Theophile Biane, a pioneering California winemaker who built Brookside Winery into the state's largest direct-sales wine company, died Tuesday at his home in Alta Loma. He was 89.
Known as Philo, Biane ran Brookside Winery for more than 20 years until it was closed in the early 1980s. A third-generation winemaker with entrepreneurial flair, he pioneered off-site public tasting rooms, operating a chain of about 35 of them during a boom in wine connoisseurship in California in the 1960s.
Through the tasting rooms, Biane stayed attuned to changes in public taste and developed about 25 new wines, including Black Velvet, a sweet red table wine with a hint of Concord grape that was one of Brookside's best-known creations.
Biane sold the company in 1972 to Beatrice Foods, which later closed Brookside. But Biane continued to grow grapes at his Rancho de Philo Winery in the Rancho Cucamonga foothills, where he oversaw production of a highly prized cream sherry made from Mission grapes grown on 50-year-old vines.
Born at the family winery on March 18, 1909, Biane was one of four children of Marius and Marceline Biane, descendants of a long line of French winemakers. Brookside, which was then in Redlands, was founded by the Biane family in 1832. Biane worked in the vineyards as a child, carrying 50-pound boxes of grapes on a stretcher.
He studied chemistry at St. Mary's College near Oakland, then worked for briefly in the cattle business in Canada. Prohibition was still in force in 1930 when he went to France and Algeria to study winemaking.
During World War II, he managed production at the San Francisco plant of Food Industries, a company that made wine and wine byproducts, including burn medicines produced from the acid residue on the sides of the grape tanks.
In 1952 he left the company to help run Brookside, which had moved its headquarters to Guasti and wanted to expand its retail marketing. In the early 1960s, Biane decided to capitalize on a surge in public interest in wines and began building tasting rooms around Southern California.
In 1972, when Brookside was sold to Beatrice, Biane wanted to continue the family tradition, even if it was on a much smaller scale. He founded the Rancho de Philo Winery in Alta Loma.
He decided to make the sherry the old-fashioned way, blending the wine using a series of pyramid-stacked barrels called a solera.
Making only about 300 cases a year, Biane did not launch into the sherry business to make money. "We lose almost as much sherry as we make through evaporation," he told an interviewer once.
But his Triple Cream Sherry, aged for 18 years, became known for its deep toffee and butterscotch flavor. The winery sold all 300 cases every year within a week of the sherry's mid-November release.
Biane is survived by a daughter, Janine Tibbetts of Etiwanda, Calif.; sons Michael of Ontario, Calif., and Pierre of Alta Loma, Calif.; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Funeral services will be held Tuesday at the St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic Church in Alta Loma.