineries at the rum of the century, when
they were all little wineries built like a model of what they were in Europe. When we
started growing, we got bigger wineries, big estates.
Hicke: Big tanks.
Sbragia: Bigger tanks, and equipment. I think as that progressed in the seventies and eighties when
equipment allowed us to go back, we did start traveling back and forth. I might have
already said this, but I remember Dick Graff was telling a story about going to a cellar in
Burgundy and a guy told him all the things he did about barrel fermentation-that he stirred
the lees to encourage the end of alcoholic and for malolactic to complete, and it also added
some thickness and body. He really liked that process. In the end he just bottled it right out
of his barrels, because it settled down really nicely. Dick said, "Well, why haven t you ever
told anybody this?" He said, "No one ever asked."
A lot of countries didn t think of us as competitors and still don t, because we can t make
a really good French wine in California, [laughter] No matter how hard we try, it s
Hicke: Why try? I mean, California makes really good wines.
Sbragia: That s the whole idea. I can copy techniques and combinations of varieties and knowledge
that apply to my situation. That gives me a head start at making a wine that is good. The
final wine is always different than the wine I had in mind.
When we started doing that, our wines went away from the clean, squeaky clean kind of
simple, nondescript to wines that demonstrated the vineyard and the techniques of the
vintner and the quality of the soil. It happened slowly~the universities used to say the soil
was just a container for minerals and water and really didn t make a difference. I think that
whole philosophy has changed; terroir means, I think, the whole thing: climate, soil, and
the people who work on it, the varieties you choose, everything that makes the wine. It s a
funny thing that we kind of went from the old to the new, but then the new land of
embraced the old. We still have all the toys, just in case we need them, -if Mother Nature
decides to throw us a curve, which she does all the time.
Hicke: Agriculture is a risky business. There s no question.
Sbragia: Yes, my dad always said, "You think those guys in Las Vegas gamble." [laughter] He said,
"We put in on the red or the black every year."
Hicke: Well, you mentioned Charlie Crawford, who s the next guy on the list. Is there more about
Sbragia: Charlie! It s interesting about Charlie Crawford. The first time I met Charlie Crawford was
when I went to work for Gallo right out of school at Davis. He was in charge of production
and research. The man who worked for him was Art Caputi, who ran the research
department. So I met Charlie various times when I was working at Gallo.
Interesting thing~my wife said that Charlie Crawford grew up in Antioch, as did my
father-in-law, and they picked prunes together when they were kids. It s such a small world.
He was one of the graduates of the class of 1941 from Berkeley. He went to work for
Ernest and Julio quite early, in 1942. He was one of the reasons Gallo has been such a
success making wines from all over the state and producing products that were always clean
Hicke: So he deserves a lot of credit.
Sbragia: Yes. And he just passed away. He was the last of the class of 41 to die.
Hicke: The last one I had was Eli Skofis.
Sbragia: Eli worked with Myron back in either Schenley or National Distiller or both. I m not sure
who bought who. He was a winemaker. When I got in the business, Eli was a vice
president of production for Guild Wineries.
Sbragia: So Eli Skofis was a vice president of production for Guild and very associated with the
Wine Institute technical committees. One of the things that Myron used to have me do for
him when he couldn t was go to his wine tech committee for the Wine Institute, and Eli was
very verbal on that committee. Louis Martini was on that committee, and Charlie
Crawford, Art Caputi, and John Franzia. The committee basically decided how we
interrelated with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. It was kind of a liaison,
and it also decided on what research projects we would support at the university.
Also, when I went back to school after Gallo to Fresno to get my master s degree, Eli
taught a winery production class at Fresno. He gave me my only B in my postgraduate
career. When you re that age~I was twenty-five and I felt I knew everything. Today I feel
like I know a lot less than I did then. I was a lot smarter when I was twenty-five, and I had
this philosophical disagreement in terms of how Eli was teaching. I wouldn t back down
and he wouldn t back down, so instead of getting an A on a paper, I got a B, and it was
enough to drop my grade.
Hicke: Oh, well, I don t think it deterred you much, [laughs]
Sbragia: No, it was all right. Here I was thinking, wow, you know, going through Davis, I think the
highest grade I got was a couple of A s, most of them were B s and a lot of C s, so having
almost straight A s was a real kick.
Hicke: And to get a B in wine production.
Sbragia: Yes, something I should know.
Hicke: Then I have down that "The addition of tank presses, refrigeration, and stainless steel
changed the way we made wine and allowed us to question the old ways." Well, you ve
talked about that a little bit.
Sbragia: Yes, I think it s pretty much it. There were the old, old ways. I saw a lot of them going to
Europe in the seventies and traveling around to various wine producing regions. One thing
about Europe was the tradition until it changed in the late seventies or early eighties, when
I think the New World-Australia and California-proved themselves in the eyes of the
world and produced some great wines, so that Europe said, "We d better pay attention to
what these people are doing." We had always been in awe of what Europe did, and how
good those wines were-especially in some cases, like wines from regions where it was
pretty hard to grow grapes.
If you look at Burgundy, it is a difficult growing environment it is cold and rainy. In
Bordeaux off the coast it is warmer, so they get a lot of rain all season long. That s
probably one of the reasons they don t have to irrigate. The industry usually regulates itself
with rules that adapt to their particular growing environment. For instance in California,
it s against the law to add sugar, whereas you can add sugar in Burgundy.
Hicke: Well, actually the 1969 trip to Europe was on your list of things you wanted particularly to
talk about, so can you tell me about that?
Sbragia: Yes, actually I m wrong. It wasn t 1969, it was 1983. The 69 trip was with my parents,
going back to Italy and visiting family. We really didn t do any wine-related things. It was
more visiting family and where we lived and where my dad grew up. I did that with my
kids again this summer. We rented a house near Lucca and visited my cousins and the old
My first wine trip was in 1983, and I went with the man who was Myron s and my boss
when I first came to Beringer in 1976, a man named Guy Kay, and a guy named Jean
Jacques Zell, who was in charge of beverages for Nestle International.
We were owned by Nestle. Nestle bought Beringer in 1971, and hired Myron. Guy had
been a production guy for Nestle for almost twenty years.
Hicke: In what area?
Sbragia: In every area. He was a microbiologist and then he worked in chocolate production, he
worked in food production, he worked in beverage production, almost everything.
Hicke: That s impressive.
Sbragia: I think Nestle had plans for us to grow. We had lots of good vineyards. They weren t in the
grape-growing business; they wanted to make wine. The Swiss are one of those countries
that don t believe in oak, like the Italians in those days. They all are kind of embracing it
now, but I think the Swiss are still a holdout.
They didn t think we needed oak, and one of the things that we were all seeing in that
age, learning some of the old knowledge, is that a lot of wines benefited from barrel
fermentation: Chardonnay and then reds need barrels to age. Especially because we were in
a premium region. It wasn t a light, delicate region. These were pretty big wines that
needed maturing, and the best place to mature was in a 225-liter barrel, which is roughly
fifty-nine and half gallons. They were not the American barrels that you could buy for fifty
dollars in those days that we used for whiskey; they were handmade barrels that were
designed for wine because the quality of the wood was different. They had aged the wood
longer. That made the wood not have a strong, harsh taste, but very soft, subtle tastes.
Hicke: You re talking about European wines and having discovered this-
Sbragia: Yes, so it was basically an oak tour. It was a great trip! We went to Bordeaux and we went
to every first-growth chateau. I think we started out in Margaux. I met the winemakers.
There were a lot of Califomians starting to come, so they were very interested in meeting
us. We went to Margaux and then we went to Latour, we went to Chateau Lafite, we went
to Auson, and Chevel-Blanc. We visited Petrus, which mostly made Merlot. What we
found was that they bought brand-new barrels for their big wines, and they used to age
them for two years in barrels, and that s something I still do today. Through the trip I met
Jean-Louis Montreaux, who was the winemaker general manager. He left Latour in 1986 to
run his business. He is our consultant now. He comes and tastes wines. So those
relationships developed way back then are still helping me today.
Hicke: Did you develop your palate then, or did your palate change?
Sbragia: Well, I grew up tasting wines with my dad. He made Zinfandel and I drank Zinfandel at
home. That was kind of the wine of Sonoma County, the best wine at that point. His wines
were pretty big. He had the old knowledge. It wasn t technical knowledge, but he did it the
way he had learned from his dad and his grandfather, which is crushing the grapes and
punching them down, fermenting totally to dryness. When they were totally dry in the
skins, he would drain the juice and press the wine, and actually put it all together and then
age it in barrels. I got used to wines that had lots of density and lots of flavor.
I didn t like very light wines. The first time I had a Gamay Beaujolais, I thought,
"What s this? This is too light." And same thing with Pinot Noir. I think that s what was
one of the problems with the early days of Pinot Noir; most people were used to Zinfandel
So Bordeaux Cabernet just fit perfectly into that mold. I liked Cabernet from the first
day I tasted it and I liked Bordeaux wines and I really appreciated their style. They re
different, but they re really good. Tasting the wines, and tasting the best wines, and seeing
their cellars and seeing what they did really opened up my eyes in terms of realizing that
my dad wasn t too far off. [laughter]
Hicke: Most children come to that knowledge sooner or later.
Sbragia: I also felt that maybe what we were doing wasn t really the right way to go. Just keeping
our wines in big tanks and later putting them in barrels for a short amount of time wasn t
really making wines that we wanted to have.
Hicke: So this was really a crucial trip.
Sbragia: This was. And it also convinced Nestle that we should buy barrels.
Hicke: Oh, good.
Sbragia: So at that point we went to Switzerland and sat down in the office and said, "Okay, how do
we tell you this? How do we write it down?" We came away with agreement about how
long our wine was going to be in barrels, and when they were to be delivered.
Hicke: You must have been persuasive.
Sbragia: Yes, since Jean Jacques Zell actually had been a winemaker and a brewmaster in Alsace,
and was one of their own, his opinion carried a lot of weight. Jean Jaques loved to go eat at
wonderful restaurants. And in Europe menus are posted outside of restaurants. We always
had to read three menus first and then we decided which one we wanted. At the end of the
day this was a great process. You couldn t gain weight because you d walked, [laughter]
I think we developed a better relationship with the parent company because of the
relationship we developed with Jean Jacques.
Hicke: Can I interrupt you a minute? In Bordeaux did you go into the vineyards?
Sbragia: Yes, we walked through the vineyards, too. They re very different. They re very close-
spaced and because they re so close, they have to be lower to the ground. Bordeaux during
the growing season is actually warmer at night but colder during the day~they don t have as
much daytime solar radiation, and they have a little bit lower acid and higher pH, which
means they don t get to the maturity that we have, and so they do a lot of aerative racking to
modify the phenolic compounds, the tannins they have, and soften them through oxidation,
slow oxidation in the barrels. They rack every ninety days, the first year; then maybe twice
the second year.
Hicke: Shallow soils, too, and pretty rocky.
Sbragia: Yes. The two rivers Vardone and Gironde meet there. The have covered the whole area, so
it has a lot of gravelly soil.
Hicke: Okay, I interrupted you just after you had persuaded Nestle to follow this program of more
Sbragia: Then after that, it was just a matter of developing our program for every wine. Not all
wines got 100 percent oak. Like our Knights Valley Cabernet gets about 30 percent. The
Chardonnay, the reserves, get a lot. They get about 85 percent, but our Napa Valley gets 20
percent. It depends on the wine and what you re trying to make, and what you re going to
sell it for. Economics comes into play.
A winemaker s primary job is to focus -on quality. That s what he should do, and if he
has another hat~I mean, if he owns the winery, then he definitely has to watch the
economics, or else he s not going to be able to make wine again. In a winery of my size,
well, you re not in charge of finance, but you have to understand the limitations of wines
and then work within that. If it s totally wrong, then you have to jump up and down and
yell and express yourself, because if you don t put it in the bottle, in the long term, you re
not going to be a winery. So I think from a winemaker s standpoint, you have to demand
qualityin a vineyard and a winery.
Cost of Wine
Hicke: I d like to ask you a question that people sometimes ask me and I don t have any good
answer I have my own ideas, but I d like to hear it from a professional, which is: why does
wine cost so much? Some wines, particularly.
Sbragia: I think it starts from the point of view of what the land costs and what it costs to plant a
vineyard and build a winery. There s certain overhead to grow and--
Hicke: Yes, capital investment.
Sbragia: And I think that gets a wine into the ten- to twenty-dollar range, like right now, vineyards
just sold for over $100,000 an acre, when you used to go buy land for $3,000 and plant it
for $5,000 and it was less than $10,000 an acre. So that s ten times the cost.
Hicke: But Beringer has had some of this land for--
Sbragia: For forever.
Hicke: Yes. So it didn t cost much.
Sbragia: The other thing, I guess, is because the places where grapes grow really well in the United
States are limited. It s basically the coastal region of California, up into Oregon and
Washington~but it s a little more difficult to grow grapes up there. So I think supply and
demand, economics, come into play.
Hicke: I hadn t thought of that. Yes, okay.
Sbragia: I think you can overprice your wine to the point where nobody buys it. Then you re in
trouble, but if you underprice it, sometimes people look at it and say, "It s so low priced.
All these other highly rated wineries are selling their wines for $50 a bottle, so this wine
must be a cheap imitation." That s not good! So a lot of times you have to get your wine
sold to the people who would appreciate it. If you sell it for five dollars, people who would
buy it wouldn t like it because it s too big and harsh and heavy because it s made in a big
style. So that gets it up into the twenty- to fifty-dollar range.
But now we re seeing wines that are being sold for $250 and $300. I think that is
because today it s a boom time and we have a lot of people to whom dollars and cents really
don t make a difference on a daily basis. So if something is limited and rare, then they ll
pay anything to get it.
Hicke: The first thing that usually comes to my mind is it s so labor-intensive, you go around and
look at each bunch of grapes, I guess, in a really good wine.
Sbragia: Oh, yes, I think if you look at, say, our private reserve, it s seventy-five dollars, and when I
first started in the seventies, it was about twenty. Well, twenty in the 70s was a lot of
money. From then to now, inflation would have brought it at least to forty or fifty dollars,
and then supply and demand has doubled it again. My dad used say, "Well, when wine gets
more expensive than a bottle of whiskey, it s getting way too expensive." But when you
think about the raw materials and how the grower can lose everything in one night of frost.
In the wine business, you get one shot a year, one shot, only.
Hicke: Okay, that s good. Thank you. I have more ammunition now to answer those questions.
Let s see, there are a couple other things. You wanted to talk about the fact that most
people who made wine about 1900 were immigrants. You just mentioned that.
Sbragia: Yes, I went over that in terms of how they set the standard.
Bob Steinhauer and Vineyard Practices
Hicke: Then what I d like to do next, if you re comfortable with it, is to go to when Bob Steinhauer
came and the impact that he s made.
Sbragia: People who really pay attention to wine are probably less than 10 percent of the population.
A very small number of people really are into who made it and what vineyard it comes
from. But for those people, the winemaker is very important, because we are the person
who made the wine and we ve taken on a status. People are in awe of what we do, which is
kind of neat. I don t think winemakers have discredited that feeling. I think they like it a lot
and want to encourage it.
Hicke: Rightfully so.
Sbragia: One person who probably has as much responsibility for the quality of the wine if not more
than the winemakers is the person who grows the grape-and the location, the vineyard
itself, the actual vineyard. So Bob Steinhauer s been very important to me. He came in
Sbragia: Walt Raymond, Sr., was the winemaker before Myron. Walt had married a Beringer. He
had two sons, Walter and Roy. Walter, Jr., worked with his father. They started their own
winery a little later. Roy was working for us, running the vineyards. They got so busy that
he left us and went to work for his own family winery, Raymond Vineyards. Bob
Steinhauer was working for Napa Valley Vineyard Company for Mr. [Andrew] Beckstoffer
and had actually early on grown grapes for Schenley and knew Myron Nightingale. They
worked together. They used to talk about Colonel Burton.
Bob ran some vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley south of Fresno. He is one of the
most renowned grape growers in California.
Bob is totally determined to make quality wine. He isn t just trying to make a profit for
the company. He works well with me and my assistants to look at every vineyard that we
planted-every varietal, every block, to find out whether it made wines that we liked or that
we didn t like. Then he d find out why we didn t like them, and we d try and develop how
he could improve that lot. It s kind of like compound interest. In twenty years, I saw that
every year wines in total got better.
I think we got better in terms of getting better equipment and better techniques, and the
vineyard got better at the same time. We got that feedback and the ability to handle the
fruit better. We made better wines!
One of the great things that Myron did when he first came was to build thirty-six 1,000-
gallon tanks. For a winery our size, that s a lot of little tanks, but we were able to keep all
those vineyard blocks separate. In 1984 we started a research department to evaluate not
only winemaking experiments, but vineyard experiments. Then about five years after that,
we started a sensory department, because we would get these research experiments-you ve
got to taste everything and we were already too busy to taste the wines you have; how do
you taste experiments?
So having someone who was totally responsible for the experiments was critical. In the
heat of battle when you re doing all these vineyards, you try to keep all the blocks separate
and all of a sudden you ve got a block of grapes that have to come in. You need to press
two tanks off and there s only one tank. But there are two partial tanks that have the
experiments in them, so you say, "Well, I ll take a couple of demijohns of each, put them
together, and now I ve got another tank." And about in March, right about now, you d look
over where those demijohns are stored and it was all brown and gone bad because you
forgot about them. We have a research department that is responsible for good experiments
that give good data.
Hicke: And you had all these small tanks that you could use.
