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Sattui Winery Proves That the Way to the Palate Is via the Stomach

January 12, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

ST. HELENA, Calif. — "Just look at that building!" exclaimed the tourist. Then, checking into a sheaf of travel literature, she said to those around her: "This place is 100 years old. Wow."

Daryl Sattui was amused by that remark late one cold winter afternoon. It's just what he would like people to think.

The fact is that Sattui wants his successful Napa Valley winery to look as if it's been here a long while, even though the building is only 3 years old. But to Daryl, it stands as a tribute to hard-headedness and to the belief that a dream can be turned into a phenomenon.

Phenomenon is the word most apt for this winery, which started out on a shoestring and managed to buck all the odds despite naysayers every step of the way. Today, the operation grosses $4.1 million a year.

The name of the winery is V. Sattui, and even some wine connoisseurs have never heard of it, because it sells no wine in retail stores and has just four restaurant accounts; 99% of the wine is sold consumer-direct.

Sattui himself is an anomaly, a man who always wanted to make great wines and who today does just that, but who started out with no money, no skill as a wine maker or grape grower, and absolutely no idea that what he was trying to do was next to impossible. However, Daryl used a unique approach to marketing wine: through food.

Lunch meat, more specifically. As well as picnic tables, sourdough bread and a parking lot.

A writer trying to tell the Sattui story faces some convoluted concepts that only a plethora of paragraphs will unravel. It starts with the recent history of the Napa Valley, circa 1973.

In those years, before wine developed the cult following it has in the last decade, California 29, which runs through the gut of the Napa Valley, was a tourist's dreamscape. In the 18-mile stretch of two-lane road between Yountville and Calistoga, one could stop every mile or so to sample, without charge, the fruits of some farmer's labors.

There was Mondavi on the left, BV on the right, Inglenook across the road, the then-new Franciscan on the right, Sutter Home to the left and Martini on the east side. As the day wore on, travelers would feel a tad peckish. But where to eat?

Outside of a couple of often-filled coffee shops in St. Helena, there were few places in which one could have a modest meal. (Some expensive restaurants did exist, of course, but they were a half-day proposition and costly.)

Daryl Sattui saw the need for a cheese shop/deli where travelers could buy salami, rolls and a pickle and then pop outside to a picnic table to eat, without having to pack it into a car and go to some remote grassy area.

Sattui envisioned selling a submarine sandwich and a bottle of his own wine--the perfect ambiance for a wine-country outing.

The image was a natural. Sattui comes from a family of bakers and wine makers. His great-grandfather, Vittorio Sattui, had started a winery in San Francisco in 1885, growing successful before Prohibition closed its doors. Vittorio lived to be 94, and Daryl recalls visiting the patriarch of the family at the old winery building and hoping one day to enter the wine business.

But two succeeding generations of Sattuis ignored wine in favor of the insurance business, and when Prohibition put V. Sattui Winery into hibernation for a half century, Daryl was left with no more than a dream and a load of memorabilia from the old San Francisco winery building.

After graduating from college and taking a two-year tour of Europe, he returned to the Napa Valley and began working at odd jobs. He washed tanks at the Christian Brothers, cleaned barrels at Carneros Creek, worked as a tour guide at Beaulieu and sold wine in a San Francisco retail shop. But he admits that all this "experience" gave him virtually no sense of the business side of owning a winery, which he admits he was slow to learn even after deciding in 1973 to open a winery.

Sattui had about $5,000 of his own at the time (which he had saved by living out of his VW bus). This was hardly enough on which to start a winery in the Napa Valley, so he wrote a complex business plan and set out to raise $100,000 from investors.

"I was so stupid I didn't even know that the experts were saying that you needed a million bucks to start a winery," says Sattui with a laugh today. Eventually, investors gave him all of $52,500. Then a local real estate agent, believing Sattui's enthusiasm was a commodity worth banking on, bought a four-acre parcel of land on the east side of California 29 south of St. Helena and leased it to Daryl, giving him an option to buy the place.

The tasting room was built by the investors, and by 1976 V. Sattui Winery was open. Cheese, bread and lunch meat were the drawing cards, as well as a parking lot with easy access to California 29. And it was south of St. Helena, which meant that hungry travelers coming in from San Francisco would hit Sattui before they saw the coffee shops.

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