Louis J. Foppiano of Foppiano Vineyards dies at 101
Published: Monday, March 26, 2012 at 11:17 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 26, 2012 at 3:22 p.m.
Louis J. Foppiano, a crusty pioneer of the Sonoma County wine industry who bounced back from the one-two punch of Prohibition and the Great Depression to build an enduring family winery offering quality Russian River Valley varietals, died on Friday at Sutter Medical Center of complications from pneumonia. He was 101 years old.
Foppiano Vineyards, which he took over at the age of 13 and continued to oversee into his nineties, is the oldest winery in Sonoma County continuously operated by the founding family.
“He was a legend in the industry, and one of the last surviving from the Prohibition days, and a great guy,” said Joe Ciatti, partner with Zepponi & Company. “Really someone who stayed close to the family and stayed close to the land, and always had a very good attitude about keeping your head straight about the wine business.”
Like most of the old Italian family wineries of the North Coast — Sebastiani, Seghesio and Pedroncelli — Foppiano survived because of its willingness to reinvent itself again and again.
“Even though he was third-generation Italian, he still was a rough Italian,” said his son, Louis M. Foppiano. “He was a son of Depression, he was tight fisted. He rubbed a nickel pretty hard before he let it go.”
Before Prohibition, the winery supplied bulk wines to the California Wine Association. By the 1960s Foppiano maintained a healthy business turning out good jug table wines of burgundy or chablis. But as California wines gained in sophistication, Foppiano modernized further, diversifying its product, improving marketing and producing quality varietals like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, zinfandel, sangiovese, merlot and his favorite, petite syrah.
Even as far back as 1966, he foresaw the future in premium grapes and began ripping out what was left of his prune and apple orchard, replanting with cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
But the winery also strove to keep its everyday wines affordable to the working class under its Riverside label.
“It was never my goal to get too big, to become a Gallo or Kendall-Jackson,” he reflected back in 2000. “I wanted a winery that was small enough where we could keep control — run it like a family business.”
That didn't mean he was averse to growth. He expanded the vineyards in 1945 by purchasing the adjoining Sotoyome Vineyard. The winery continued to advance under the helm of Louis J. Foppiano's son, Louis M. Foppiano, who left the post last year after a family dispute.
“He worked hard,” his son said. “He really loved the ranch a lot, and he really loved being outside. Up until he was 95, he pruned the grapes every year.”
Foppiano's California roots go back to the Gold Rush. His grandfather, Giovanni Foppiano, an Italian immigrant who made his way to California by traveling overland though the Isthmus of Panama, eventually settled in Healdsburg growing fruits and vegetables. In 1896 he bought a working winery at the old Riverside Farm and launched Foppiano Vineyards.
Giovanni and his son, Louis A. Foppiano, found a ready market for their wines among the Italian immigrants of San Francisco's North Beach. In 1910, the year Louis J. was born, Giovanni and his son had a falling out over their different visions and the younger vintner wound up purchasing Foppiano from his father. He built it into one of the more prosperous wineries in Healdsburg until Prohibition forced him to shift to prunes, apples and pears to survive.
Louis J. Foppiano inherited the farm at the tender age of 13, when his father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1924. With no formal agricultural and viticultural programs to tap in to, he had to figure things out on his own. But he managed to somehow keep the winery alive.
“I didn't know how to make wine, but I picked the brains of some of the old Italian winemakers at the wineries next door to here,” he recalled in a 2004 interview.
He was a quick and determined study and the vineyard survived. The Volstead Act that paved the way for enforcement of Prohibition allowed individuals to make 200 gallons of their own homemade wine, creating a steady demand for grapes that were then sent around the country by refrigerated rail cars.
Louis also hauled his own grapes by truck down to North Beach where people would pour out of the neighborhoods at night to help crush. But selling finished wine remained illegal. Foppiano would forever remember the day in 1926 when federal agents raided the estate and forced the family to open their tank valves and dump 100,000 gallons of 1918 vintage wine. People flocked to the ranch from miles around with cups and jars to drink from a nearby creek that by then was running red.
Foppiano tenaciously negotiated the bridge from Prohibition through Repeal to the Depression and beyond. By the 1940s, he had emerged as a leader on the viticultural scene, organizing other Italian family wine producers like the Pedroncellis and the Sebastianis to form the Sonoma County Wine Growers Association.
“Those were times when most of the wineries in Sonoma were bulk wine suppliers,” Ciatti said. “He was one of the ones that started his own label. That whole group of Seghesios, Foppianos and Sebastianis, they really put the base down for Sonoma County to really become known as a county that produces good wines, not just bulk wines.”
It was the first attempt to promote Sonoma wines, including the county's first wine map directing tourists to the handful of tasting rooms open at the time. He served 12 years as president of the association, guiding the organization that would eventually become today's Sonoma County Vintners. Foppiano was also a founding member of the Wine Institute, where he remained a director for 45 years. In 2007 he was inducted into the Sonoma County Farm Bureau's Hall of Fame.
“Louis J. Foppiano was one of the great pioneers of California wine who helped rebuild our industry after Prohibition ended,” said Robert Koch, president and CEO of Wine Institute. “Foppiano was a visionary who knew that the cool climate of the Russian River Valley would produce high-quality wines. We recognize and admire his perseverance and accomplishments in laying the ground work for a strong future for California wine.”
His early hard knocks together with the vicissitudes of the business, from fickle market forces to government regulation to the constant battles with Mother Nature, gave Foppiano a gruff and impatient exterior at times.
At one point he half joked that if he had it to do over again he would get a college education and “a big important job with the government ... with regular hours, vacation and retirement.” But truth be told, he found the vineyard life intoxicating.
“Sure you get mad when things don't go right,” he once said. “But the next year you're right back at it. The wine gets in your blood and you keep going back for more.”
In 1946 Foppiano wed his wife Della Bastoni, a powerful booster of grape growers and winemakers, whom he had met at a dance in Rio Nido. She passed away in 2002.
The couple had three children who all followed them into the business. Their son Rod died of leukemia in 1984. Louis M. Foppiano took over as general manager, but after a family dispute last year left that position and is now chairman of the board. Daughter Susan Foppiano Valera was hospitality manager, but is no longer actively involved in the winery, according to Louis M. Foppiano. Rod's son Paul is vineyard manager.
His love of the outdoors spawned hobbies on land as an avid hunter of deer, pigs, ducks and doves, and in the air as a recreational pilot. He was one of the original founders of Continental Airlines.
As the elder statesman of Sonoma County wine, Foppiano remained nimbly focused on his family and business even into his 10th decade, crediting his long and healthy life to the glass of wine he drank daily for dinner. His daily naps may also have played a role in his longevity.
“He loved his naps,” Louis M. Foppiano said. “It definitely is one of his secrets.”
In his spare time, he gathered with friends at the local grocery store to swap stories and talk about the weather and the grapes.
“He would just go and shoot the bull with them, he loved doing that,” his son said. “He had a lot of friends ... he enjoyed life.”
A longtime member of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Healdsburg, Louis is survived by his son, Louis M. Foppiano, daughter Susan Foppiano Valera, four grandchildren and two great granddaughters.
Visitation will be held on Thursday from 2-7 p.m. at Daniels Chapel of the Roses, 1225 Sonoma Ave., Santa Rosa. A service will be held on Friday at 11 a.m. at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, 208 Matheson St., Healdsburg.
Contributions in his honor may be made to St. John the Baptist Catholic School, 208 Matheson St., Healdsburg 95448.
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