Sbragia: Yes, but we actually got little fermenters. We do demijohns, five-gallon demijohns. We do
statistically valid experiments. Bob started embracing all that and doing lots of
experiments, statistically valid vineyard experiments. We got good vineyard data and we
also got good winemaking data. We could taste to see whether or not these vineyards
produced quality wines rather than just making more grapes. Bob was instrumental in
helping us produce better wines.
Hicke: Can you give me an example of how he impacted, or what he changed in the vineyard to
Sbragia: One of our major accomplishments was when phylloxera came and attacked our vineyards
in the late eighties. When we replanted, Bob had already looked at different rootstocks,
because one of the things you need to fix the problem of phylloxera is a replacement for
AXR1. AXR1 made really nice wine and was very compatible with all different clones of
each variety, so you didn t get any mismatches. Now we are using rootstocks that have
different characteristics that can be matched to the location. He was able to match the right
rootstocks to the right soils and actually put two or three rootstocks in each location so if
one rootstock had a problem, we wouldn t lose the whole vineyard.
Looking at different clones, we liked maybe two or three, so we again had two or three
clones that would give different layers of flavor. You wouldn t get exactly the same
uniform flavor, you get more complex wines.
And then a major thing was Bob went from 8x12 spacing into tighter spacing, but not as
tight as French. It s 6x7; 8x7 down to maybe 5x6, and with trellising that is different.
We also looked at trellising. The old system was what we jokingly called California
Sprawl. The vine grew out on a couple of catch wires. On top where the shoots came [the
vine] sprawled over. When the fruit ripened some were totally exposed and some were
way inside the vines where they didn t get sunlight. The new one, the vertical shoot
positions, VSP system, has a wire for the cordon to come up along about thirty to thirty-six
inches above the ground. The vine is at thirty-six inches, the shoots come up, and they
grow straight up. There are two catch wires, and the catch wires keep the shoots in place as
they grow. You re actually making a hedge. All the fruit is down by the cordon, rather than
being all over the place. It s actually relatively exposed to sun and airflow so you don t
have problems if it rains, you have less problem with botrytis.
Because of its uniformity, you have fruit higher, at the same height. You minimize
dominance of fruit that is higher up~the higher fruit, getting more sun, gets riper sooner.
Being all uniform, the fruit all ripens uniformly. The range is probably plus or minus one
degree B, whereas in the old system it was plus or minus four degrees B. Say I wanted
twenty-four degrees B, now I probably have twenty-three to twenty, versus in the old
system, in which I would have had a range of twenty to twenty-eight degrees B. That
impact alone is very important.
Sbragia: The under-ripe fruit was green and it didn t have the flavor development, so you d have this
combination of over-ripe and under-ripe and perfect. Now when you get really close, the
benefits of maturity are such that I think that the quality of flavor in the wines is much more
rich. Actually being able to get grapes at optimum maturity means that you don t get the
jammy character that you used to get because they were over-ripe or dehydrated..
I think drip irrigation is important also. It is really beneficial in producing quality fruit.
We are making a much better wine.
Hicke: You have much more control if the fruit ripens all at the same time, too, I would think.
Sbragia: Right, and because of our climateit doesn t rain all summerthe vine is a plant like any
other plant and for it to ripen its fruit, it ll survive without water, but it won t ripen its fruit
to optimum maturity. So what we used to do is, well, we needed the vines to be under
stress like they would be on a little hillside that has water running underneath it, so the
roots get enough water to mature the fruit. Sometimes, in a vintage where it doesn t rain,
it s really hot, those vineyards just shut down. It happened to one of my private reserve
vineyards in 79. I didn t have a private reserve. All the leaves fell off, it just quit growing
because the vine is very efficient at protecting itself, so the fruit doesn t ripen.
Hicke: So do you irrigate on demand?
Sbragia: It s like when you re trying to ripen tomatoes. For the really best tomatoes, you don t just
give it a bunch of water and then stop two months before you pick. You give it a little bit
of water every day, and in some cases, more than once-you know, on a really hot streak,
you might water in the morning and water at night, to minimize evaporation.
The techniques of irrigation on the vines and the soil there s still no substitute for going
out and looking at the grapes, for looking at the vines and seeing if the shoot tips are still
growing. You don t want that to happen. You want the vine not in its growth phase but in
its maturing fruit phase. You just keep it alive, but you don t keep it growing. You re just
at that edge, and that balance allows the fruit to actually get mature. Physiological
maturity, not dehydrated. I am able to pick grapes at a higher maturity and get more flavor
out of them, whereas in the old days when I got that Brix, it wasn t through maturity, it was
I m getting much softer tannins, which make it more interesting as a young wine. And
that s one of the other reasons I think California wines today are respected and enjoyed.
People ask, "Did you change your style of making wine?" "No! I think we changed the
way we grow grapes."
Hicke: That s fascinating.
Sbragia: And the winemaker still gets all the credit, [laughter]
Hicke: I love it!
Sbragia: I always give Bob credit and the people who work for me. You don t make wine in a
Hicke: Are all your vineyards irrigated?
Sbragia: Not every one. Some of them have plenty of water and you wouldn t want to add any more.
It depends on the vineyard. It comes with experience. Every vineyard is different. There
are no generalities. It s all site specific, and style specific. It depends on what people want
to make. The vineyard can adapt to a certain point. You could probably make a lighter
wine if that was your goal. It would be a travesty. I tend to think we need to go for it, with
every vineyard, every wine.
Hicke: Does Bob supervise all the vineyards?
Sbragia: Yes, he does.
Hicke: And all the vineyard managers then report to him?
Sbragia: Yes. Beringer has about 2,800 acres; we just bought a 600-acre piece in the Carneros
region-to make good Pinot Noir. When I started, we had about 1,800 to 2,000 acres. We
have Chardonnays from about Yountville south. I have a Cabernet vineyard in that area
called State Lane that I sometimes use in my reserve. Most of the Cabernet and Sauvignon
Blanc are from vineyards from Oakville to Yountville. There s a block of Sauvignon Blanc
in that Chardonnay vineyard, but it s pretty grassy.
There are Cabernets all the way to St. Helena. State Lane is the most northern vineyard
for Cabernet. Napa Valley s kind of different-because of the bay, the coldest part of the
valley is in the south and the warmest part is in the north.
Hicke: Yes. Does each vineyard manager then decide when to irrigate?
Sbragia: Well, the way Bob Steinhauer set it up, each sub-area of the Napa Valley has a manager.
Two or three vineyards would be managed by one man. The manager has a lot of authority
over his or her own vineyards. He has an assistant manager and they work the vineyards
with a crew. They also usually pick the vineyard with a harvest crew. We try not to put
two crews together, because when they are hired, they feel they have a claim on those
vineyards, so you have to watch the psychology of the harvest.
We also have a vineyardist who works with the managers. He keeps up on all the latest
techniques and pesticides. He s kind of like a mini-consultant.
Hicke: Full time?
Sbragia: Full time.
Hicke: And does Bob taste the wines?
Sbragia: We try to taste as much as we can. The problem is that as we grew, everybody is busy. I
feel it is necessary for us to get together multiple times a year and look at every location
and see how we re doing. Bob knows exactly what I want now because we ve been together
for such a long time. Working together as a team makes us better than we would have been
Hicke: And you developed this early, I take it?
Hicke: So that you are very close.
Sbragia: We are planting a new vineyard, so we are going to walk that vineyard a lot to figure out
what we want to do.
Hicke: Who decides on the new varieties to plant?
Sbragia: I think you have to look at the vineyard and what it can produce. In the past when I first got
to Beringer, we had every variety on every vineyard from Napa to Calistoga. What we
found is that in certain places certain varieties grow well and certain varieties don t. Over
the last twenty-five years, I ve seen a fair amount of change with T-budding and grafting
over to the right varieties. Planting is also tied to what people want to buy. For example, if
you make 100,000 cases of Viognier these days, you probably won t sell it because nobody
knows how to say it and it s a new variety.
Hicke: [laughs] Let alone spell it.
Sbragia: Early on, nobody knew Merlot; it was just a blender. Now, next to Chardonnay, it s the
most popular wine. The challenge is to find the right place to grow it, to make a really
good wine. You can plant it in the wrong place and make a mediocre wine, and I feel that
with time only the good to excellent vineyards will survive.
In the late eighties and nineties, we have had to replant because of phylloxera. It was an
economic burden, but we were able to plant the right grape variety in the right place. For
instance, at Bale Lane, where the Bale Mill is, we used to have Chenin Blanc. It was a
good place for Chenin Blanc, but we needed a warmer place for Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc,
so we replanted it to Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc. It s one of our major vineyards for our
Napa Valley Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Hicke: So first it s market driven, and then it s--
Sbragia: If you have a great piece of land on Howell Mountain, you ve got to plant Cabernet
Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc-Bordeaux varieties or maybe Zinfandel. You
could put in Chardonnay, maybe, if you were short on Chardonnay and you needed
Chardonnay, but it would be a travesty. There are great Chardonnays coming off the
mountain, but it s kind of like: what do you want to make, the best Merlot ever made, or a
pretty good Chardonnay?
You need to plant what is going to make the best wine. Now, if you make the best
Gewurztraminer in the whole world, then you re probably planting in the wrong place,
[laughter] Then again, a Gewurztraminer is real good, if you wanted to make it, and we
want to be able to sell up to 100,000 cases. It s very difficult to do that without a lot of
promotion, so it all depends on what the winery wants to sell. I think in a lot of cases
where people have done it well, either they concentrated on what they did really well, and
just waited it out, and produced a niche for themselves, or they sought out the locations that
made what they really wanted make, and that s what I see today. People wanting to make
very good Pinot Noir are planting near the Sonoma Coast, a new area along the ocean.
Hicke: Russian River?
Sbragia: No, it s actually called the Sonoma Coast. It s about two ridges back from the ocean,
probably three to five miles, up on the ridgetops. Cool climate, but it doesn t really freeze,
so it is suited to grapegrowing.
Hicke: Right. But not a lot of sun, probably.
Sbragia: Well, I don t know. There s a lot of fog, but then there are days when it s raining here and
it s clear at the ocean.
Hicke: That leads into one thing I wanted to ask you about, which was your vineyards and the
acquisition, how they were acquired, why they were acquired-the ones that have been
newly acquired since you came. I have a list of the vineyards, if you want it.
Sbragia: Yes, well, if you go through the list
Hicke: And also, what s important about the vineyard? Like the soils and the~
Sbragia: Well, where they started was Home Vineyard, here.
Hicke: Okay, that s in St. Helena.
Sbragia: Yes. St. Helena. That s been ours for 125 years. They founded Beringer Brothers on the
St. Helena property in 1 876.
Hicke: What s on it?
Sbragia: It s all Cabernet. When I got here in the seventies it was Cabernet, but scattered through the
vineyard were some Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.
Sbragia: Carignane, or early Burgundy all these varieties. But it was predominantly Cabernet. It
tasted like Cabernet when you crushed it, so it was probably 80 to 90 percent of one variety,
but they interspersed other varieties throughout the vineyard.
Knight s Valley has also been a vineyard that was the Beringers for a long time. I think
they bought it in the sixties.
Hicke: And that s huge, isn t it?
Sbragia: Yes. Knight s Valley was on the west side of Highway 128. The east side of 128 used to
be called the Foote Ranch, which we leased from the Footes. They were a family from
Knight s Valley. We bought the vineyard in the early eighties. We have made a Knight s
Valley Cabernet Sauvignon since 1976.
Hicke: Why did you buy it?
Sbragia: A lot of times we start with a long-term lease with an option to buy if they decide to sell.
So there s still a lot of those leased, with options to purchase.
Hicke: It s the individual who owns it?
Sbragia: Yes, or sometimes a vineyard is a combination of four or five leases. Big Ranch Road is
three or four people that own but have leased us the land. It is a long-term lease. Basically
you lease the land and the grapes belong to you, but when the lease is up, the improvements
go back to the owner. Usually the leases are thirty-five to fifty years. All ours have been
thirty-five to fifty-year leases.
Hicke: And are the grapes replanted regularly on all these?
Sbragia: Yes. For instance, State Lane was one of ours that I talked about.
Hicke: Yes, did you acquire that?
Sbragia: No, we actually didn t acquire it, the person who owns it decided not to sell. He planted
grapes, but he was going to sell us the grapes. So, of the 2,800 acres, we own about half of
them and half of them are long-term leases.
Hicke: And you can make all the decisions, if you ve got a long-term lease? You own the grapes,
as you say.
Sbragia: Yes. You control. So starting at the top, Bale Lane is, as I talked about, Sauvignon and
Sauvignon Blanc. It s relatively deep soil and warm climate and does really well. The fruit
has got a lot of this tropical character and ripe melon characters. It doesn t have the grassy,
herbaceous character that you get out of colder climate Sauvignon Blanc.
Moving up the valley here, Chabot. Chabot was our first private reserve vineyard. It
was called the Lemmon Ranch when they first got it. Actually it used to go to Louis
Martini and it was in their Special Select. The reason we got it was that we were looking
for a vineyard to use as a private reserve, and we said we d put the name on the label.
Chabot is about a mile and a quarter northeast of the winery, off of Glass Mt. Road. It s in
a place called Glass Mountain, with huge black obsidian deposits.
I remember going there with my son. My son was born in 1979, so he was about eight.
He had to make a prehistoric tool, and I said, "I know a good place," so we went up there.
He wanted me to get these big boulders, so we dug out these boulders and brought them
home. Then we fried to make a prehistoric tool, and after about four hours of chipping,
knocking, and throwing, we chipped out a wedge and I said, "This ll work." But it gave me
a whole new respect for prehistoric man. Making a tool was not that easy.
Hicke: I often wondered what they used to chip off the chips. The same thing?
Sbragia: Harder rocks, I think. But what the obsidian does is the black rock absorbs the heat during
the day and then lets it off at night, affecting the temperature of the vineyard. It is pretty
restrictive soil. The crop is very small and wines intense. It produces really good, rich
It s still owned by a woman named Suzanne Bucherey, who I think is Remi Chabot s
great-granddaughter. Remi Chabot started a winery called Chateau Remi there, which did
not reopen after Prohibition. They are also the Chabots of Chabot College and Chabot
Lake in Oakland. Chabot has always been called Chabot. But we called it Lemmon Ranch
because of Mr. and Mrs. Lemmon. They divorced many years ago. She continued to sell
us the grapes. In the mid-eighties she signed a long-term lease.
Hicke: Is it hillside?
Sbragia: Yes, it s hillside. It s about 800 feet. It s rolling foothills. This is another long-term lease.
Hicke: Yes, okay.
Sbragia: Bale Lane is the Sauvignon-Sauvignon Blanc we talked about.
Then going south, I think the next vineyard is Gamble Ranch. Gamble Ranch is mostly
Chardonnay. There was a lot of Cabernet when I first got to Beringer, and that was one of
In 1968, Bank of America did a report and I think it s one of these reasons that the wine
business got jump-started, because everyone planted a vineyard. At that point I remember
Cabernet being as high as $1,000 a ton. The price dropped down probably four or five
years later, in the mid-seventies. I think it was down to $300 to $500 a ton. There were
huge surpluses. Gamble was more suited to Chardonnay than Cabernet. It was too cold,
and they planted the deeper soils on the property. Now we ve planted Merlot and Cabernets
in the real rocky parts of it and the Chardonnay is in the deeper soils. It produces my best
Chardonnays. Rich butter, citrus wines.
Hicke: The Bank of America report was over-optimistic about wine consumption, right?
Sbragia: It was over-optimistic, and they also pushed Cabernet. So people planted Cabernet
everywhere. Again, you know, you ve got to grow it in the right place, if you plant it in the
wrong place, it makes a herbaceous, nasty wine. That also happened in the Central Coast;
they planted in the wrong places in Santa Barbara County. They planted Cabernet, it had
bell pepper flavors. It was just too cold for Cabernet Sauvignon.
Hicke: No wonder there was a surplus, [laughs]
Sbragia: The next one, Dos Rios, is a relatively new vineyard. It is owned by Silverado Partners.
One of the members of Silverado Partners is Mike Moone. I have mentioned him in this
book. Mike was the president when I became winemaker here. He left in 1990. He had
been a sales manager. He and his partners started an investment group. They buy
vineyards and this is one of them. It is similar to Gamble Ranch. It is younger, so it s still
Hicke: What s planted there?
Sbragia: It s got Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, and Cab Franc. The Chardonnay is really good, the
Cabernet is good, because just down the road is. State Lane. It s interesting. As bedrock
comes down from the mountain on the east side of the Valley, in certain areas you d dig
down two or three feet and hit rock, whereas other places you can go twenty feet. So I
think a lot of the deep soil is alluvial from the rivers and the shallow soils are where the
Hicke: Yes, but you don t know until
Sbragia: Well, again, it goes back to being site-specific. You really can t make assumptions of what
you want to plant. You have to look at the soil and the climate and the location and really
look at what people are doing around you. If you re the first person in there, you almost
need to really do some testing before you just indiscriminately plant.
There s another vineyard called State Lane and it has Chardonnay on it. It is very much
like Gamble-rich soils. There s Cabernet on a portion of it, too. The property was sold so
we will now buy off the property.
Moving south, you get to Yountville Ranch, a Beringer-owned property. It s all
Chardonnay. It and Gamble and State Lane are the mainstay of our private reserve.
Occasionally a little bit of the Sbragia Limited comes from either State Lane or Yountville.
All three-Gamble, Yountville, and State Line-have made the Sbragia Limited Reserve.
Those are what I call the warmer vineyards. They produce a butter, citrus character, and a
more dense, more viscous mouth feel. When I tasted the Chardonnays twenty years ago,
that was what I expected from a Napa Valley Chardonnay.
