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October 6, 2010 |

Reviving a Century-Old Dream

By: Kip Davis

October When he was a small child visiting his relatives in San Francisco, Dario Sattui smelled something. He didn’t realize that he was getting a strong whiff of his destiny that will be celebrated Saturday night.

Decades before, Sattui’s great grandfather Vittorio Sattui was working as a baker in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Like most Italian immigrants of that era, Vittorio made some wine on the side. But Vittorio’s wine was a cut above that of his neighbors and, in 1885, he followed his natural talent and opened St. Helena Wine Cellars on Columbus Avenue.

Vittorio Sattui made his wines exclusively from grapes that he purchased in St. Helena, ferried across the bay and then crushed at the North Beach winery. The wines were a big hit and Vittorio’s business took off. He changed the name to V. Sattui Wine Company and eventually moved the winery to a larger building in the Mission district. The winery was on the first floor, Vittorio, his wife, Katerina, and six kids lived upstairs. Then Prohibition hit in 1920 and, like most American wineries, V. Sattui Wine Company was forced to shut its doors.

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Vittorio Sattui was in his 70s. Neither he nor any of his family was interested in reopening V. Sattui, so the ground-floor winery was leased to another winemaker. But the elder Sattui and several of his grown children and their families continued to live in the apartments above the winery. That living arrangement had a direct effect on the future of Vittorio’s great grandson, Dario Sattui.

“As a kid, we visited my relatives there often,” Sattui said, “and my first sensation was always the reek of wine, because they were still making wine there. So I saw all this and it got to me. I’d play in the cellar and ask questions, saw photographs and heard all the stories. So ever since I was about 9 years old, I wanted to go into the wine business.”

Over the next six decades, that youthful dream stayed alive, leading Sattui to eventually revive the V. Sattui Winery near St. Helena and build it into one of the most successful and popular labels in the Napa Valley. The winery’s founding in 1885 and its long, colorful history will take center stage Saturday night at V. Sattui’s 125th anniversary Harvest Ball.

A head for business — and wine

Saturday’s celebration is a meaningful milestone for Dario Sattui, who kept the dream of reviving V. Sattui alive through his teen and college years.

While the rest of the family moved on, going into the insurance business, Sattui couldn’t shake his fascination with wine — and the wine business.

“I always knew I had a business head,” Sattui said, “because at 8, 9 or 10, I was always running something. A lemonade stand, in high school I was taking bets on the game. In the summer my mother would drive me to Stinson Beach and I’d take her old canning kettle, put it on a rope around my neck and sell Coca Cola.”

After high school, Sattui studied accounting and finance at San Jose State University, earned an M.B.A. at UC Berkeley in 1969 and, upon graduation, headed to Europe, where he spent two years traveling in an old Volkswagen van. Even during these freewheeling years, there was no suppressing Sattui’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“I ran a taxi service,” he smiled. “There were all these hitchhikers standing out in the hot sun and I knew a lot of them were Americans, so they’d probably have a little bit of money. I’d stop and say ‘I’m going to Barcelona,’ or wherever I was going, ‘Would you like to come?’ Of course they’d say ‘yes.’ Then I’d say ‘Well, it’ll cost you so much a kilometer, so do you want to come or not?’ They’d usually pay up, so essentially I didn’t pay for any gas in Europe; in fact, I made a little money.”

Sattui’s outlook on life and business also profited from his exposure to European culture. He developed a fascination with medieval architecture and a love of the European lifestyle that would greatly influence him for the next five decades. When he returned to the U.S. in 1972, Sattui was as determined as ever to pick up where great-grandfather Vittorio had left off.

“I decided if anyone (in the family) was going to do it, I’d have to do it,” he said. “I came back from Europe, I didn’t have much money and I knew I had to get a job and I thought, ‘Damn, I’m going to do what I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was little kid.’ The question was, how do you do it when you don’t have any money, you don’t have any knowledge — that was the hard part.”

An unconventional plan

Sattui did have a strong vision for what he wanted the new V. Sattui winery to be. He also had the youthful drive and blind ambition to persevere against what many told him were long odds. From 1972 through 1974, Sattui worked at various Napa Valley wineries gaining a general overview “but no depth” of the complexities of the winemaking trade. During that time, he also developed his vision for reviving the family winery and decided to locate it in the Napa Valley.

