Louis J. Foppiano, who managed Sonoma's oldest family-run winery, Foppiano Vineyards, for much of its 116 years, died March 23 at the age of 101. Known as Lou Sr. to many, Foppiano was born on his family's 167-acre farm on Nov. 25, 1910. He would live and work on the farm his whole life, becoming one of the region's wine pioneers, helping shape Sonoma through Prohibition and its jug-wine days to being a leader in the wine industry.
"What an amazing life," said winemaker Pete Seghesio. "Imagine what the California wine industry has been through in his lifetime."
Sonoma's wine industry was built by Italian immigrants like Foppiano's grandfather, an immigrant from Genoa who purchased land in the Russian River Valley and founded the family winery in 1896. Foppiano's father took the reins in 1910, but when he passed away in 1924, Lou, who was just 14, helped his mother run the ranch.
The wine industry was in the midst of trying to weather Prohibition. In a 2003 interview, Foppiano recalled a raid in 1926 when U.S. Treasury agents dumped 100,000 gallons of the family's wine into a nearby creek. "You couldn't do that today. The environmentalists would be all over you," Foppiano told Wine Spectator. "People from town came up and filled their bottles and jugs right from the ditch."
To survive the dry years, the family grew prunes, apples and pears and legally sold grapes to home winemakers. When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, their vineyards had been maintained and Foppiano was one of the first wineries to get back into production, selling bulk wine and beginning to bottle under the Foppiano name in 1937. Foppiano was also one of the first Sonoma wineries to switch from bottling jug-wine blends to labeling wines with varietal names, helping legitimize the region.
Lou was known as feisty, even in his later years. He could be notoriously tightfisted when it came to investing in his winery. But he was well-respected and considered a leader in the industry. In 1941, Foppiano helped found the Wine Institute of California and served as one of its directors for 45 years. The Institute remains the largest advocacy and public policy organization for wineries today. In 1946, Foppiano became a founding member of the Sonoma County Wine Growers Association and its first president.
Foppiano is perhaps best known for bringing attention to Petite Sirah. For years, Petite Sirah was considered a workhorse grape only fit for blends. Foppiano's first solo bottling was in 1967. He saw the potential of this chewy red full of personality and tannins, and the winery's Petite Sirahs--especially those from the 1970s and 1980s--have a reputation for aging well. The Foppiano winery created the Noble Petite Sirah Symposium in 2002, which resulted in the founding of P.S. I Love You, a group of vintners dedicated to promoting the variety.
Foppiano had three children, Susan, Louis M. (Lou Jr.) and Rod. In the 1970s, his sons became involved in the winery, with Lou Jr. in sales and Rod as winemaker. Rod died of leukemia in 1984, and Lou Jr. took over all operations, including winemaking and sales. In the 1990s, Lou Sr. retired but stayed involved. In 2009, he relinquished his rights to a family trust that controlled 49 percent of the winery and vineyards to Susan and Lou Jr., as part of succession preparations.
That trust would become the source of a family squabble in 2011. As the winery struggled, Lou Jr. invested in upgrades to cellar equipment, but the siblings clashed over management, and Susan and her husband filed suit to remove Lou Jr. from management. A subsequent settlement resulted in both Lou Jr. and his sister stepping down as co-trustees. It remains to be seen whether the winery Lou Sr. built will emerge in strong shape from the tough times of the recent global recession.
Foppiano is survived by Lou Jr. and Susan, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Tim Fish — Santa Rosa, CA — March 26, 2012 12:23pm ET
Jo Diaz — Winsdor, CA 95492 — March 26, 2012 7:02pm ET
Jason Thompson — Foster City, CA — March 26, 2012 8:40pm ET
Peter A Siddiqui — Chicago — March 27, 2012 9:29am ET
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