As we move south, the next vineyard we d hit would be Big Ranch Road and then the
Hudson Ranch, which are relatively close to each other. Big Ranch is on Big Ranch Road.
The climate is colder. They have more fruit, more of a tropical character-pineapple and
pineapple-apple characters. They are more elegant.
Sbragia: Chardonnay. These are all predominantly Chardonnay. Recently Merlot was planted both
at Gamble and Big Ranch Road. We also planted some Pinot Noir at Big Ranch Road.
There was Pinot Noir there when I first started at Beringer. We just weren t very happy
with it. So we stopped making Pinot Noir in 84 and we just started again in 96, 1 think for
the same reasons as Cabernet. They re all planted in the right place, and what I get now is
much better. We bought land in the Carneros and are planting it to Pinot Noir.
We have Hudson and Big Ranch, and they produce more tropical Chardonnays. Big
Ranch Road is a little colder, a little more tighter-knit.
Hicke: You re talking about the soil or the wine?
Sbragia: The wine.
Sbragia: I think it s mostly climatic differences, just the way the air flows down that valley.
Hicke: It s interesting, those microclimates.
Sbragia: As you swing around to the west side of Napa, we have a vineyard that is very similar to the
Carneros, called Linda Vista. That s all Chardonnay also, and it produces more of a
Carneros style wine: a little tighter structure, a lot of that green apple and pineapple
characteristic. It has made some very fine wines.
Hicke: Is that a vineyard designate?
Sbragia: No, it s not. Linda Vista is also leased property. One I forgot is a new vineyard, just south
of St. Helena on the Silverado Trail. It is about the same height as Chabot, 800 feet. It is
named Quarry. It got its name from the old stone quarry on the property. Quarry is a
leased vineyard, and it has white soilvolcanic, tuffa. It is planted to Cabernet and
Cabernet Franc. The young Cabernet is very aromatic. It will be a reserve candidate when
it gets older.
Hicke: And no grapes were planted on it when you bought it?
Sbragia: There were grapes planted on it. It was an old Zinfandel vineyard.
Hicke: Yes, so you didn t worry about the grapes that were on it.
Back to the Carneros. The next vineyard would be Stanly Ranch. Stanly is
predominantly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with just a little bit of Merlot. Stanly Ranch
was purchased from Martini Winery. It was bought about five years ago. It is the vineyard
where Louis Martini did all the propagation of his selections of Chardonnay. We saved all
Hicke: Why did they sell it?
Sbragia: If you go back to the early nineties when we were at war with Iraq and in a recession,
money became very tight and banks stopped loaning companies money for operating
expenses. The family needed cash so they sold a vineyard.
Hicke: Are you making any use of the selections, or are you just saving them?
Sbragia: We re saving them. We are planting new clones of Chardonnay from the Dijon clones.
They are coming in from Oregon. The nursery has done all the propagation and studies to
make sure they don t have viruses. We planted multiple rootstock-multiple clones.
The last vineyard is a new piece that we re developing now. It has never been in grapes
before. The Grace-Benoit property in Sonoma Carneros.
Sbragia: The northeastern comer of the property is going to be planted in Chardonnay, and it s one
parcel away from the Durrell Ranch, which is already a pretty renowned Chardonnay
vineyard. We re planting Pinot Noir, mostly, and then one little block of Syrah.
Hicke: Plain old Syrah?
Sbragia: Plain old Syrah. [laughs]
Hicke: Have you made any wine from that, yet?
Sbragia: No, it s just-it s just being planted now, it s just being staked, actually. And I forgot a
couple of vineyards. We didn t go up the top of Howell Mountain, and we didn t go to
So right around St. Helena, we ve leased the Marson Vineyard, which is on Spring
Mountain. If you go essentially from St. Helena and you go up the hill on the western side,
it is Cabernet and Merlot and Cab Franc, and one little hill of Syrah. The first vintage of
Syrah will be 1997. We will bottle some Marson Cabernet separately. It was a component
of the 1997 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
Two of our best vineyards are Bancroft and Tre Colline Ranches. They are situated
directly east up at the top of Howell Mountain. Bob Steinhauer just happened to inquire
about the ranch at the right time, when the grapes were just ready to be sold. We contracted
it and first crushed fruit in 1986. That first crop, small as it was, went into the Private
Reserve. It has made the Private Reserve ever since.
Then in 1987 I started bottling the Merlot separately, the Bancroft Howell Mountain
Merlot. It s one of the most intense Merlots that you ll find from the Napa Valley. I use the
Cab Franc as a blender in Merlot and Cabernet.
For the millennium I blended some of the Cab Franc from there and from our Tre
Colline vineyard. The blend is 95 percent Cab Franc and 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.
We called the millenium wine Third Century, since we started in the 1 800s and went
through the 1900s and now we re in the 2000s. We ve been in operation in three centuries.
Walt Klenz, the president of the company, came up with the name Third Century. We were
all scratching our heads for a name and when we heard it, we all liked it immediately.
Hicke: Yes, it s great.
Sbragia: So it s a Cab Franc, and I m going to keep on making Third Century.
Hicke: How is it received?
Sbragia: Quite well. The wine was bottled in an Italian bottle. It looks like it s a bigger bottle, and
it s so thick and heavy that when it s empty you re not sure. If you re in a dark room, you
can t see through it. You re saying, is it empty yet? Is there more wine? We may lighten
up the bottle a little bit but use the same design.
Hicke: Who chose the bottle? And how was that decision made?
Sbragia: Actually one of the people in marketing.
Hicke: It s a marketing decision.
Sbragia: Yes. I try to stay out of those decisions.
Bancroft is interesting in that the front part of the property is tuffa soil made of white
volcanic ash. It s not the red soil or the decomposed volcanic lava flows, it s actually the
ash that fell down and has turned into rock. The surface has worn and formed a shallow
layer of topsoil. It s two to three feet deep. The rocks cracked so the vines can go deep and
get water. The vineyard is drip irrigated, but it is mainly used to get the vineyard growing
in its first two or three years. In contrast, Tre Colline is this bright red soiliron deposit
soil. Tre Colline is a little tighter and more angular. The back half of Bancroft, where the
Merlot is planted, is also red soil.
Hicke: Does every vineyard on Howell Mountain produce outstanding wine?
Sbragia: Yes. It s just a perfect place to grow Bordeaux grapes.
Hicke: Too bad they can t clone Howell Mountain! [chuckles]
Sbragia: Yes, one of the challenges for the wine business is that as environmental concerns increase,
it becomes almost impossible to clear mountainsides to plant more vineyards. The local
population doesn t want to see big houses on the hillsides or a lot of vineyards. If you could
tuck the vineyard into a little valley, and not cause any erosion, probably you can get a
permit for a vineyard. Today, you re not going to be able to knock down trees any more.
It becomes increasingly difficult to develop a vineyard. You have to do environmental
impact studies and see what it does to the water table and what it does to the little streams
and even if the guy who owned it before you dug that ditch, now Fish and Game
[Department] is going to take control of that ditch. There are multiple agencies involved,
and it s not an easy thing to plant vineyard any more. People have made mistakes and made
the situation worse. They didn t pay attention to the environment. It was just an eyesore
and they turned the public against them and the rest of the industry.
Hicke: So everybody pays for that.
Sbragia: And then they polluted the water supply or erosion filled in reservoirs that the municipal
governments had paid lots of money to build, and they angered the local politicians, so all
the city environmental groups and local politicians were all up in arms from a couple of
guys that made a mistake.
There was one man who planted a vineyard on West Dry Creek, and it was a big pasture.
It had been cleared before, and there were a couple of stands of trees, so it didn t look as big
as it was. He cut down all the trees and just planted vineyard and stuck a big house right in
the middle of it. He broke all the rules. And it s very ugly, actually, I have to agree,
because I see it from my back yard.
If he had just left the tree lines that were there already, he could have probably had 90
percent of the vineyard and he could have put his house behind one of those tree lines and
still took a couple of trees out so he had a view off his deck, and no one would have
Sbragia: Bancroft and Tre Colline, Chabot and St. Helena Ranch, are the core of the Private Reserve
program. HowellMountain vineyard is 50 to 60 percent of the Private Reserve.
In 94 we started bottling single vineyards. I used to do it for myself--only a couple of
cases each. We bottled each vineyard, 200 cases of each, so it s our reserve vineyards
series. As nice as the individual vineyards are, the Private Reserve is our best wine. That s
what private reserve s all about, but having the little vineyard bottlings is really interesting.
We have an open house at the winery twice a year, one in the spring and one in the fall.
People have come religiously the last four or five years. We call them the wine openers.
Hicke: Is that the stock owners?
Sbragia: No, that s different. We send out notices and the event sells out. Last April we had 500
people at the winery. I keep the single vineyards in barrels for two years and in the bottle
for two years, rather than a normal, one-year release, so they re much anticipated. People
can buy them only at the winery. There are such small amounts, it really doesn t make
sense to send them out in distribution, because everybody wants them. This way everyone
can at least buy one bottle of it. They can try them first with the great dishes prepared by
our chef, Jerry Comfort.
Hicke: This is for wine club members or something?
Sbragia: We don t have a wine club yet. It s an open house party.
Hicke: Oh, so anybody can come if they can get on the internet fast enough?
Sbragia: Yes, if they know it s going to happen.
Hicke: So you have another one in September, October, or something like that?
Sbragia: Yes, in September. It s a great way of getting wines to the public. It gets people to come
and see the winery. I know from my point of view, when I visit a winery, I always
remember it. From that point on I always looked on a wine list for how much they re
selling for, and if there are any articles I ll always be sure to read about them, because I
know the people there. So when they visit and taste our wines with the food, they go away
friends of the winery.
Hicke: There s a halo effect from those wines. They re looking for other Beringer wines, too,
Sbragia: Sure. These vineyards are definitely added to the private reserve and I think the new ones,
Marston and Quarry, possibly could be in the future.
Hicke: Okay. We ll stop for the day.
Ed Rossi. Jr.
[Interview 4: March 1, 2000] ##
Hicke: We want to go back one more time and talk about Ed Rossi, Jr.
Sbragia: Right. Ed Rossi, Jr. I personally knew Ed Rossi, Jr., at church when I was growing up in
Healdsburg. His kids and I went through St. John s Catholic School; he was a member of
the parish. Pietro Rossi started the Italian Swiss Colony, I don t know, probably the same
time Beringer started Beringer in the 1870s. The interesting thing is in the late 1800s, early
1900s, my grandfathers on both my mom s and dad s sides came over and then brought their
families over. Mom and Dad were born here. My grandfather returned to Italy when my
father was nine months old. He returned with his two brothers in 1927. His first job was at
the Italian Swiss Colony. Pietro Rossi had just died. He died in an accident with a
horsecart, run over with a team of horses.
My father went to work there in 1927. Myron Nightingale, my mentor at Beringer, was
the winemaker in the fifties. Beringer purchased Italian Swiss Colony in 1986, so my
history is tied to that place.
Hicke: You definitely have to read that little book by Jack Florence. 2
Hicke: I m sure it s around somewhere.
Sbragia: Pietro had two sons, and one was Edmund-Edmund, Sr. Edmund, Jr. was the man that
Myron knew and worked with when he worked there. I think it was the time when National
Distillers owned Italian Swiss Colony and Myron worked for National Distillers and later
Schenley. He had always been a very kind and gentle man, and also he ran the research
program for United Vintners. When I got into the wine business it was United Vintners,
and it eventually sold off to a grape co-op-Allied Grape Growers.
2 Jack W. Florence, Sr., Legacy of a Village, 1999.
But United Vintners at the time was a big company, as big as Gallo. For instance, we
used to call them the universities: either you went to the University of United Vintners or
the University of Gallo. [laughter] I chose to go to the University of Gallo.
Hicke: They trained a lot of people in the industry.
Sbragia: They trained a lot of people. A lot more people than you d think went to work at either one
or the other. It was a good place to get a job and work cellars, winemaking, the labs or the
production. It was a good starting place for a lot of people.
Back to Ed Rossi. I remember my first tour of Asti; we went up and saw the
laboratories, they were researching champagne closures. I remember seeing corks stuck in
the ceiling. They were looking at the pressures in bottles and everything to do with quality
control. But I was amazed. I think it was probably one of the first times I d walked into a
winemaking lab, and I was impressed. He was always very kind to me and gentle.
Hicke: Stimulated your interest a bit, maybe?
Sbragia: Yes. One interesting note. I was a good Italian boy, I learned how to play accordion from
the time I was seven, so by the time I was fourteen I was pretty good, and once during
harvest they were having a big family reunion.
Hicke: The Rossis?
Sbragia: Yes, Ed Rossi called me up, said, "Could you play the accordion for us?" So I went, and all
the Rossi clan was running around. In fact, I later became good friends with Carlo Rossi,
the other brother s grandson. I sat there and played the accordion while they all had the
party; they even danced and sang songs. I played a lot of old Italian songs. Later I heard
the great-grandmother lean over and say, "Whose little boy is he?" [laughter]
Hicke: Yes, that s great. Just one of the Rossis.
Sbragia: Ed Rossi died not too long ago. He was a gentleman, and Myron always talked of him in
very high terms. He was a good man.
WINEMAKER AT BERINGER
Assuming the Responsibility, 1984
Hicke: I think I might go back again to 1 984 when you became the winemaker. Tell me how that
happened and then what changes.
Sbragia: I was interviewed and hired by Dick Maher, the president, after Guy Kay, the vice
president-operations, and Myron Nightingale, winemaster, interviewed me. I got the job as
assistant winemaker on August 9, 1976. I worked for Myron. Just before Thanksgiving in
1983 Dick Maher called me. He said, "I thought you might want to tell this to your wife,
Janie, as a pre-holiday present. I d like to congratulate you on being winemaster for
I was totally surprised--! had no idea they were going to do that. Myron hadn t told me
he was thinking about retiring.
I was a little saddened in that I already had the best job in the wine industry. Working
for Myron was great. He let me do a lot of things on my own. I got to go on a couple of
trips to Europe. I went on P.R. trips, places where you got to stay for three or four days and
just pour wine and do a couple of seminars, instead of being in two towns a day for five
days. And I got to do a lot of hands-on winemaking. It was just a great time for me, but all
of a sudden, my life changed.
Hicke: But the good news is you probably were up with your wife in salary when you made
Sbragia: Finally, [laughter] Finally caught up with her. And actually at that point we were just
starting to have kids. We had two. My little boy was bom in 1979.
Sbragia: He is at UCLA his third year. My daughter, Gina, was born in 1983, and so my wife
basically stopped working full time. She runs camps for developmentally disabled children
for Easter Seal, so she still works in the summers only. The kids grew up on camps during
the summer, which is a great life.
That first year was actually very rough, because I didn t have an assistant, and the person
that had been kind of my right-hand person as an enologist was the lab manager, and we
needed to hire a new lab manager before we could bring him in as assistant winemaker.
Hicke: Who was that?
Sbragia: That s David Schlottman. David later went on to build a brand called Napa Ridge, which
actually the company just sold.
Hicke: Yes. We can get into that later.
Sbragia: Yes. That first year also I had to do management reports and they were all handwritten and
I didn t have a secretary. I had to travel probably ten weeks that year just because Myron
and I traveled together a lot to make sure everybody knew that things weren t going to
change. A lot of people had seen me before, but they didn t really know me very well, and
trust is built in the trade by someone just showing up on a regular basis and doing events
for them and coming in when they need you to come in.
Hicke: You re talking about distributors?
Sbragia: Distributors and retailers in markets. After a while they get to know you. Myron had been
in the business over thirty years. They know the name, they know the man; they know
when he says something, he does it. If he doesn t think he has a good wine, he won t talk
about it. He won t tell them he has a good wine. That credibility is something that is not
easily given, so we had to start earning credibility. I got out there and started talking a lot.
At the same time, two of my other enologists that had been around for a long time
decided to leave. One went to work at Buena Vista as winemaker and another one went to
work at Souverain. This was before we bought Souverain.
Hicke: You were training a few on the side, yourself.
Sbragia: So all of a sudden I had two new enologists. The harvest of 84 was difficult. I felt like I
did it all by myself, though that wasn t true. It felt good. It felt good because we did it and
we got by and the wine was good.
Hicke: Looking back on it, that is?
Sbragia: It felt good at the time. But then I settled in, David came in as assistant winemaker, and
he s an excellent winemaker.
Napa Ridge Brand
Sbragia: In 1984 we started Napa Ridge, and came out on the market with it in 1986.
Hicke: Was that his idea or yours, or a combination?
Sbragia: It was actually a combined idea between all of us and marketing. At the time there was a
lot of bulk wine on the market, from all over the North Coast; I remember Chardonnay was
selling for three dollars a gallon. Now it s twenty dollars a gallon. So you could put
together a very decent wine from coastal valleys, a premium wine, but sell it at a lower
price. That was an opportunity that we jumped on, and David had quite an influence as the
winemaker for Napa Ridge.
Hicke: We might as well follow that through to the end.
Sbragia: I told him, "David, you worked with marketing and you developed it and I just came in and
tasted once in a while; it s yours, you make it."
Hicke: So that was his.
Sbragia: Yes. At a certain point then I hired another assistant winemaker, because David was very
Hicke: Yes, and who was that?
Sbragia: I promoted a man named Tom Peffer. Tom came out of research. In 1984 we had started a
research program, and I had hired a man named Ron Bunnel as research enologist. Then in
1985 Tom came as assistant research enologist. It took a year to get David out of being a
lab manager, and in 1985 I promoted Tom to assistant winemaker.