“I had a plan that I wrote in 1973 or ’74,” he recalled, “and we’ve stuck to it almost exactly. And it worked!”

At the time, Sattui’s business plan was unconventional — and certainly did not conform to what was being done by most other Napa Valley wineries. He envisioned his winery as a fun destination, “like coming to Europe for the afternoon on a $50 budget.” To augment his tasting room, Sattui wanted to offer a “food component” — in the form of high-quality deli cheeses and bread — and comfortable picnic grounds adjacent to the rock-walled winery.

“Most wineries (at that time) had signs saying ‘Keep off the lawn’ and ‘No picnicking.’ We wanted to provide a place to escape your asphalt environment, forget about the fight you had with your wife or your nagging kids, come out and have a nice picnic lunch, and combine wine and food. It’s that European-type feel.”

Sattui also proposed to market his wine direct-to-consumer, bypassing distributors and retail outlets. Although this is common practice today, it was virtually unheard-of in the mid-1970s.

Before he could launch this unconventional winery, however, Sattui needed capital. He was told by a UC Davis expert that he needed at least $1 million to start a new winery. Sattui thought he could do it for $100,000, but raising that during the cash-strapped mid-1970s was difficult. He finally put together about half of his target capital, leased a four-acre piece of property south of St. Helena and, on a shoestring, began building the winery in July 1975.

The location was not an accident. Sattui chose it based on visitor traffic patterns he had observed in Napa Valley.

“Too far south (on Highway 29) and people don’t want to stop yet,” he said, “and at that time, we saw statistics that showed 40 percent of the people never went beyond (north) of Beringer or Krug. Then, if you were on the left side of the road, people didn’t want to make that left-hand turn. So I wanted to be on the right (east) side of the road.”

New wine — and a 90-year-old corking machine

Sattui made his first wine at the new location in the fall of 1975 using mostly rented equipment. In a nod to tradition — more out of necessity than sentimentality, he said — the first vintage was bottled later using his great-grandfather’s 90-year-old corking machine.

The winery construction was completed in early 1976 and the reincarnation of V. Sattui Winery opened for business in March of that year. Despite its primitive fixtures and lean surroundings, the winery offered visitors the fundamentals of Sattui’s vision: wine displayed on planks supported by wine barrels, interesting cheese in a $200 used deli case all in a European-style stone winery/tasting facility. And as the year wore on, V. Sattui enjoyed some success.

“We were profitable the first year,” Sattui said, remembering the exact end-of-year profit — $2,640. “And we’ve never had a year since when we weren’t profitable.”

Sattui’s business plan seemed to be working. Traffic steadily increased to the new winery and sales grew.

“People really responded well,” he said. “It was just a natural, relaxed, comfortable thing to do. And often, the experience transcends the wine. It makes the wine even better than it is.”

Davies on board

In 1980, Sattui hired Tom Davies to work in the tasting room and cellar. A recent graduate from Chico State, Davies’ business sense quickly became apparent to the overworked owner and the two have been together since. Davies is now a partner and president of V. Sattui Winery.

Davies said the winery’s success and longevity are due primarilyto Sattui’s original, outside-the-box vision. The direct-to-consumer sales model, he said, has set the winery apart from competition in Napa Valley and beyond.

“We were probably one of the first wineries to ship wine interstate, direct to the consumer,” Davies said. “From day one, we had a newsletter and, fast-forward 37 years, now it’s much beyond that. It’s social media, e-mails and we even have our ‘outbound hospitality,’ a team of people that reaches out to customers over the phone. But we’ve always kept it direct-to-consumer and to this day, 100 percent of what we produce is either sold out the front door of our tasting room or via the Internet.”

Innovators

“We were innovators of a lot of things,” Sattui added. “There were a lot of wineries who laughed at us initially and now they’re trying to copy us.”

Selling direct, Sattui and Davies said, creates a much closer relationship with the customer. Properly nurtured, this relationship can continue for years and help further expand the customer base without costly advertising or marketing.

