Joe Rochioli Jr., Russian River Valley's Pinot Pioneer, Dies at 88

Growing up on his family's Sonoma farm, the grapegrower and vintner saw potential in fine wine from his land

Joe Rochioli Jr., Russian River Valley's Pinot Pioneer, Dies at 88
Except for college and the Army, Joe Rochioli Jr. spent his entire life farming grapes in the family vineyard on Westside Road. (Melissa Barnes)
Aug 19, 2022

The Russian River Valley and Joe Rochioli Jr. are inseparably connected. Raised on his family's farm on Westside Road in Healdsburg, Rochioli never left, save for college and the Army. He was the patriarch of the region, an integral citizen of the city of Healdsburg, and a proud, hardworking farmer who helped earn the Russian River Valley a reputation as a world-class site for Pinot Noir. Rochioli died late yesterday at age 88.

According to his son Tom, Rochioli suffered a stroke in September 2020 and had been in and out of the hospital since. "He fought hard," said Tom. "He was a tough guy."

When the Rochioli family started making wine under their namesake label in 1987, they carved out their own style and proved quickly to be one of the top Pinot Noir producers in California. Part of their success lies in the designated blocks within their namesake vineyard: East Block, West Block, Three Corners, River Block, Little Hill and Sweetwater. They were believed to be one of the first in the valley to divide their vineyard into parcels for specific bottlings.

Of 128 acres, 64 are devoted to Pinot Noir. About 50 percent of the estate grapes are used to make Rochioli wines, and the rest are sold to other wineries, including Williams Selyem and Gary Farrell, whose Rochioli bottlings are consistently in high demand among collectors. Today, there's a waiting list for producers hoping to purchase Rochioli Pinot Noir.

Joe Rochioli Jr. grew up a small-town sports star. When he entered high school, he was already 6-feet tall and weighed 160 pounds. His linebacker build came from daily farm labor. His father, Joe Sr., was primarily in the hops business, but also farmed beans, as well as 50 acres of grapevines. Rochioli worked on the farm every day before and after school.

Before leaving for college at California Polytechnic State University, Rochioli organized the first Future Farmer Fair in Healdsburg, which is still held today. He majored in animal science but took all the agricultural electives he could. In 1957, he was drafted into the Army, where he helped conduct research on radiated foods and vitamin deficiencies. After leaving the service in 1959, Rochioli returned home to work on the family ranch and played semi-pro baseball for the Healdsburg Prune Packers.

Rochioli took over the grapegrowing from his father and wanted to expand the ranch's varieties. He talked his father into planting Sauvignon Blanc. He visited UC Davis and chose budwood from one particular favored row and returned home to plant 10 acres on the estate. All the vines at UC Davis were soon removed, and Rochioli was never able to obtain more. The clone planted at Rochioli Vineyard is a mystery, but frequently produces a highly rated wine and favorite among fans of the winery.

"We planted Sauvignon Blanc and French Colombard in 1959 and spaced the rows 14 feet so we could plant two rows of string beans in between," Rochioli told Wine Spectator in 2017. "They grew pretty well and we irrigated the beans and the grapes at the same time. We gave up on beans in 1964."

Rochioli then begged his father to plant Pinot Noir, but before he could say yes or no, Joe Sr. died. Rochioli pulled out all the remaining vines that weren't Sauvignon Blanc and planted Pinot Noir. "My dad passed away in 1966 and I'd been trying to get him to put some varietals in because I had been reading books when I got out of college," said Rochioli. "I was really interested in grapes. They intrigued me. I read about French Burgundies. I couldn't find any [Pinot Noir] budwood and a friend told me about a guy south of St. Helena who had French clones. So, I started planting in 1968."

Rochioli Vineyard]
The Rochioli Vineyard occupies a prime spot in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. (Kim Carroll)

He sold his first crop to newcomer Davis Bynum, whose 1973 bottling was among the first to carry the words "Russian River" on the label, though the appellation would not become an approved AVA for another 10 years.

Rochioli was a humble, proud farmer, committed to his land, usually waking at 4 a.m., working 10-hour days, six days a week. Among his many talents was being one of the first and most proficient field budders. Before the 1970s, grafting was done in nurseries, but Rochioli led the trend of "field grafts" to meet demand. Stories tell of him grafting 500 vines per day at multiple properties in the county.

Rochioli was also one of the first to pull leaves to reduce vigor and a leader in lowering vineyard yields for better quality grapes. In 2003, he was awarded the prestigious Copia Wine Grower of the Year Award. "Everybody is doing what I started," he said unabashedly. "I was one of the first ones to pull leaves and I did it for Sauvignon Blanc. First one to thin. I did that for Pinot Noir. Now everybody is doing and making pretty good wines."

His son Tom now runs the family estate. Joe Jr. is survived by his wife, five children, and about 900,000 vines planted on 128 acres, because it's all about the vineyards for Rochioli, and always has been.


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News Obituaries Pinot Noir Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma

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