Ron actually went to work with Myron, who was still doing Los Hermanos; his title was
winemaker emeritus after he retired. Myron taught Ron Los Hermanos and eventually,
when we bought Souverain in 1986, Ron went to Souverain as assistant winemaker and he
took Los Hermanos with him.
Los Hermanos was a jug wine brand that was very popular and helped the winery to stay
profitable in the late seventies and early eighties.
Tom was Ron s research enologist. Then he went from research enologist to assistant
winemaker, it was it was a big jump. He just left a couple of years ago. He went to
Kendall Jackson, and he s going to be the red winemaker for Cordonelle, or whatever name
they come up with for their property in Napa Valley. He s a very good winemaker.
Hicke: Yes, good training, again. Whom were you reporting to?
Sbragia: In 1984, Dick Maher decided to go to Seagram s. We were owned by Nestle, and a man
named Jim Biggar, the president of Nestle, interviewed with the top management of our
company, three people. And a man named Mike Moone, who was vice president of sales,
I was winemaker for a month or so, when Mike called me in and said, "Ed, you re the
guy. El tell you one thing. Ill never let you down, but don t let me down, either." That
was the only thing he said. It was a great time, because Mike was instrumental in
purchasing Souverain and Asti in 1986 and also getting Chuck Ortman to come and work
for us. In 1984 and 1985 Chuck had been tasting wine with me. He was consulting with
me on Chardonnay. I was transitioning from steel fermentation to total barrel fermentation
in the Chardonnay. Chuck Ortman was one of the first winemakers to work in what we
called a boutique winery in the early seventies. He was the winemaker for Spring
Mountain, and that same year Freemark Abbey started up. They were the first two new
little wineries to pop up in the Napa Valley.
Chuck then left there and was consultant for twelve different wineries including Far
Niente and St. Clement. I figured if anybody knew different techniques of small lot
winemaking, Chuck was the guy. He was actually very conservative, and I was a little bit
more open to change.
One of the things that you worried about in Chardonnay is that if it sits on the lees too
long, you end up with reduction H 2 S. But if the juice is relatively clean and there s nothing
bad like botrytis or rot the yeast lees actually are a preservative. Yeasts break down, they
use up oxygen. The enzymes that are naturally present in the yeast are actually a protector.
They add a little bit of viscosity, especially if you stir the lees. They also add a yeasty-
nutty character. I wanted to leave the barrels on lees until December and then rack them
off. It would be nice to leave them until they finish malolactic, which is usually in the
spring. We kept on trying these things and eventually I found that I could leave the barrels
on lees until it was time to pull them out and blend the wines in July.
This really made sense now! We could press, settle the juice, put it in a barrel, ferment
and age. Leave it in that barrel the whole time, take it out, blend it, put it in the bottle. So
the barrel is the container the white wine is in for most of its life in the winery. It makes a
lot of sense for production. The wisdom of the old Burgundian techniques became clear to
me. They didn t have stainless steel; they had a press, and the only thing they had to store
in was the barrels. The juice went directly from the press to the barrels, and from the
barrels directly to the bottle. They didn t have any tanks to blend in. This technique saved
a lot of resources, at the same time making a better wine.
We had a lot of stainless steel. Common practice was to ferment clean juice in
temperature-controlled jacketed stainless steel tanks. We realized that maybe we didn t
need to do what we thought was going to be squeaky clean, but maybe we could get by with
leaving wine on its yeast lees, which was unheard of. If the yeast lees were clean, and you
stirred the lees, you wouldn t get an anaerobic situation at the bottom of the barrel. It s the
same thing that happens in a pond~putrification and a lot of odor-so you would actually
keep it aerobic. But the excess air would be taken up by the yeast, so the wine would be
It is a great way of making wine. I eventually came to the conclusion that I would go
beyond what Chuck had suggested. Mike Moone came to me and said Chuck had a brand
called Meridian. He wanted to buy the brand and hire Chuck to be the winemaker. The
Meridian brand s new home was to be at the recently purchased Estrella Vineyards in Paso
Robles in the Central Coast. We had our eyes on about 6,000 acres of grapes in the Central
Coast to buy for this new brand, Meridian. I said, "Go for it." You know, "You ve got my
blessing, not that you need it. You re the boss." [laughter]
Hicke: It s been a huge success.
Sbragia: Chuck worked for me for a couple of years, but then he reported directly to Mike Moone.
It s grown into a huge winery.
Hicke: Yes, another brilliant pupil.
Sbragia: Really high-quality wine.
Hicke: Yes, it s really good and it s not all that expensive, either.
Sbragia: No, they make some expensive wines, but most of their wines are in the ten- to twelve-
Hicke: Yes, a wonderful buy.
Sbragia: It s great wine and the vineyards are just gorgeous. Santa Barbara and Paso Robles are
really pretty: rolling hills, and there are some vineyards where you can see the ocean.
White Hills is only seven miles from the ocean-very cold climate, really fruity, because
you get warm afternoon sun but cold evenings.
Hicke: Chardonnay and~
Sbragia: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Hicke: Pinot. Okay.
Sbragia: And what Ortman is actually planting is Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, which would be
Mike Moone started the Camelot Period, because he really expanded the vision of our
winery. What we could do and what we could be.
Hicke: Was this under the name of Wine World Estates?
Sbragia: It was Wine World. It was that until just recently. Mike Moone left in 1990. His right-
hand man was Walt Klenz. One of the reasons that Mike could do so much was because he
had Walt in the background making sure that everything was right. Walt became president
Walt is the third man I ve worked for in twenty-four years. He has been really good to
work for. He has his own style, but he knows everything that s happening in the company
at all times. He s a genius. He s able to coordinate and control multiple things at the same
time. Knowing wines, he s an excellent taster. That kind of brings you up to the present.
In 1 996 we bought St. Jean, right after we were sold to Mike Moone and his partners at
Silverado Partners and Texas Pacific Group.
Hicke: I m a little mixed up. When did Nestle sell to somebody else?
Sbragia: In January of 1996. Mike Moone left Beringer and became the president of Stouffers
Foods in 1990. He retired and started this group called Silverado Partners. Since he was
way up in Nestle, he knew that Nestle was thinking about selling us, he intervened, because
there were a lot of people vying for us. He had an investment group called Silverado
Partners that I mentioned before. They actually owned a portion of the winery, and they got
Texas Pacific Group to be the financier and the major stockholder. Together they bought
the winery from Nestle.
Hicke: Why did Nestle sell it?
Sbragia: I think, like a lot of companies, Nestle was trying to concentrate on what they did best.
They are experts in food and juices. Wine was something they lovedespecially the people
in Switzerland. They loved having a winery. We were just out here doing our own thing,
which we liked a lot. They gave us money and left us alone, which was great, but I think
the days of just letting things go aren t happening any more.
Businesses are controlling their assets pretty tightly. Wall Street expects a certain return
on investment capital. We are expected to make a certain percentage profit. The wine
business is highly capital-intensive. You have to own land and vineyards,-especially in the
premium sector, -to have the successes we have. So Texas Pacific, when they bought us in
1996, also bought St. Jean. In 1997 they bought Stags Leap, and we went public a year and
a half ago.
Hicke: I have 1997.
Sbragia: Yes, October 1997.
Hicke: Was Beringer making a profit?
Hicke: Part of it was profitable?
Sbragia: Nestle bought Beringer in 71, and for the first fourteen years we weren t making a profit.
They supported us. In 1985, when Mike Moone was president, was the first year we turned
Hicke: Okay, just to finish this up, how did that IPO [Initial Public Offering] go, and what changes
if any happened?
Sbragia: The IPO process was very interesting. From a production standpoint I don t think it
changed us at all, other than there was an increase in available capital. In July of 1999 we
bought San Clement. We bought more land in the Central Coast and started another brand
called Beringer Founders Estate.
Hicke: Yes, I wanted to ask you about that.
Number and Quality of Wines
Sbragia: Land values and cost-we talked about how come wines are so expensive. Knight s Valley
Cab, which sold for about ten dollars for almost my whole time here, is up in the mid-
twenties now. Our Chardonnay, which was about the same price, is now sixteen dollars.
So we had basically vacated a position where you could have wine by the glass, a banquet
wine. Beringer had always had a lot of business in those areas. People were saying, "Well,
why don t we have a Beringer wine we could drink every day?" I mean, I don t allocate
twenty-five dollars a day for a bottle of wine and I m a winemaker. Even in a boom time I
think people are relatively more wise with their money than that. I may occasionally
splurge on a twenty-five or fifty-dollar bottle of wine, but I don t drink those wines every
day. They re looking at more value wine, so it is an opportunity, again, with all the
vineyards we have, and the expertise and experience that we have in making wine to start
Hicke: You wanted a lower price niche?
Sbragia: Yes, we started on a nine- to ten-dollar wine called Beringer Founders Estate. It s
California, so I could take grapes from all the coastal valleys like Monterey and Santa
Barbara all the way up to Mendocino County. We make a Chardonnay and Merlot and a
Cabernet, a little bit of Zinfandel and Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, it s a full line.
We re working on a Syrah, which will be fun. It was a new challenge and a lot of fun and a
lot of work.
Hicke: And that came out of the IPO somehow?
Sbragia: Well, not necessarily. The IPO I just think that since 1985 we ve essentially been growing
about 10 percent a year in volume. We ve just steadily grown, and I think that s one of the
reasons that we were considered a good investment. Our stock I think came out around
twenty-nine and its been floating around forty for the last year or so, so it appreciated
I think the stock market doesn t understand the wine business. It s an agricultural
product and you just don t crank things out. It has seasonality and it has pests. It has
disasters from mother nature, so it s not something they truly trust. They don t understand
it, so any little thing that comes out like phylloxera or Pierce s disease they all start
panicking and downgrading the wine business. Chalone, Beringer, Mondavi are the only
premium wineries that are public now.
Hicke: Wine business can t respond to supply and demand, either. I think that s an interesting
aspect. You only have so many grapes and so much wine, and that s it.
Sbragia: Yes. There are quality levels. And you know, one of the things that I think our focus is on,
is that Beringer has been allowed by the consumer to make a five-dollar white Zinfandel
and it s considered one of the best, all the way to a hundred-dollar Private Reserve. Having
wines in all the different categories allows Beringer, because of its credibility, to give
customers a choice. As long as I m here, if it s in the bottle, it s going to taste good!
Hicke: I think that you must have one of the largest range of varietals and different kinds of wine
of any winery.
Sbragia: Beringer does make a lot of wine, but now I have a lot of help. I have a winemaker who is
responsible for the plant. She also has responsibility for the Beringer wines. She and I
Hicke: What is her name?
Sbragia: Laurie Hook. She s really good. And we have an assistant for Beringer called Frank Johns.
Ron Schrieve is winemaker for Founders Estate. He has an assistant for Founders Estate
called Hughes Ryan. We have three enologists in the lab that are being trained to do more
winemaking, so one enologist does stuck fermentations, one enologist does topping of
barrels, and the third concentrates on methods of analysis. One of the things Myron told
me, and I might have said it before, is "Attention to detail" and "To thy own self be true."
That means if you know what s right, you ve got to do it. So attention to detail is the first
thing. What my dad said was, "Keep your barrels and tanks clean and full." That advice
has always served me well.
Sbragia: The basics of winemaking are sanitation and topping. Even with the best grapes in the
world, you can make a bottle of vinegar or a bottle of sherry.
So with great vineyards and good people, we ve been able to make good wines. I ve
been very happy being here.
Hicke: You have a lot of management responsibilities as well as winemaking.
Sbragia: Yes, after being here for twenty-four years, you do get some credibility in the company. I
found that if you just hide in the winemaking lab and never come out, other people are
going to make decisions for you as to what kind of equipment you use, what kind of people
you get, and what kind of vineyard you buy. If you re not out there being part of it,
someone else is going to do it. So at a certain point you take ownership of what you do if
you want to be part of those decisions. So yes, I do have to do some of that. I think if you
talked with the people I worked with, they say that I m actually a fairly decent guy,
[laughter] just hard to get hold of.
Other Beringer Brands
Hicke: I would subscribe to all of that. Let me ask you about some of the other things. You told
me about most of these labels, but Maison Deutz, what s that?
Sbragia: I didn t have anything to do with that one; it was a champagne house we had. One of the
things that happened just before we went public was we changed the name from Wine
World to Beringer Wine Estates so that the identity of Beringer could rub off so people
knew who we were, because no one knew who Wine World was.
Hicke: Yes, the Wine World name is so amorphous.
Sbragia: Yes, and we wanted people to know who we are and what we own, the whole group of
Part of Beringer Wine Estates is imported wines. We import wines from Italy, Gabbiano
and Traveglini, a Chianti, a Gatenara. We also have a brand called Campanile, a Pinot
Hicke: Those are Italian?
Sbragia: Yes, and we used to import Deutz Champagne, but they were sold, and so when they were
sold we didn t get the line. But we had a partnership with Deutz and a landowner, so
somebody owned the land and planted the grapes, Deutz did the winemaking, and we did
the marketing. It was started in Santa Barbara Maison Deutz. It was a really good
champagne. We sold our portion out, and then Duetz sold their portion, and the landowner
bought it all and he changed the name and turned it into a still wine winery.
Hicke: I think, since we re on imports, you have some interests in Chile?
Sbragia: Yes, we also import a brand called Terapaca, and the winemaker is Sergio Correa. When I
first met him I was invited to be an international judge at a wine competition, Vinale
Internationale in Paris, which is part of an international organization of enologists. They do
what they call concours, or tastings. They are worldwide tastings, so the judges come from
all over the world. There are six or seven wine judges per table; it s very interesting.
My first jury or tasting group was with Sergio. There were people from Uruguay, Spain,
Italy, and Greece. The president or the person who directs the group is usually French, and
he or she keeps the notes.
We were speaking Spanish and Italian and French, my French is poor, [laughs] I can
ask what is the variety, and that s about it. My Italian and Spanish are a lot better, so he
translated the French back to me.
About a year later, we took on his Chilean brand, Terapaca. Sergio was a good friend.
The winery is located in the Maipo Valley in Chile, a gorgeous place.
Hicke: Have you been down there?
Sbragia: I went last year. My first time. I really don t need to go. David Schlottman is in charge of
outside winemaking. He usually goes. He has hired a traveling winemaker named Aaron
Pott who now has been promoted to winemaker at St. Clement.
David doesn t make many trips; he has another job-exports. Usually we take what the
supplier has to offer. Tarapaca was interested in what we like versus what they make for
their own market. They wanted us to come and help them make their wines. We consult,
we go in, but they do what they want. That s what I do with my consultants, [laughs]
Hicke: What does Beringer actually do with these? You buy it in bulk and bottle it?
Sbragia: No, no, the wines come in bottled, we re their importer.
Hicke: Oh, okay, and you distribute it.
Sbragia: And we market it. It goes through us to the distributors in the United States. We support
the three-tier system.
Hicke: All right. Let me see what else we have here. Is there anything more to be said about
Sbragia: We bought it in 1997, and it was started I think in 1 850. It s a pretty old winery. It was a
stagecoach stop and then it was a hotel. It s in the Stags Leap District.
Hicke: Who s the winemaker there?
Sbragia: The winemaker s name is Robert Brittan. He has been there for ten years. He s a really
good winemaker. I think the wines are very, very distinct. It s a beautiful location.
Hicke: Well-known appellation.
Sbragia: Yes. It has a small cave that we are expanding; the caves are going to be gorgeous. I think
one of the things we were able to do is help him upgrade the winery and the vineyard. We
helped him replant because of phylloxera. We also helped him put in more stainless
fermenters and storage. We upgraded the winery, because the past owner was thinking
about selling and so wasn t spending much money.
It was very difficult for Robert. I think he s a great winemaker, and I see good things
happening at Stags Leap.
Hicke: Great. Now back to Napa Ridge. That was sold; do you want to tell me about that?
Sbragia: Well, with Meridian and Founders Estate, it s hard to focus on too many things that are at
the same category. Meridian and Founders were about the same, and Napa Ridge was
taking grapes away from us. We had limited resources, we felt that we couldn t do all three.
Hicke: Napa Ridge was coming in for a lot of criticism, too, I think, wasn t it?
Sbragia: I don t know if that was part of it. I think we could have handled that, but the major part
was we just didn t have enough fruit to handle all the different brands, so we felt that we
would be able to take that fruit and apply it to Meridian and Founders Estate.
Hicke: What about Castelo di Gabbiano? You mentioned that.
Sbragia: Yes, well, that is interesting. Gabbiano is in Tuscany, and it s an old estate. The castle was
built in 1 100 AD. Reno Arccieni is the owner. Reno and Ronelle, his wife, have two
children, Annia and Ariella, and he has a wine named after each.
It s in the heart of Tuscany and produces Sangiovese; the vineyard has Merlot and
Cabernet planted also. He does the super Tuscan, which is called Annia. They have a
Reserva, a Chianti Classico, and a Chianti. They have the same kind of agreement with us
as we have with Tarapaca. We import and sell their wines.
It s a gorgeous area. Since my family s from Lucca, about an hour from there, I go on a
regular basis, and I m kind of the California consultant~not that I know how to make
Chianti, but I know how to make a red wine, so we re working on a super Tuscan. The
winemaker there-his name is Giancarlo Roman. He and I came up with a blend of
Sangiovese and Merlot with just a little bit of Cabernet.
Hicke: There are some interesting things going on in Tuscany, aren t there?