“I think it’s about forming relationships,” Sattui said. “We have employees who have been here over 20 years. Customers come back and see the same faces, the same personalities … people relate to that. It’s like coming home. We have a tremendous amount of repeat business.”

“Because we’re direct-to-consumer,” Davies added, “that really helps us in our pricing model. Every bottle we’re selling is sold at retail, and because we’re selling wines direct, we can offer a much better value — a bigger bang for the buck.”

The diversity of V. Sattui’s wine offerings is designed to appeal to a wide variety of customers. This further sets the winery apart from the Napa Valley norm.

““We do a lot of things different here,” Sattui boasted. “For instance, most wineries make cabernet, chardonnay and a few other varieties. We make over 40 different wines here.”

Through the years, V. Sattui has acquired 225 acres of vineyards in the Napa Valley, Carneros and Anderson Valley. Davies said 65 percent of its annual wine production is from estate vineyards. The winery also has longstanding relationships with several Napa Valley growers.

“I categorize it as small lot winemaking,” Davies said, referring to V. Sattui’s product strategy. “We make a lot of small lots of many different wines.”

“We always go against the flow,” Sattui added. “When nobody else was making riesling or muscat, we were doing it. Whatever everybody else is doing, we’re often doing the opposite and it works for us.

“Another thing that sets us apart from a lot of the other wineries,” Sattui continued, “is that we try to involve and include our customers, make them part of the family. When we’re bottling, we don’t try to close it off. We open the door and say, ‘Come on in.’ When we’re crushing, we invite the customers out to watch us crush and we bring grapes into the tasting room so they can taste what goes into the wine. Everything we do, we try to involve the customer. It’s their winery. It’s a place they want to bring their friends and relatives to, a place they want to come back to.”

And come back they do. The winery’s annual Harvest Ball, started in 1985, is attended mostly by loyal V. Sattui customers who live throughout the U.S. Many plan their vacations around the black-tie event, Sattui said. With the added significance of the 125th anniversary, this year’s event will be moved out of the winery to a giant tent for the expected larger-than-normal crowd.

Large crowds are a regular feature at the winery, an apparent affirmation Sattui got it right back in the 1970s. Weekends are jammed at V. Sattui with people crowding the deli and tasting rooms, enjoying a picnic on the grounds and buying wine.

Other projects

With Davies handling the day-to-day business, Sattui is pursuing other projects, including his recently completed Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga. As much an architectural attraction as a winery, Castello was a labor of love for Sattui whose fascination with medieval architecture is stronger than ever.

“That was a fantasy for me,” Sattui said, noting that the Calistoga winery is a separate entity from V. Sattui.

That medieval fantasy extends to Italy, where Sattui spends several months a year and owns several old properties.

“I bought an old monastery over there,” he beamed. “It’s over a thousand years old and I’m renovating it. I don’t know what it is. A medieval building is like a beautiful woman for me. Sometimes I tremble … I get so excited. It’s something inside of me … I’m nuts!”

If that’s what you call it, then “nuts” has been good for Dario Sattui. From his youthful obsession with the old family winery, the bare bones quest to revive it in St. Helena, even his bizarre ideas for picnics, cheese and selling direct, Sattui’s non-traditional vision has had its share of skeptics. Friends and family, he admits, frequently thought he was “crazy.” Competitors laughed, rolled their eyes and, later, quietly adopted some of those weird ideas. But, according to Davies, Sattui invested a lot more than just “weird ideas” to make V. Sattui the success it is today.

“There’s a saying,” Davies said. “The harder you work, the luckier you are. And just from working side by side with this guy for 30 years, I can say he’s got a tremendous work ethic. Most people would not have made the sacrifices that Dario made to build what he’s built.”

To paraphrase another saying, the apple doesn’t fall far from great-grandfather’s tree. Family history indicates that 125 years ago Vittorio Sattui was also a dreamer, probably considered “nuts” for trading his baker’s pans for a wine press, a guy with a vision who worked hard and succeeded. Apparently, that spirit is alive and well three generations down the road.

Time Posted: Oct 6, 2010 at 8:42 PM
 
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