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Hanns Kornell; Napa Valley Wine Pioneer

July 19, 1994|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

Hanns Kornell, a pioneer winemaker who got out of a Nazi concentration camp and eventually made his way to the United States, where he was to bring sparkling wine to the Napa Valley, has died at his home at age 83.

The German-born Kornell, third generation of a Rhine Valley wine-making family, had been in ill health for the last six years, since suffering a serious head injury while working in the winery he founded in 1958.

Kornell was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp in 1938 with his Jewish parents. The British consul to Germany appealed for eight months to win his release, with the stipulation that he leave Germany within 48 hours.

He fled to England, where he worked as a dishwasher to save money for passage to the United States. The ship he took was torpedoed by a German submarine, but Kornell was rescued and landed in New York with $2 in his pocket.

He hitchhiked to California and began working at odd jobs, and was soon making sparkling wine for other winemakers while saving his money for his dream winery in the Napa Valley.

In 1952, working after hours at his own small, rented facility, Kornell finally produced the bubbly bearing his name.

By 1958, Kornell had saved enough money to acquire the historic Larkmead Cellar south of Calistoga, a stone building that reminded him of his native Germany. He renamed it Kornell Champagne Cellars.

The wine that made Kornell famous was a Riesling-based bubbly made like the German Sekt of his youth, a wine he began making in 1972. It was called Sehr Trocken, which in German means 'very dry.'

A downturn in the sparkling wine market in the late 1980s, however, placed the winery in financial straits. Kornell and his wife, Marylouise, filed bankruptcy. The winery eventually was sold to Napa Valley winemaker Koerner Rombauer and its name was changed back to Larkmead Cellars.

In addition to his wife, Kornell is survived by a daughter, Paula, and a son, Peter. Funeral services in the Napa Valley are pending.

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