Sbragia: Yes, and I think the laws have loosened up so that the wine doesn t all have to go through
the Slovenian Bette. It s possible now to use barrels to make a more classically Bordeaux
style. Not to say that that s the right way to make it. I think Chianti should still be made
the same way, but if you re trying to make a little bit of a separate kind of wine from the
property, then maybe you need to use more classic techniques that the Bordelaise would
We ve had a couple of nice vintages- 95 and 97-and 95 is in the bottle, so it s been fun,
going to make wine in another world.
Hicke: Yes. And then you just bought San Clement, which you mentioned.
Sbragia: Yes, San Clement has a very distinct style, very soft, accessible wines, beautiful wines,
rich. We felt that it would be a good addition. With the replanting of all the vines in the
Napa Valley, there will be more fruit available. It would be great to be able to run some of
this fruit through San Clement, mainly a little more Chardonnay.
Hicke: It s on a hill, I think.
Sbragia: Yes, it doesn t have a lot of extra room.
Hicke: Is Beringer going to keep expanding like this?
Sbragia: I think they re looking at opportunities for wineries and vineyards. We just leased that
Grace-Benoit property I talked about. It is in the Carneros region. We just bought an
adjacent property in the central coast called Cat Canyon. We planted more Chardonnay
and Pinot Noir. We are always open for more high-quality fruit.
Hicke: Then it will be Beringer Worldwide wine!
Sbragia: [laughs] Well, I think that there are a lot of opportunities, and as a company that is
responsible to its stockholders, I think it wants to gain more value as time goes on. By
adding little jewels, it adds value to our holdings. It actually gets more people in the
system, and more people are tapped in terms of its funding.
All the winemakers and assistant winemakers get together twice a year. The last time
we got together at Stags Leap. They have little cabins there; it was a bed and breakfast at
one time. They don t do that anymore, but we all stayed on the properly and tasted wines.
We brought out Andre Porcheret, a grand master from Burgundy. We all tasted Burgundy
and talked about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We had a little symposium.
We had another man come over, Jean Louis Mondraux. He did a presentation on
Bordeaux. Then a research enologist, Jane Robichaud, did a whole presentation on
research wines. We tasted a number of experiments.
So it s a great meeting. We did one just recently at the Hudson House, our culinary
center. It s a nice, big room with lots of windows. We got everybody together and actually
did a lot of different tastings. I finished the day with a tasting of first growth Bordeauxs.
Most people never have a chance to taste these wines. It was a great opportunity, so I got
everybody to stay til the last minute.
Hicke: [laughter] Very clever.
Sbragia: That s right. So in total, we probably have as much expertise as you could find anywhere,
and getting people together in a non-work situation where they re a little more relaxed, I
think conversation starts to flow and a lot of learning happens.
Hicke: Also, it s such a large company, I should think it would be really helpful for people to be
part of everything.
Sbragia: Yes, because Steve Rieder at St. Jean may be short a little Sauvignon Blanc, and we may
have a little bit extra that we know we re not going to use, but we re just holding it. So he ll
send an email saying, "Anybody got a Sauvignon Blanc that I can have? I need something
that s a little grassy, or I need something fruity or I just need to finish it off," so I ll send him
a sample and if he can use it, then we ll ship it over to him.
Hicke: Oh, that is really interesting.
Sbragia: Most people have their own grapes from harvest all the way through, but every once in a
while there s an opportunity like this. In most cases everybody has their own wines. We
don t go out and post guards on our blocks, but everyone respects that this is your block.
No one is going to come in the night before and pick it and bring it to their winery--
[laughter] -which I ve heard happens at other wineries. So it builds friendship and
camaraderie. And that s what it s all about.
Challenges of Winemaking at a Large Company
Hicke: That s great. I have an article here which was in the Economist, I don t know if youVe
familiar with that magazine.
Sbragia: I ve heard of it.
Hicke: It was the Christmas edition that was about global wine industry, and their thesis is
European winemakers believe in tradition and regulation; New World producers are keener
on technology, innovation, and consumer research. The New World approach is winning.
He says-let me read you another paragraph: "Traditionalists assume that the growth in
market share of large global wine companies is simply a depressing reflection of their large
marketing budgets and an ability to supply wine in the quantities demanded by
supermarkets. But there s another more encouraging explanation. Companies such as
South Corp and Beringer are doing well because they are making good, consistent,
reasonably priced wine, carefully tailored to consumers tastes."
And so the question as a topic is: big companies versus boutique wineries and what are
the challenges for you?
Sbragia: The distribution channels have consolidated, so instead of having ten wineries, they may
have 400 wineries. To be important to them you need to put bread on their table. It s
helpful being a little bit bigger and being in multiple locations. Then the distributor knows
no matter where he is trying to sell your wine, he has a good shot of walking in and saying,
"This winery has supply, it s consistent, it s not going to run out. It has wines at all levels
from a hundred-dollar bottle of wine to a five-dollar bottle of wine." It gives them a lot of
options to sell.
Now, in our case, when we chose to enter the nine- or ten- dollar market, it allowed us to
get on wine by the glass in restaurant and to get into multiple locations in that ten-dollar
range where the upper end doesn t allow you. They market it differently. You almost need
different sales forces. So being big allows you to do that, and when you re small, you can t.
You get lost.
Hicke: Yes, sure. That s what they call branding?
Sbragia: Yes, so the whole success of Founders Estate is based on the fact that Beringer did make
really good white Zin and also made really good private reserve Chardonnay and private
reserve Cabernet. We re making really good wines that the consumer wants to drink.
Hicke: Yes, I think so.
Sbragia: The same thing applies with being in Europe. We re actually quite small outside the United
States, but I think it s a goal to grow in terms of exporting wines, because we re turning into
a global society. If you don t, someone else is, and then they ll be bigger than you and have
That s where the other little wineries come into play, too, because they all add up as a
portfolio. It really is a whole package for the trade. When they walk in to a retail or on-
premise establishment, they have little boutiques to bigger wineries that make really good
wine. We have five-dollar white Zinfandel, ten-dollar wines, twenty-five-dollar wines, to
Hicke: You don t have any jug wine.
Sbragia: No jug wines. I think jug wine is less than five dollars now. Those are box wines, and bag
in a box and that kind of thing. That market is crumbling. I think we look at six and above
as being the premium market. So I think when you look at the wine business, the luxury
sector-around fifteen-dollar and above~is probably selling to maybe 10 percent of the wine
drinkers. I look at the population and I don t know how many people drink wine, but it s not
a huge percentage, it s not a majority, so therefore, the mass of people out there who drink
wine are probably drinking the ten and under. If you want to sell wine to people that want
to drink wine, I think you have to have wines in all categories.
Hicke: My question is that it s a very large company that makes very good wine. And a lot of
people tell you that can t happen.
Sbragia: But it can. Kendall Jackson s proven that. I think we ve proven that, that it s just a matter
of attention to detailhaving people pay attention to the little things every day.
The other thing: to be in a business like this in a company like ours, you must have a
passion for wine. Personally, I have to make what I like, it has to come from the heart. It is
really hard to make a wine that you don t like. So people with passion have to be in the
business. A lot of the time, I can t make them go home, [laughter]
Hicke: They are very motivated.
Sbragia: I am always telling my staff, "Okay, you have to have another life. You ve got to watch
your kids grow up. You need to go home and take care of the pets. You can t live here."
IVe had to make those same decisions because of my three kids. My little one is
Hicke: Tell me about him.
Sbragia: I didn t tell you about Kevin. Kevin went to my boss, Walt, the CEO, one day and he said,
"You know, Walt, when I m winemaker at Beringer, can my dad stay for a couple days to
show me around?"
Hicke: [laughs] That is terrific.
Sbragia: He looked at me and said, "Great story."
Hicke: That is super.
Sbragia: He s a great kid.
Hicke: Well, another thing this article brought up was the so-called cult wineries like Screaming
Eagle and so forth. Do you have any thoughts about how long they re going to be around or
what happened there?
Sbragia: I think it s interesting. It s probably a product of a boom economy where there are some
people with more money than they know what to do with. For instance, I think Screaming
Eagle sells for about a couple hundred bucks.
Hicke: It tells in there. I think one of their bottles sold at auction for four thousand and something
or other. I don t remember how much their wine is normally.
Sbragia: I think that they are charging rather high prices, but a lot of people are charging in the $150
to $200 range for a bottle of wine.
. I ve had some good cognacs that cost that much, too, so I think there s value in them.
They re from specific little vineyards. They have really good winemakers that are making
wonderful wines. The winewriters write sterling reviews and so now everyone wants to
buy this wine. I was in Seattle in January and they were retailing Screaming Eagle for
$1,200 a bottle. And they couldn t keep it on the shelf!
Hicke: That can only be for somebody to stand it on his coffee table or something!
Sbragia: It is the city of Microsoft!
Hicke: [laughs] That s true, so stand it on their computer.
Sbragia: They have lots of money to spend. I think that if those winemakers can take those
vineyards and make themover ten years, they can definitely establish a crown jewel.
Hicke: So the key is how long they will stick around?
Sbragia: Yes, for the old-timers looking at these wines, one year we are not impressed, but if they
can do it consistently, then we have to be impressed, because they have definitely made a
wine that a lot of people want, that the wine writers love, that truly is a good bottle of wine.
I wish they cost fifty dollars rather than $200.
I guess it goes back to how much money we allocate to something to drink? Ultimately
wine is a great thing to make and it s a wonderful thing to talk about, but it is just something
to drink. You know, we re not saving the world. If nothing else, we re kind of recreational
therapists. A glass of wine with a good meal and a good friend can make the quality of
your life go way up. If you do that on a regular basis, the stress level every day comes
down and you live a lot longer, happier life and that s what wine s all about.
Oak Chips and Corks
Hicke: Yes, great. Well, I have a couple more questions. Oak versus oak chips is another
Sbragia: Oak is extracted at the same time as the young wine is beginning to age. It s young oak and
young wine. Now the wine and the oak tannins both need some maturing, aging. When
they do it together I think that it works really well. So however you add the oak, it has to
be with a young wine. When you add it at the end, it kind of tastes like you ve sawn a piece
of wood, then thrown it in the tank.
The best place to get oak is from a new barrel. Oak chips and inserts, pieces of wood
you slip inside the barrel, are cheaper alternatives, but not as good.
There are different flavors from different forests, from locations both in France and
America. What s better, I think, it is a subjective choice. I m used to French, so I tend to
like French better than American, but if someone likes the taste of American oak-.
French is a lot more subtle than American. American s a little bit more heavy and more
heavy-handed. Chips are the same thing. It s harder to control extraction. With a barrel
you ve got about the same extraction all the time, depending on how the staves are cut and
the quality of the wood; whether or not it s been air-dried. It has a big effect on a barrel, so
I m sure it has a big effect on the wine.
There are no free lunches in this business. You get what you pay for. But as an
alternative in a wine that you re selling for six dollars, maybe, it works well.
Hicke: Better than no oak at all.
Sbragia: Right, right. Or the oak is extracted and then you put it in the older barrel. That smooths
out the extracted oak while the wine is aging in the barrel.
Hicke: So another level on a continuum.
Sbragia: Yes, it s not a new trick. There are even some really good brands that have used it with
success. American oak s gotten better, alternate oak sources are getting better, people are
spending more time making oak alternatives. They re taking good wood and air-drying it
and then chopping it up. The new products are much improved.
They re making improvements in all levels, but I think that traditional winemaking
techniques make the best wine. High-quality wine from a high-quality vineyard requires
Hicke: Yes. I d like to ask you about corks, too.
Sbragia: I ve been using corks for twenty-five years and they are a pain because of cork taint. There
are multiple levels of corkiness. One cause is corks being bleached with chlorine. Chlorine
binds with a cyclic compound, producing trichloralazanol, CA. It smells like moldy, musty
water, and that s what corkiness is. That can happen if you use chlorine in the barrels or
wooden tanks. In fact, people had corky wines that weren t in the bottle, it s the same
process. That s why you don t usually use chlorine in association with wood.
Another cause is mold that gets in between the pores of the wood and has a pure moldy
smell. Sometimes a very light case of corkiness makes the wine half the intensity it
normally is. That s the most horrible type, because it just seems like the wine is not very
good. When it is obviously corked-someone smells it, "Oh, my god," and they ll bring you
another bottle. If there are a lot of them, we have to send them another case. I think as long
as it s less than 1 percent, it s a pain, but you put up with it. We do a lot of cork controlling.
We take every bale that comes in and statistically sample it.
Hicke: Every bale of corks?
Sbragia: It comes in bags of a thousand corks at a time. We are in a partnership with a cork-
producer, so our quality control person goes all the way to Portugal and works with the
people who actually buy the corks. We still buy from other companies, too.
Hicke: After you get done with corks, I want to hear about building your own barrels.
Sbragia: I didn t tell you about that?
Sbragia: That s just started in the past year. To finish corks, in the last ten years we ve seen all sorts
of plastic corks and synthetic corks and composite corks and ground-up corks that are
bonded with glue. The major problem is that the synthetics don t seal as good as cork does.
Cork has a certain compressibility that comes back, and if you compare it under a
microscope, the number of pores in cork compared to those synthetics is a fraction-
synthetic has a fraction of the pores. Cork has a lot more than the synthetics, so when they
are compressed by the corker jaws, they don t seal. A major reason to cork wine in a bottle
is to seal it so that air doesn t get in and wine doesn t get out. If they can t do that, then I
don t want them. I ll just go with cork. We just work really hard at screening out the lots
that have high levels of cork taint.
Sbragia: When I first got into the business, there was a guy named Keith Roberts working for
Mondavi, and his brother worked for me and he was the cellar manager. Craig. Keith then
went on to start Demptos Cooperage. He was good friends with Phillippe Demptos, who
later passed away. They started a cooperage in Napa, which still exists, called Demptos
Cooperage. Keith ran that cooperage.
He then left that place and started his own company. They worked on shaving barrels
and retoasting them. As the barrel got older, it was possible to shave the inside and then re-
fire it, exposing newer wood. But the non-colored material of the wine goes in a lot farther,
so I found that you d have this cooked wine smell, and because of the thinner stave when
we stacked them up six-high, the bottom rack would leak. So I stopped doing that.
Keith then went to work for Fetzer and started making barrels for Fetzer. Fetzer was
bought by Brown-Foreman, and Brown-Foreman also owned Blue Grass, Kentucky, which
was one of the major suppliers of fifty-gallon, fifty-dollar bourbon barrels, or whiskey
barrels. All the big American whiskey barrel suppliers now are actually making wine
barrels, but they re making them on assembly lines, so they re kind of a combo. They cost
Hicke: Considerably less than--
Sbragia: Keith, for $250, was making handmade wine barrels when they bought Fetzer. They sell
barrels to the wine industry. Eventually they stopped making their barrels for wine in
Kentucky and transferred all of their wood up to Keith. Keith now had wood supplies that
he hadn t chosen, and he didn t like it, so he left there. About a year ago he called us up and
said, "Hey, would you be interested? There are a lot of people who want me to start a
cooperage. But I d like to come work for you guys." We hired him and we re in the process
of buying wood and buying equipment and next year we ll start making barrels.
Hicke: You have a plant or something?
Sbragia: It s going to be in Cloverdale.
Hicke : What kind of wood?
Sbragia: French, American, and Hungarian. Probably mostly American to start, because that s what
he did before. As far as I m concerned, he had the best American barrel on the market. He
was outstanding with American barrels. I haven t had any of his French barrels-he s bought
some wood from all around, and he s actually bought some wood from Hungary, so we ll
have a little bit of everything to try.
Hicke: You re going to be totally vertically integrated here, pretty soon.
Sbragia: Well, it s not going to be for all our barrels, because we buy a lot of barrels company-wide.
It would be a fraction of the total, less than half. Then Keith would also be an advocate to
our other barrel suppliers, because they all know him really well. He could actually go, if
we wanted something special, to the cooper and make sure that we got what we wanted. He
would work with the cooper, because the whole idea is to tailor the wood to the wine. We
will tell him what we want out of the wines and taste, what other people are doing and what
we think they re doing, and he would try and make it. We d taste what he made and say,
"Oh, well, we need a little more of that," we all have a common language of wood, "and we
need a little more vanilla spice and less of astringent wood taste." There are sugars in the
wood and when a barrel is made, the heat from the wood fire-bonds the staves. This gives
the wood a toasty caramel-vanilla character.
French oak has to be split because it leaks if you don t split it. It ll split parallel to the
vertical rays. Vertical rays don t have xylem, so that they re like a straw. American wood,
the rays are full of xylem so you can saw it across the rays and it doesn t leak. So American
wood makes a good barrel, in terms of the container. That s why French barrels are so
expensive, because due to splitting you get a lot of loss.
Once you get the staves, the cooper forms the barrel to make a tepee, puts an iron hoop
on the top and starts a little fire in a brazier. They put a cable around the bottom of the
barrel, and they crank it by hand or they have a little motor. The heat slowly modifies the
structure of the wood so that it ll bend without cracking. It slowly forms into a barrel.
Then they ll take a wet rag and wet the staves a little and keep it on the fire either a long
time for heavy toast or shorter for light toast.
I like medium to medium-plus toast the best. It s about twenty or thirty minutes on the
fire after the barrel is formed. Heavy toast gives a strong smoky toasty smell and flavor.
Hicke: So more oak flavor?
Sbragia: Usually it s real burnt, kind of like bacon-hickory smell. Some people like that for some
Chardonnay, for Pinot. I don t particularly like the smoke character. In order to get the
heat, they have a lid on top of the open barrel, the lid keeps all the smoke inside, so a lot of
times what I do is I say I want a medium-plus toast without the lid. No smoke. I want a
little more toast, but I don t want the smoky smell. I want the caramelized-sugar taste,~the
butterscotch. It is hard to describe wood flavors. But we need to convey what we want to
our own outside cooperages.
That s kind of what Jane Robichaud, our research and sensory director, is doing: she ll
get standards of all these oaky smells and flavors the best she can. We ll all sit down and
say, "Okay, here are the different woods, and they have certain tastes; now what do they
taste like and what are we going to call it?" So we all speak the same language. That s a lot
of what she does in the Sensory Department.
Hicke: You have a lot going on.
Sbragia: Keith, working with all winemakers, will slowly make custom barrels made specifically for
our particular wines. That will be a great opportunity to make better wines.
Hicke: That s really great.
Sbragia: It s a lot of fun. It s a whole new challenge. Keith reports to Tom Peterson at Souverain in
Sonoma County. So I get the benefit, I don t have to manage it. [laughs]
Hicke: You have a few other things.
Sbragia: Yes, I do.
WE PROFESSIONAL AND COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES
Hicke: Before it gets too late, I want to hear a little bit about your professional community
activities. Do you belong to any winegrower associations?
Sbragia: I belong to the American Society of Enology and Viticulture. But I haven t jumped into the
melee involved with managing the organization, just because I still have kids in school and
I can t do it all. I make wine and try to go to all my children s school sporting events. Also,
I belong to a musical group.
Hicke: Tell me about that. You ve told me, but I don t know if we ve gone through it.
Sbragia: Well, it s called Private Reserve and we started about, oh, 1988. It was in response to this
particular organization, the American Society of Enology and Viticulture, having a yearly
conference. For the June symposium in Reno, at the banquet they wanted a band, and they
didn t have money for a band, so we said we d play for free.
But we didn t have a band yet. [laughter] One guy in our. group belonged to a band, and
he kind of got us together and guided us as to what instruments we should buy, because we
all had acoustic guitars. I play accordion, so we worked up a couple of songs with
accordion and then we played. It was a lot of fun so we decided we would stay together.
Back then we were called "Oakey Bung Hole and the Lactones." Lactone is one of the
phenolics in oak, so it was kind of an in-joke. But we thought once were going to play for
real that we should be called something else, so we changed our name to Private Reserve.
Hicke: Much classier.
Sbragia: Much classier, but the Lactones is our alter ego, you know, [laughter]
The band members are Mike Martini from Louis Martini Winery, George Bursick from
Ferrari-Carano and Pat Heck. And then a lawyer in the industry named Steve Buhel, and
John Hawkins, who works in wine marketing. We have played ever since that Reno
We just had our high point when George Bursick s boss, Don Carrano, who owns the El
Dorado casino in Reno, asked us to play. The winemakers went up for a day and did a
winemaker dinner together and then the next night the band played at the lounge at the El
Dorado. We made the big time in the Babinga Lounge, which is the wood that they used.
It s an African wood they used, they called it that name.
Hicke: I ll bet you even got paid for that one.
Sbragia: We actually got paid, and he put us up in the hotel and bought our dinner. We had a really
good time. So it might be a yearly thing now.
Actually I don t encourage us to play a lot. I think the most important thing is for us to
get together and play music and sit down and talk. We usually have pizza and everybody
brings a bottle of wine and about eleven o clock we go home. That s usually every
Wednesday night, so it s kind of like rather than having bowling night, I have rock and roll,
Hicke: A better choice, I would say.
Sbragia: In terms of community involvement, my wife has been involved in Little League for the last
three or four years and I ve kind of assisted her. My youngest son likes baseball.
Sbragia: Yes, with Kevin, and my wife is the coach. It has been a lot of fun.
Hicke: Now, you said her name was Janie?
Sbragia: Yes, and her maiden name is Carr. Her father s name was Ford Carr. He was a camp
director and she followed in his footsteps. But in terms of belonging to organizations other
than that, my kids and my work keep me pretty busy.
The band volunteers for various causes once in a while, and I ll do winemaker dinners
for Easter Seals on occasion. I try to do that as much as possible. I belong to the local
Catholic church, since I m a good Italian Catholic boy, and we support that as well.
Hicke: And you said you had been judging at this French competition.
Sbragia: Well, I ve actually been a judge at the Riverside County Fair, the Orange County Fair.
Then when I was invited to do this judging, I think it was about six years ago now, I just
went to my fifth one, they did two in a row because it was the millennium this year. It is
really interesting, with international participants from all around the world, people that you
wouldn t ever get a chance to meet otherwise. One of these days when I have time I ll start
visiting all these people and seeing their winegrowing regions.
Hicke: Because you already know people there.
Sbragia: Yes, so I guess that s the nicest thing about it all. When we talked about Myron going to
New York, taking two weeks to get across country, now, in ten hours you re in another
world. The world is smaller. They come and see us; we see them. The world of wine is
actually quite a small world now. It s fairly tightly knit. Everybody almost knows
everybody if you ve been in the business for a while. You know a lot of them or you ve met
them personally at least once, so it s nice to keep in touch and be a part of the world as a
global organization rather than just your own little winemaking region.
Hicke: I have a list of some things down here. Just take a quick look and see if anything there is
something you want to talk about. They re not really crucial to the story of Beringer and Ed
Sbragia: The people I went through graduate school with and where they went is pretty interesting.
When I decided to go back to school after being a chemist at Gallo in 1971-1973, 1 got to be
really good friends with a guy named Marcello Montecelli. Actually, Julio Gallo used to
call him Mario. Recently Marcello just got promoted to vice president of the Sonoma
Hicke: At Gallo?
Sbragia: At Gallo, and he s a really good winemaker. I tasted some of the Gallo wines-Gallo-
Sonoma wines~and they re actually quite good, they re actually very good.
Hicke: Yes, they ve been getting good ratings.
Sbragia: Yes, so I m really proud of them and we ve been friends for years.
Dennis Martin is another person I went to graduate school with. When I went to
graduate school, one of the professors that was a major professor there was a man named
Dr. Shandrelle. He actually had worked at Gallo when I was there, so we both had started
school together, he being professor and me being the student. His father had been the head
of the Geisenheim Institute in Germany. So he had published and was quite a famous man.
He gave the Fresno program new life. Davis always gets all the credit, but Fresno actually
has a vineyard and a winery. In fact, they just were able to start producing wines
commercially in the United States. So the wine sales will benefit the agriculture
It s really great. They can use their grapes commercially now.
Our graduate group bonded and I m still friends with them. When we started having
kids, we were meeting on maybe a weekly basis. When we all had two or three kids, we
kind of all spread apart. Now the kids are leaving, and we re going to get back together
again. But Dennis Martin-
Hi eke: Where is he now?
Sbragia: He is the vice president and winemaker at Fetzer Vineyards. His son Remy and my son
Adam essentially grew up together as brothers because we lived close together. Ken Deis
of Flora Springs was also another really good friend and he s been a winemaker at Flora
Springs for twenty years. There s another one, Jerry Hamolka, who s a winemaker in the
San Joaquin Valley. Who else? Oh, and then Pat Heck, who s in the band.
They re all still some of my best friends, so it s a neat thing that you were able to watch
your friends proceed and climb the ladder of success in the wine business.
Hicke: It was a good class.
Sbragia: It was a good class, very good class.
What else have you got? I think it s become more difficult to grow grapes in the Valley
in terms of agriculture preserves, pesticides, erosion. You d think everybody would want
grapes, but a lot of the newer developments in the peripheries of the wine business look at
grapes as not necessarily conserving the environment, but actually raping the environment.
I don t know if I want to talk about that.
Hicke: Let me turn this over.
Sbragia: I think that there are some challenges to the wine business in the future in that, as Napa
Valley and actually Sonoma county I still live in Sonoma County and also grew up there--
that they had been primarily agricultural. There has always been the philosophy of the right
to farm. As more people move in closer to the vineyards and as the wine business is
actually in a boom time trying to find other places to grow grapes, the two clash. I think
that it s finally hit a head where grapegrowers haven t been smart enough to realize that they
can t just clear-cut the hillsides again like our forefathers did. You have to leave some trees
here and there. You have to be responsive to the fact that you can t just have your soil
eroding to a stream and filling up reservoirs.
Farmers are really conservationists. They want to maintain their land or else they lose
their natural resources. So I think we re all talking the same language, but then again, there
are real predators in terms of pests. The public would like to be able to walk on anybody s
property and walk through the stream, and at the same time, have equipment and things like
that. People shot holes through gas tanks to see if it exploded on a tractor. There are two
sides to private property and all that. As we grow and become more populated, it s going to
be more and more difficult to grow grapes.
Currently there are laws and regulations that require replanting to have set distances
from streams and from roads. What you grow will need to minimize uses of alternate
materials and try to look at natural ways to control pests and minimize pesticide usage.
If you have a vineyard today, it s probably the greatest investment you ever made in the
North Coast. If you want to start a vineyard, it s going to be more and more difficult. And
unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view, a lot of the best land is up on
top of the mountains where it s going to be almost impossible to plant any vineyards. In
building big houses on hillsides, people don t want to see mansions on a clear-cut piece of
land. They re protecting the viewshed. It s becoming more restrictive in terms of being able
to take and use the land you think you ve bought to make what you want. It s harder and
harder, but that s because the population s increased in this area and everybody wants to live
in the Napa or Sonoma County. They don t understand that it s still an agricultural
community, so we ll all have to learn to live together.
Hicke: Well, maybe that s a good note to end on.
Hicke: And I thank you so very much for spending the time to do this.
Sbragia: Oh, you re welcome!
Transcribed by Amelia Archer
Final Typed by Shannon Page, Julie Allen
ADDENDUM TO ED SBRAGIA S ORAL HISTORY
Subject: Sale of Beringer Wine Estates to Foster s Brewing Group
On August 28, 2000, Foster s Brewing Group of Australia offered to buy Beringer Wine Estates
at a price of $55.75 per share, or approximately $1.2 billion (U.S.). The sale was completed in
Foster s is a premium beverage company that produces and markets beer, wine and leisure
products worldwide. Mildara Blass is Foster s international wine division and a leading premium
wine producer in Australia.
Mildara Blass is actually older than Beringer Vineyards. It began in the late 1850s, when they
established the original Mildara winery. Now they have nine wineries and 8,500 acres of vineyards
in their control. The company was bought by Foster s in 1996 and now has more than 30 premium
and super-premium brands in Australia, California, and France. Some of its brands are Australia s
best-known labels, including Wolf Blass, Black Opal, Greg Norman, Yellowglen and Jamiesons Run.
They are also a leader in the consumer direct area. They operate premium wine clubs in Australia,
Asia, and Europe.
The sale merged Beringer Wine Estates with Mildara Blass, creating a new company called
Beringer Blass Wine Estates. This partnership began a new chapter in our company s history and
established the largest premium wine company in the world. The existing Beringer management
team was left intact to operate the company.
I think the sale was really positive for our company. It s a great merger between two great
premium wine companies, one from Australia and one from the U.S. They will help us sell our wine
worldwide and we will help them distribute in the U.S.
Oral History Closing Statement
"I m always asked what my best or favorite vintage is, and with all that s happened, my favorite
vintage is always in the future. Maybe next year, who knows? That s what keeps me interested, the
possibility of what the future holds. I love the challenge!"
Winemaster, Beringer Vineyards
TAPE GUIDE-Edward G. Sbragia
Interview 1: November 29, 1999
Tape 1, Side A 1
Tape 1, Side B 11
Tape 2, Side A 23
Tape 2, Side B 32
Tape 3, Side A 40
Interview 2: November 30, 1999
Tape 3, Side A (continued) 45
Tape 3, Side B 52
Tape 4, Side A 61
Tape 4, Side B 70
Interview 3: February 29, 2000
Tape 5, Side A
Tape 5, Side B 85
Tape 6, Side A 93
Tape 6, Side B 101
Interview 4: March 1, 2000
Tape 7, Side A 105
Tape 7, Side B 1 14
Tape 8, Side A 122
TapeS, Side B 131
C a- 1 ifo rnin
RED TABLE WINE
APPENDEX-Edward G. Sbragia
A. Beringer Vineyards: Ed Sbragia, Winemaker 135
B . Beringer Vineyards : The Oldest Continuously Operating Winery in the Napa Valley 1 3 6
C. Beringer Vineyards: Private Reserve Program 137
D. Beringer Vineyards: Oak and Toast: The Winemaker s Seasonings 138
E. Beringer Vineyards: Beringer s Vineyards 139
F. Beringer Vineyards: 1997 Napa Valley Chardonnay Sbragia Limited-Release 141
G. Beringer Vineyards Wines in Current Release 142
H. Gino and Julia Sbragia 143
When Ed Sbragia was growing up, wine meant both livelihood and quality of life to his family. Ed s grandfather, an
immigrant from Tuscany, had naturally gravitated to the wineries flourishing in California at the turn of the century.
According to family lore, he was standing at the top of a ladder topping off a tank of wine when the 1906 earthquake
hit. "Stop shaking the ladder," he yelled to his coworker on the ground.
Ed s father acquired his own vineyards near Healdsburg, growing Zinfandel grapes for sale and home winemaking.
excellent wine," says Ed, "and he taught me that making wine is a very natural process that good grapes
Ed s father acquired his own vineyards near Healdsburg, growing Zinfar
"He made excellent wine," says Ed, "and he taught me that making wine i
and good techniques will make good red wine."
In the Tuscan tradition, good red wine was a part of every family dinner. "I thought of it as a bitter liquid until I was
about 14," Ed recalls. "But it was a natural part of our meals and our life. My mom was a great cook, and we would
sit for hours having long philosophical discussions."
The vineyards meant hard work for young Ed pruning, thinning, harvesting and crushing. "By the time I went to
college, I wanted to get away from vineyards. The rows were too long, and I had hoed too many vines."
Ed majored in chemistry at the University of California at Davis, headed for a career in science. But his family
background made him the top candidate for a job in a winery laboratory upon graduation. Quickly realizing that the
winemaker s job was the one he wanted, he returned to California State University at Fresno for a master s degree in
enology. After a year working at a Sonoma County winery, he learned about an opening as winemaker Myron
Nightingale s assistant at Beringer.
"I just called Myron up and asked if I might be qualified for the position. I started on August 9, 1976. Myron was a
great teacher. He was the most intuitive winemaker I ve ever known. He understood that winemaking requires
subjective input a feeling, a major preference just like painting or sculpture or any work to which you dedicate
Ed was named Beringer s chief winemaker on Myron s retirement in 1984 and has been, along with vineyard
manager Bob Steinhauer, the keystone of Beringer s Private Reserve program. He is proud of the partnership that he
and Bob have formed "Bob always says he gives me diamonds, and it s up to me to polish them," says Ed.
THE OLDEST CONTINUOUSLY OPERATING
WINERY IN THE NAPA VALLEY
Jacob Beringer left his home in Mainz, Germany, in 1868 to start a new life in the United States. His brother,
Frederick, had preceded him by five years and wrote home constantly of the grand opportunities to be found in the
vast new world. Frederick had settled in New York, but that life did not appeal to Jacob. Unlike his brother, Jacob
Beringer enjoyed toiling in the cellars in his youth in Germany. He had heard that the warm, sunny climate of
California was ideal for growing wine grapes, so in 1870 he traveled by train, first to San Francisco and then on to
Napa Valley. To his delight, he discovered rocky, well-drained soils similar to those in his native Rhine Valley.
The volcanic soil was ideal for growing the varietal grapes of Europe s winemaking regions, and, best of all, the hills
could be dug out to provide storage and aging tunnels that would maintain the constant temperature needed to
produce fine wines. Jacob bought land with Frederick in 1875 and settled into producing wines comparable to the
premium wines he had developed in Europe. In 1876, they founded Beringer Winery.
The tedious task of hand-chiseling the rock tunnels was completed by Chinese workers returning to the San
Francisco area following completion of the Trans-Continental Railroad. The tunnels took several years to complete
but rewarded the brothers with an extremely effective storing and aging facility that maintains a mean temperature
of 58F. Today, Beringer Vineyards continues to age fine wines, including its Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, in
the tunnels they built.
While the winery was being built, Jacob took up residence in a farmhouse on the property built in 1848, now referred
to as the "Hudson House." Meticulously restored and expanded, the Hudson House serves today as Beringer
Vineyards Culinary Arts Center and home of the School for American Chefs.
In 1883, Frederick began construction of the 17-room mansion which was to be his home a re-creation of the family
home located on the Rhine River in Germany. Frederick s "Rhine House," now on the National Register of Historic
Places, serves as Beringer s hospitality center.
Beringer Vineyards is the oldest continuously operating winery in the Napa Valley. Jacob Beringer s foresight in
recognizing the quality and potential of grape growing in the Napa Valley is part of the living heritage of Beringer
Vineyards. With the present use of state-of-the-art technology applied to age-old traditions, Beringer Vineyards
wines continue to reflect a single-minded dedication to the making of memorable wines from great Napa Valley
BERINGER H km VINEYARDS
PRIVATE RESERVE PROGRAM
In 1971, in a push toward building the quality of its wines, Beringer hired veteran winemaker Myron
Nightingale, Working with his wife Alice, Myron was the first California winemaker to produce a botrytised
wine in the style of the great French Sauternes, and Beringer s Nightingale, a dessert wine made in very small
quantities each year, is named in his honor.
Myron modernized the winemaking facility, bringing in temperature-controlled steel tanks and replacing the
winery s old barrels with new French oak. With long-range vision, he also insisted on upgrading and
expanding the vineyards because of his belief that great wines begin on the vines.
To recognize the better quality of fruit becoming available to him, Myron began making limited production
wines, including a 1973 Centennial Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1974 Centennial Chardonnay. Both wines
were released in 1976 to celebrate Beringer s 100th birthday.
Edward Sbragia joined Beringer as Myron s assistant in 1976 and, with his mentor s blessing, began
experimenting with fermenting Chardonnay in small French oak barrels and other techniques not widely
used in California at the time. And when Beringer first acquired Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the
Lemmon Ranch (later called Chabot Vineyard) in 1977, Myron and Ed knew they had the makings of a
distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon in a big, rich style, and they kept the lot separate.
After two years in French oak barrels, the wine was still dark, chewy and tannic. Even bottle aging didn t
seem to soften its intensity. With some trepidation, Myron, Ed and Bob Steinhauer, who had joined the
company as vineyard manager in 1979 with the mission of further developing the vineyards, entered the
wine in competition in the 1981 Orange County Fair. It won a gold medal as the best Cabernet Sauvignon in
the show, and the limited amount produced was released as Beringer s first Private Reserve Cabernet
The 1978 Private Reserve was released in the same year, to even greater critical acclaim. But the upward
spiral of the reserve wines was stopped by the 1979 vintage, when the Chabot Vineyard s dry-farmed
Cabernet Sauvignon vines went into photosynthetic shock and shut down before the grapes ripened. No
Private Reserve was bottled from that vintage, in keeping with Ed and Bob s determination to reserve that
designation for the product of the finest grapes from the finest vineyards and the most exacting winemaking
In subsequent years, Beringer has achieved a Private Reserve with every vintage. Since Myron s retirement in
1984, Ed and Bob have continued to learn the lessons of the vineyards and the wines that grow in them. Each
vintage has produced different fruits, different flavors and a different challenge to the team as they make
their critical decisions about viticulture, fruit maturity, oak selection and assemblage.
After nearly two decades producing these reserve wines together, Ed and Bob s common goal remains
unchanged: to make the best Cabernet Sauvignon the Nap a Valley can produce an achievement that has
surpassed even Jacob Beringer s ambitious early vision.
1000 Pratt Avenue Post Office Box 111 St. Helena, California 94574 Tel 707.963.7115 Fax 707.963.1735
BERINGER (H KM VINEYARDS
OAK AND TOAST:
THE WlNEMAKER S SEASONINGS
Ed Sbragia, Beringer Vineyards winemaker, uses wood primarily from French oak forests to add
particular flavors, or "seasonings," to his wines. The oaks themselves vary in character: Trench oak
from the Nevers forest has a denser porosity than oak grown near Limousin," Sbragia states, "and the
flavors that each wood imparts to a wine can be distinctly different just as oak grown in Kentucky may
have a different flavor than Oregon oak.""
After 22 years of working with French and American coopers, Sbragia has formed distinctive opinions on
the seasonings he gives each wine at Beringer. "The cooper s signature," he points out, "is the toast level
he gives to the barrel, or the amount of fire the barrel sees as the cooper assembles the barrel. If he wants
smoke and toast he simply puts a top or lid on the barrel, exposing the oak staves to more smoke and
less fire. I prefer a medium toast and work closely with my coopers to reach just the level that allows for
a vanillin, toasted-bread or hazelnut character to develop in the wine. A heavy toast can impart a roasted
coffee or chocolate character that, for me, is too much for a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, two wines I
like to .ferment and age in small French oak barrels."
The age of the barrel is of equal importance to Sbragia. "For my Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon I
use 100% new oak, since the huge fruit extract of the wine can handle the new oak. For the medium-
bodied and distinctive fruit I get from our Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, I like a combination of
new and used barrels. The art of the winemaker is to enhance the wine with an experienced, judicious
hand, select the right barrels and use them for the right amount of time, or maybe not use barrels,
focusing entirely on the fruit of the wine. Our Camay Beaujolais, for example, is not aged in oak because
I want the fruit to dominate its flavor spectrum, while I barrel-ferment and age our Napa Valley
Chardonnay in oak, carefully balancing fruit and oak. Balance may be an overused word, but it does say
a lot about what I m trying to achieve in wine with oak flavor."
. 1000 Pratt Avenue Post Office Box 111 St. Helena, California 94574 Tel 707.963.7115 Fax 707.963.1735
BERINGER (1 Bfeii) VINEYARDS
Each Beringer vineyard, with its own distinctive soil, climate and terrain, lends itself to particular varietals. These
vineyards have become recognized as primary sources of Beringer wines.
BALE LANE VINEYARD
The well-drained soils of this vineyard, located in the warmer, mid-valley climate area of Napa Valley, have produced
excellent, full-flavored Sauvignon Blancs and Semillons.
BIG RANCH ROAD VINEYARD
Located in the southern sector of the Napa Valley, this vineyard has soils with limited depth and low fertility. The area s
Region n climatic conditions produce Chardonnays and Merlots with full, rich flavors and excellent structure.
These gently sloping, obsidian-laden hillside vineyards are located on the eastern slope of Napa Valley near St. Helena.
The low-yielding vines produce superlative Cabernet Sauvignons of deep color and a rich flavor with a suggestion of
Dos Rios VINEYARD
The gravelly and <Jlay loam soils of this Yountville appellation are well-drained, producing distinctive Cabernet
Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay fruit.
GAMBLE RANCH VINEYARD
Emanating from the Rector Creek alluvial fan near Oakville, the rocky soil of this vineyard produces grapes of maturity
and intensity well-suited to our barrel-fermented Chardonnay. Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes
are also grown here.
This is the area that first attracted Jacob Beringer to the property more than 100 years ago. The Cabernet Sauvignon
planted on the sloped alluvial fan of this vineyard has been a key component of our Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
BANCROFT RANCH VINEYARD
A beautiful, mountainous vineyard at an elevation of 1,800 feet on Howell Mountain, Bancroft Ranch produces intense
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc for use in our Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlots from this
vineyard are dark and intense in varietal flavors and have also been bottled separately since 1987.
HUDSON RANCH VINEYARD
Benefiting from foggy mornings and afternoon sun, this vineyard has a cool microclimate and gravelly soils, and
produces some of our finest Chardonnays as well as our Viognier.
KNIGHTS VALLEY VINEYARD
Located 17 miles north of the winery, this vineyard has volcanic, well-drained soils that are perfectly suited to Cabernet
Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Since 1976, our wines from this vineyard have carried
the Knights Valley designation on the bottle.
LINDA VISTA VINEYARD
This vineyard has soils with low fertility and enjoys the cooling influences of San Pablo Bay. It produces rich Chardonnay
fruit with high acidity.
The volcanic soil (tuff) of this vineyard in the Rutherford district produces exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon fruit.
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141 APPENDIX F
2000 Main Street
Post Office Box 111
St. Helena, CA 94574
Tel: 707.963 .48 12
1997 NAPA VALLEY CHARDONNAY
The grapes for this very limited production wine are grown at Beringer s Gamble Ranch Vineyard,
located near the town of Yountville in the southern part of Napa Valley. The climate hi this
region, influenced by nearby San Pablo Bay, includes cool, fog-washed nights and mornings
alternating with sunny afternoons during the long growing season. The Chardonnay grapes are
situated behind a large hill in the middle of the vineyard, where the conditions remain cool into
the late afternoon, according to vineyard manager Bob Steinhauer, helping to preserve the grapes
balancing acidity. Over the years, Bob Steinhauer and winemaker Ed Sbragia have learned that
specific blocks of Chardonnay in this vineyard are capable of achieving the "fatter, richer, thicker"
character that Ed seeks for this limited-release Chardonnay, and these grapes are earmarked for this
wine from the moment of picking.
The 1997 growing season began and ended exceptionally early in Napa Valley. Beginning with
bud break in the spring, every stage of vine growth and fruit maturation occurred up to two weeks
ahead of normal. For example, 95 percent of our Chardonnay grapes had reached veraison the
stage at which the grapes turn color and soften by the end of the first week in July. The weather
remained moderate through to harvest time, allowing the grapes to achieve full physiological
maturity. The grapes for this wine were handpicked on September 4 and 5, and the flavors were,
according to Ed Sbragia, "incredibly intense, and complex yet balanced."
Because of the bold, concentrated flavors of the grapes used to make this wine, Ed Sbragia chose
brand-new French Nevers oak barrels to ferment and age it for almost nine months. "Fruit of this
intensity can stand up to all new wood," he explains. Following fermentation, the spent yeast cells
were stirred back into the wine once a week. This technique, the traditional French sur lie aging,
integrates the creamy, slightly nutty character of the yeast into the wine and subdues the tannins
of the new oak. Ed also put the wine through 100-percent malolactic fermentation to enhance the
fruit s characteristic butter aromas and create an even creamier mouthfeel. The result is a full-
bodied, almost viscous wine, with rich aromas and flavors of creamy butter, citrus-tinged Golden
Delicious apples and toasted almonds with back notes of caramel, spice and sweet vanilla. The
finish is long and lush, continuing the layered interplay of citrus, butter and spice.
Suggested retail price: $40
WINES IN CURRENT RELEASE
In National Distribution:
1997 California White Zinfandel $ 6
1997 North Coast Limited Vineyard Selection (LVS)
White Zinfandel . $ 8
1997 California Chenin Blanc $ 7
1997 California Gewurztraminer $ 7
1997 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc $ 11
1996 Knights Valley Alluvium Blanc $ 16
1997 Napa Valley Chardonnay $ 16
1997 Private Reserve Napa Valley Chardonnay $ 36
1997 California Rose de Saignee $ 16
1998 California Nouveau $ 8
1997 California Camay Beaujolais $ 8
1996 North Coast Pinot Noir $ 16
1995 North Coast Zinfandel $ 12
1995 Knights Valley Alluvium $30
1995 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $ 25
1995 Howell Mountain Merlot, Bancroft Ranch . $ 50
1995 Napa Valley Pinot Noir, Stanly Ranch $ 30
1994 Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon $ 75
Available at the Rhine House only:
1997 Napa Valley Viognier $ 20
1995 Rhine House Selection Chardonnay $ 20
1996 Sbragia Chardonnay, Limited Release $ 35
1993 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Chabot Vineyard $ 100
1994 Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling $ 15 /375ml
1994 Nightingale $ 25 /375 ml
1995 Port of Cabernet Sauvignon $ 20
WOO Pratt Avenue Post Office Box 111 St. Helena, California 94574 Tel 707.963.71W Fax 707.963.1735
143 APPENDIX H
Gino Sbragia > the thrd child of Giulio and Cherubina Sbragia of Guamo,
Italy. He was the second chad to be bom in America during their short stay in Healds
burg, California from 1906 to 1910. He provided all of the following information from his
home in Healdsburg, when this interview was held in the spring of 1994.
Glno Sbragia, brother of ttsJo, Rico, Aladino and Maria Sbragia, was born on
Jan. IB, 1910 on the Packson Ranch while his parents were living and working in
Healdsburg, CA. from 1906 to 1910. The Packson Ranch, owned by ,
was part of the present-day Madrone KnoH Rancho, located west of Healdsburg. His
brother, Itaio, had been bom in Italy and his brother, Rico, was the first child bom in
America. Gino was the second one born in America and was only 9 months old when
the family was called back to Italy to continue running the grandparerrte s farm.
Of course, Gino could not recall that first trip across the Atlantic Ocean since he
was just a babe in arms, but he did recall growing up in his parent s hometown of
Guamo.... the big. two-story stone house with the wall around It, his parents and
grandparents and the local school about a quarter mile away. "We used to walk to
school," he recalled, "and I only went to school for 4-5 years, until I waa 10 years old
Then we d get a certain paper (certificate) showing we d completed that much school
and if we wanted to go on, we d have to go to Lucca. Well, we couldn t afford that, so
that was ft."
Most of the time. Gino worked on his father a farm and rock quarry. "I used to
work with my father, delivering rocks to people in the area for building their homes and
wads," he recalled. Nicolao, my grandfather, lived with us. He was a nice man, very
ambitious. He lived upstairs and my g-andmothsr, too (Carlotta TamWiini Sbragia).
When my father went out to work with the horses and the cows, the "old man" - he
wanted to feed the animals when my father returned. Only he could do it bestll He
was a tall man and was 91 years old whsn he ded. He had a lot of hair. I remember
he had a little pail in his room, whsre he washed himself and thsn he would come
downstairs to eat... he was always well-doomed. He owned the houee."
"My grandmother, Cariotta, used to do lots of reading., .all religious books. And
my other g-andparents, the Cantieris....! never met them. They must have died young.
They lived in Verciano and I did see their home." A descendant of the Cantieri family,
Luigi "Louie" Cantieri, immigrated to America and settled in Hawthorne, Nevada. His
nickname was "Vetuto," meaning velvet. "Louie was a bachelor. Gino continued, and
he also had two sisters in Italy. I used to call him my 2nd cousin."
"Giulio, my father, had two brothers - Fedele and Giuseppe Sbragia. They
worked together and I worked with them. They worked hard. I remember them cutting
one-quarter acre of grass by hand with a sickle before the sun came up I Nicolao, my
g-andfather, owned everything, but then the three boys took over. Giuseppe was
single and Giulio and Fedele were married. Giulio eventually bought out FftWe. who
immigrated to America. And Giuseppe left hia share to Giulio, too. Halo and t bought
out F/dele s share and later we gave our share to Aladino, who was having a hard
financial time trying to raise his large family back in Italy. He later sold the place."
"Giuseppe, my father s brother, came to the United States at one time and he
went to frazil, too. I think he came here about the same time that his brother, Giulio
came, but Giulio sent him back. He had some problems."
"My fsther was a good man. He thought about his kids. . . always came from
Lucca with oranges and candy. My mother, Cherubina, was a good cook. She gar
dened and we had chickens. She would sefl some in Lucca and then with the money,
she d buy other things. They were good people."
1927 - Gino joins his two brothers - Italo & Rico
Beginning in 1921, when Itaio left for America, Giulio and Cherubina Sbragia
had to say goodbye forever to their first three child-en. Rico was the second one to
leave in and Gino was next, leaving home on April 8, 1927. When Italo left
home, Gino was only II years old, but it must have made a strong impression on him.
As time processed, he knew that this was going to be his decision, also, and that he
would leave hie deer parents and his country of generations of ancestors.
The first item he needed was his birth certificate, so Itaio sent him his American
birth certificate, signed by the doctor who was present at his birth, Or. Swisher. "I met
Dr. Swisher many years later." Gino recalled. "Italo also sent me $305 to come here.
Otherwise, I had no money! The night before I left, I remember there were a lot of
people around and we were playing bocce balls with my cousin, Pete Tambelliru. Pete
said, "Maybe III come over, too." And Pete did come to America after I did. We used to
visit his family often on Pomona Street in El Cerrito. We were related through my
grandmother. Carkrtta TambeRini."
So, at age 17, on April 8, 1927, Gino said goodbye to his parents and his
younger brother, Aladino, who was 15 and his younger sister, Maria, who was 12. And
he boarded the ship called "Duilio." with his Italian passport, which he still has in
safekeeping. His profession was listed as : "bracciante," meaning laborer." "Braccie
means your hands and arms... what you use to work with," he illustrated. "The Duilio
made its last trip to the United States that year and followed it with a trip to South
America.. .and then it sankll"
"I came first daee...nice food...nice beds.. .everything. I arrived in New York on
May 1st, 1927. I was a minor, so I had to havs an escort. And when I got to New York. I
lost himi He just left me on the shipl They told me that I could not get off the ship
without an escort and that I had to go back to Italy. I was sure scared. So. some guy
overheard this conversation and he decided to help me. His name was Mr. Lombard
and he was a milkman in San Francisco, so he said that he knew the adorees where I
was going and that he would help."
"In San Francisco, my brother Rico, who was a bachelor, was boarcSng at some
one s house and I went there. I stayed there a few days and then I left for Asti (which
is approximately 80 miles north), where Italo was living and working. 1 stayed there
three years.. .lived in the barracks there.. .one big room.. .a bunch of beds...like working ^ ^
in the Army. I worked in the vineyards and then I left for San Francisco." y* ^Jg$ 4 .: :^
Meanwhile, Gino renewed his acquaintance with his uncle. Fedele Sbragia,
who had left Italy many years before him. Fedele lived in Healdsburg, Geyserville and
then in Windsor. "Fedete was tall, about 6 feet, and pretty husky. He did not speak
much English. He owned a ranch in Geyserville by the river, sold it and then owned a
ranch in Windsor. His daughter, Julia, sold the farm after he died to a fellow named Mr.
Camacho. When they lived in Geyserville, I remember them saying that his wife.
Roeina, got scared one day during the flood. She was watching from the shore, when
Fedele and his daughter, Julia, were stuck out in the water. A boat went out to rescue
them and the boat then tipped over, with Julia in it Fedele grabbed Julia and they
grabbed a branch along the river and there was a snake there and Julia started
playing with the snake!!"
"Rowna died before I arrived, but I remember that she worked at a hotel in
Healdsburg called La Svizzera Hotel (the Swiss Hotel), near the railroad depot. She
was the main cook."
Returning to Gino s leave from the Italian Swiss Colony in Asti: "in San Fran
cisco I worked where Rico was working at an incinerator plant, where they burned
garbage. I was there two years and then I returned to Healdsburg and leased a farm
with Italo, which was a part of the Lawrence Mora ranch in the Windsor area. It ad
joined our unde Fedeie s farm. And we helped him, too. There was a little house there
that Italo and I lived in... we cooked for ourselves. We worked that place for 4 years
and meanwhile. Italo got married and left. I stayed a couple years by myself. In 1932
Italo and Gino bought the 26-acre prune and (rape ranch in Geyserville that Italo
would continue to live on for 36 years and then Gino sold Italo his shore. Italo did not
move onto the ranch until 1934.
Then I left for San Frandeco again and went to work for the Montebello Wine
Co. on Bryant Street. I worked in the bottling department and became kind of a fore
man. We shipped wine to New York and I took care of orders, checked wine darity
and so on. I rented a house and lived alone, on Elizabeth Street. That s where I met
Rita Andreatta. Her husband was Domenic,,,. called "Meneghin." Rita and Domenic
came to America from Venice, Italy and they had two children, Bruno and Alfred. Rita
remained a friend of the Sbragia family until her death in December of 1993. She had
lived on Elizabeth Street, a one-block street near Guerrero Street all her life.
"One time I bought a ticket to the English-Irish Sweepstakes and I won the con
solation prize," Gino went on excitedly, "100 pounds, which was $500. and I bought
the Ark!! I bought the Ark for $900 and sold it for $11,000.... so I did pretty good. I had a
whiskey license, which people couldnt get at that time. I bought it from Mr. Perucci in
1936. Sold it in 1946 to Glenn Smith, who used to own the SHver Dollar in Santa Rosa.
Then the place burned down."
The 1940s - W.W.II, A Marriage, Property Bought & Sold
The 1940s arrived and Gino was still managing the Ark on a daily basis, but had
also purchased a acre piece of farm property on West Grant Street west of
Healdsburg. Part of the property induded a large, white Victorian house near the
road, built in 1906 or thereabouts. Occupants of the house were
There were many events swirling around in Gino s life during this period of time,
one being the marriage of Gino to Julia Sbragia Pippi, a cousin who was the daughter
of his uncle Fedele. Fectele had welcomed Gino to America back in 1927. Julia helped
Gino manage the Ark Inn by tending the bar, making eancVvichee for hungry customers
and dinners on demand. She wae a welcome addtton at the Ark and her children,
Dolores and Albert, also helped. And many family gatherings took place at that little
old place by the edge of the Russian River, right near the Healdsburg bridge. (I have
always been reminded that I took my first steps, as a child, across the barroom floor! I)
None of ua have forgotten the Ark. .. the bar itself, where Gino served cfcinks for
the adults and "tramarinoo" or tramarind, a sweet brown liqueur, to the kids and
grenadfte and 7-up, called "Shirley Temples, " to the kids, also. . . the family gather
ings and the enjoyment of eating food prepared by Julia and Dolores in the tiny old
kitchen near the dining room. . . the river below the deck. . . the Healdsburg bridge
next door. . . sights and sounds of swimmers. . . shouting and laughter from the beach
across the river. . .music from the jukebox and visits from city relatives and friends.
One of those "distant relatives" happened to be Joe Sbragia from Modesto, CA,
who came up to the Ark several times. "Joe used to come here with his friends to visit
his cousin, Fedele." Gino continued. They used to look like twins... unbelievable I He
was a big man. And he and his friends used to go to Calistoga for the mud baths. I
remember his sons and their wives. I went to Modesto several times and remember
their ranch. Frank had a ranch by the scnoolhouse and was Galio s biggest rancher.
Gallo bought from him. Ed went to visit them when he worked for Gallo."
In 1942, "Unde Sam" called. The U.S. Government wanted Gino in the Army.
And away he went, leaving Julia to tend bar and run the place. Gino still has a email
spiral notebook of his first day to last with the U.S. Army, including other soldiers
names and addresses, beginning with the date June 5, 1942.
Preside, Monterrey. . . Camp Rucker, Alabama. . . Florida. . . Camp Ten-
necy. Arizona. . . Camp San Luis Obispo, CA. . . Camp Beale, CA. . . Camp Stoneman
in Pittsburg. . . Honolulu, HA. . . Crossed the International Date Line on 8-17-44
Crossed the equator on 6-23-44. . . Guadalcanal, Anguar Island. . . then Peieliu
island. . . Admiralty Group Mania Island. . . New Calidonia (At this point, Gino went to
the hospital for "jungle rot", a skin condition where mold forms on the skin from being
in foxholes "I had shots, but came out dean," he said proudly.). . . 1945 - arrived in the
Philippine Islands - Leyte Island. . . arrived in Japan on Honshu Island - Aamari City. . .
Left for Yokohama on 11-45 for Seattle - Fort Lawton. . . Left there 3 days later for Camp
Beale, CA. . . Left there 3 days later for HOMED Nov. 26, 1945 AT 6:30.
About Id destinations in 3 years. "I felt like I was in the Navy instead of the
Army. I was out at see so much," he replied. "When Gino came home from the war," his
stepdaughter Dolores remarked. " we were so happy to have him back, we literally
flew down to the San Francisco bus depot to pick him up." After his return, one more
year was spent at the Ark before its sale and Gino s return to farm life.
(Following is an article which appeared in a local historical journal regarding Gino and
his family s years at the Ark.)
VIEW FROM THE ARK
Commentary from a feature article in the Russian River Recorder
as tc4d to Fern Naber by Dolores & John Naber
MY DIDNT IT RAIN! We welcomed this season s bounteous rain after the many
years of drought! We remember the many storms of 86, floods in the 60s and the
winter of 55. However, according to old timers in Healdaburg, the flood of 1937 was
Dolores and John Naber, as youngsters, lived beside the Russian River along
Heaidsburg Avenue. John viewed the river with his parents, John and Clara Naber,
managers of the Merryland Auto Camp and Dolores and her mother (Julia) and
stepfather (Gino Sbragia), proprietors of the Ark across the river.
The Ark was built above the river across the road from the Plantation on
Kennedy Lane. Both food and drinks were served. Delicious Italian food included
spaghetti, steak, doppino, polenta and fresh fish from the river. As the river crested in
December, 1937, the Ark was truly an ark, surrounded by water - Russian River and the
flooded Basalt Bridge on the east, the Old Redwood Highway on the west. Magnolia
Drive on the south and Front Street on the north.
Most of the people watching from the Ark were standing on the porch on the
river side. No one thought of the maximum weight or the number of people the
building and its underpinnings were supporting. Fortunately, the structure stood firm.
One thoughtful person had brought a huge metal cable, tied It to a tree on one
side of the Ark, pulled it around the entire building and "secured" it to a tree on the
other side. Theoretically, if something happened, the cable would save the Ark.
People came to witness the scene of rising water, dangerously close to the
railroad bridge, just under the rails. Loaded railroad cars were put on the bridge to
hold it down. Logs floating on the river would splash water up on the tracks.
The flood of 37 brought the demise of Leonard Avila s ferry boat rides. During
the summer, vacationers and locals enjoyed the ten-cent rides. In ths winter, the ferry
was pulled up on the beach next to the skating rink, as high as it could get. During the
night as the water rose, the ferry turned on its side and was badly damaged. It was
later repared and thrived for awhile in Lake County at Ciearlake.
One casualty near Grant Avenue, south of Heaidsburg, was a fish company s
truck. Ths chain-driven Mac truck, which made dally trips from San Francisco to
Eureka, turned over in approximately four feet of water in a low spot where the freeway
crosses over Redwood Highway (Heaidsburg Avenue today).
NABER UPDATE-ln the 1940s, John s parents (John and Clara) retired and
Dolores folks sold the Ark. The Ark later burned. John served in the Merchant Marines
during World War II. Dolores stayed in Healcteburg. This year they celebrated 43
years of marriage. Dolores remarked that John had traveled all over the world, then
came home to Heaidsburg and found her. Then she added, "I was here all the timel"
Thanks. John and Dolores, for sharing some of your memories.
Fern Naber - Correspondence Russian River Recorder - 1993
Continuing with Gino s story: 1 went back to the Ark after the War, sold it and
went into farming again. I had the West Grant place before ! returned and i moved to
that house in 46. Uaed to be 40 years old then... almost 90 now. Then I bought the
Dry Creek place and this present place on Kiniey Road. Used to be the Pryor place -
a house and vineyard."
Life went on and in 1948, Gino and Julia s only child, Ed Sbragia, was born on
Dec. II. 1946 at the Healdsburg Hospital. Ed spent all his growing up years In the town
of Heaidsburg, attending St. John s School, the first one in the family to attend Catholic
school, since it had only been established in Heaidsburg in 19 . Ed later attended
Fresno State College and graduated with a Degree in Enoiogy, the study of wine-
making. Now he enjoys the distinguished title of Wlnemaster of Beringer Winery in
Napa. Ed has travsled to Italy and France many times in connection with his profes
sion and is always involved in public relations for Beringer Wines. And he still helps
his father with their Sonoma County vineyards, the land where he got his first training
in the wine and grape business.
Gino and Julia were also fortunate to witness the marriages and births of grand
children, including the families of Julia s children, Albert and Dolores. Additions to the
family include: Ada Foppiano, who married Albert Pippi during the 1940s. Their son,
Terry Pippi. married Gayle Laughiin and they have a son, Mario Pippi. Julia s daugh
ter. Dolores, married John Naber in 1949 and they had three children: Mary Ann, John
and Sandy Naber. Mary Ann is married to George Neal. John has a daughter, Jessica
Naber. And Sandy, now called Kara, is married to Mark Andrews III.
Ed Sbragia is married to Jane Can* and they have added to the Sbragia family
with Adam, Gina and Kevin Sbragia. Gino and Julia s children all continue to live in
Heaidsburg not very far from Gino s house on Kiniey Drive.
Julia Sbragia died of a heart attack on May 26, 1963 in Heaidsburg and is
buried at the Oak Mound Cemetery in Heaidsburg. She is missed by all the family
and friends she left behind.
On July 12, 1966, Gino married the second time at St. John s Church to some
one, comcidantaliy, with the same surname, Eleanor Edith (Fambrini) Sbragia.
Eleanor is the daughter of Fred and Julia (Puccioni) Fambrini of Mill Creek, where
Eleanor was born in 1916. Eleanor was the widow of Duilio Sbragia (coincidental^ the
name of the boat Gino came to America on). John was the son of John and Elena
(Magnani) Sbragia of San Francisco. Eleanor and John had three sons: Don, Jerry
and Larry Sbragia, who are married and have child-en. They reside in the Bay Area.
Gino and Eleanor reside on Kiniey Drive in Heaidsburg, surrounded by children
and grandchildren and by relatives end friends. Eleanor s mother. Julia, who is 9_
years old, also resides nearby.
INDEX-Edward B. Sbragia
American Society of Enology and Viticulture,
Arccieni family, 117
Bancroft, Jim, 62
Beckstoffer, Andrew, 91
Berg, Harold, 20, 34, 77
Beringer Barenblut, 76
Beringer Trabengold, 76
Beringer Wine Estates, passim
Brittan, Robert, 117
Bruscellia, Bruno, 78
Buchery, Suzanne, 98
Bugato, Henry, 7,46,48
Buhel, Steve, 128
Bunnel, Ron, 109
Bursick, George, 128
Burtor, Colonel, 79
Galloway, Eli, 48
canopy management, 92-93
Caputi, Art, 24, 84, 85
Carr, Ford, 24, 40, 84
Castelo di Gabbiano brand, 117
Chabot Ranch Vineyard, 53-54, 63
Chabot, Remi, 98
cooperage, 55, 58, 124-127
Correa, Sergio, 116
Crawford, Charles, 81,84-85
Demptos Cooperage, 125
draft lottery, 21-22
Enzenauer Vineyard Management , 7
equipment, 1 1 , 60-62
Foppiano Vineyards, 7, 44-47, 82
Foppiano, Andy, 14
Foppiano, Gus, 45-46
Foppiano, Louis ST., 44, 50, 52
Foster s Brewing Group, 133
Franzia, John, 85
Freemark Abbey winery, 110
Friedrich [professor], 21
Fugelsang, Kent, 39
Gallo winery, 9, 23-24, 30-35, 37-38, 42-44,
81, 84-85, 130
Gallo, Julio, 31
Geisenheim Research Institute, 34,130
Graff, Richard, 84
grapes See also vineyards
Cabernet Franc, 63
Cabernet Sauvignon, 63, 94
Chardonnay, 5, 94, 111
Chenin Blanc, 5, 13
French Colombard, 5, 9, 13;
Merlot, 9, 63
Pinot Noir, 94, 1 1 1
Pinot Gris, 1 1 1
Sauvignon Blanc, 5, 13, 94
Guidi, Guido, 14
Guild Wineries, 85
Gumossis [prune disease], 14-15
Hardy, Mike, 34
Hawkins, John, 128
Heck family, 41
Heck, Patrick, 39, 41, 48, 128
Heitz, Joe, 52
Hook, Laurie, 114
Italian Swiss Colony, 4, 6, 18-19, 105
Johns, Frank, 114
Kay, Guy, 49, 58, 86, 107
Keegan, Bob and Tim, 14
Kenward, Tor, 60
Kepner [professor], 20
King, Logan, 14
Klenz,Walt, 54, 102, 112
Korbel Champagne Cellars, 41
Kreck, Yvonne, 25
Kunkee, Ralph, 34, 77
Lariat, Steve, 40
Leon, Patrick, 74
Little, Angela, 34
Lonn, Ralph, 32,34
Lupe family, 14
Maher, Richard, 49, 54, 58, 107, 110
Maison Deutz brand, 115
Martin, Dennis, 48, 130
Martini, Louis M., 80-82, 85
Martini, Louis P., 80
Martini, Michael, 80, 128
Meridian brand, 111
Meritage wines, 74-77
Montebello Wine Co., 4, 6-7
Montecelli, Marcello, 33-34,130
Montreaux, Jean Louis, 74, 87, 119
Moone, Michael, 99, 110-112
Napa Ridge brand, 1 08-109, 1 1 7
Nestle Co., 55-58, 86, 88, 1 12-1 13
Nightingale, Alice, 79
Nightingale, Myron, 6-7, 34, 40, 48-53, 60,
O Donnell, Steve, 48
oak chips, 123
Ortman, Chuck, 110-111
Paxton Ranch, 16
Pecota, Bob, 54
Peterson, Richard, 33
Peffer, Tom, 109
phylloxera, 13, 65, 92, 95-96, 117
Possum, Phil, 78
Pott, Aaron, 116
prune harvest, 11-13
Ramirez, Roberto, 25-26
Rasmussen, Leroy, 14
Raymond, Roy, 91
Raymond, Walter Jr., 91
Raymond, Walter Sr., 91
Ridge Lytton Springs wine, 76
Rieder, Steve, 119
Roberts, Keith, 125-127
Robichaud, Jane, 119,126
Rochioli family, 17-18
Roman, Giancarlo, 1 1 8
rootstocks, 13, 92
Rossi family, 105-106
Rossi, Edmund. Jr., 105-106
Sbragia, Adam, 59, 107
Sbragia, Cherubina [grandmother], 2
Sbragia, Fidele [grandfather], 2-3
Sbragia, Gina, 107-108
Sbragia, Gino [father], 1-3, 7, 9-10, 16-17,
28, 52, 87
Sbragia, Giulio [grandfather], 2, 18
Sbragia, Jane Lee Carr, 20-21, 27, 29-30, 35-
Sbragia, Julia [mother], 1,9-10
Sbragia, Kevin, 121, 129
Sbragia, Rosina [grandmother], 2-3
Sbragia, Tobere [uncle], 27
Schlottman, David, 108-109,116
Schrieve, Ron, 114
Scott, Robert, 39
Scott, Steve, 40
Screaming Eagle winery, 121-122
Seghesio Winery, 8
Seghesio, Ed, 9
Shandrelle [professor], 34, 35, 37, 39, 130
Shauss, Mark, 34
Sherard, Victoria, 25-26
Sierra Wine Co., 78
Singleton, Vernon, 34, 77
Skofis, Eli, 85
Sodini, Andrew, 17
Spring Mountain winery, 110
Stags Leap brand, 116-1 17
Steinhauer, Robert, 62, 71, 90-96
Stewart, Lee, 79
Merlot, 66, 71
Petite Sirah, 46
Sauvignon Blanc, 46
Syrah, 101-102, 113
Zinfandel, 46, 76
Winkler, A.J., 80
Wong, Tom, 30
Zell, Jean Jacques, 58-59, 86,
Texas Pacific Group, 112
Tonjum, Jim, 54,58
Trentadue winery, 17
Trumbella, Bruno, 24,30-31
vineyard, acquisitions and description of, 96-
Webb, Brad, 52
Webb, Dinsmore, 34
White, Rick, 43
Wildenrod, Herb, 43
wine prices, 89-90, 109, 113
wine ratings, 72-73
Wine World Estates, 112
winemaking, 32-35, 40-41, 50-53, 64-87110-
wines, imported brands, 115-1 16
Cabernet Franc, 66
Chardonnay, 46, 53, 57-60, 62, 68-70, 89,
Cabernet Sauvignon, 46, 54-55, 58, 60,
62, 64-71, 89;
Carole E. Hicke
B.A., University of Iowa; economics
M.A., San Francisco State University; U.S. history with emphasis on
the American West; thesis: "James Rolph, Mayor of San Francisco."
Interviewer/editor/writer, 1978-present, for business and law firm
histories, specializing in oral history techniques. Independently
Interviewer-editor, Regional Oral History Office, University of
California, Berkeley, 1985 to present, specializing in California
legal, political, and business histories.
Author: The Federal Judges Association in the Twentieth Century;
History ofFarella, Braun & Martel; Heller, Ehrman, White &
McAuliffe: A Century of Service to Clients and Community.
Editor (1980-1985) newsletters of two professional historical
associations: Western Association of Women Historians and
Coordinating Committee for Women in the Historical Profession.
Visiting lecturer, San Francisco State University in U.S. history,
history of California, history of Hawaii, legal oral history.