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Paul Franson's Wine Dispatch
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Jan 5, 2003 — Populist vintner Daryl Sattui serves everyman amidst Napa pomp

Perhaps no vintner in Napa Valley is more controversial than Daryl Sattui.

His V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena with its popular deli and picnic grounds is a huge success, but many competitors dismiss him as a delicatessen operator selling mediocre wine as a sideline.

These upscale, “lifestyle” vintners disparage Sattui’s populist success, belittling his wines even though it’s difficult to find one who has tasted them recently.

Sattui feels their stings, too. He denies that his outsider status bothers him yet trumpets his success and the quality of his wines. He also points out that serving food with wine follows his family’s Italian traditions. “Why fault me for that?” he asks.

A big success
Not that Daryl need worry. By any measures, V. Sattui Winery is a monumental success.

It’s estimated that sales are about $20 million a year, primarily wines sold at full price to consumers without the 50 percent discount required to sell to stores and restaurants.

Based on the profits from those sales, Sattui now owns almost 1000 acres of land including 350 acres of vineyards, mostly in pricey Napa Valley.

And he’s building a spectacular, Italian-style castle for an additional winery in Calistoga, a project that’s attracting contentious debate among those who decry the “Disney-ization” of Napa Valley. It will also surely attract hundreds of thousands of customers — when it’s complete.

If the success is apparent, the reasons of that success are controversial locally.
Sattui’s most popular wines, a fruity rosé called Gamay Rouge and a sweet Riesling, are scorned by other Napa producers and wine snobs who make expensive Cabernets and Chardonnay. They tend to ignore his other wines, some comparable to other local products.

Most of all, however, V. Sattui is also the only winery in Napa County other than Domaine Chandon serving food to the public, and Chandon’s restaurant is a fancy, expensive operation.

Many other winery owners would love to add restaurants, but the county prohibits it. Sattui had the insight to start his business before restrictions on ancillary winery operations were adopted.

A driven personality

Daryl Sattui is complex, driven man. A tall, young-looking 60, he’s intense about everything he does, and passionate about his business.

He will pick up scraps of paper at his winery’s well-tended grounds, or brusquely order an employee to check out flowers in the bathrooms. Though a demanding employer, however, he’s retained many loyal employees for years. In an industry notorious for its turnover, more than half of all Sattui employees have been with the company more than five years, many far longer. Winemaker Rick Rosenbrand, for example, joined the company in 1984, president Tom Davies the year after.

Daryl Sattui’s perfectionism and drive are undoubtedly vital parts of the winery’s success.

He started the winery business in homage to his grandfather Vittorio, who arrived in San Francisco in 1885 from Liguria. Vittorio ran a winery in San Francisco at 23rd and Bryant until Prohibition shut down most wineries, then went into the insurance business.

Daryl decided to revive the family tradition after college and a few years of living in Europe. His entrepreneurship had earlier gotten him suspended from San Jose State for running illegal beer busts, but he freely admits that he didn’t know much about wine or running a business.

Starting small

He also had no money. Writing the business plan he’s still following, he lived like a pauper, working part time as a winery tour guide and substitute teacher while he tried to raise $100,000. He didn’t know that the University of California at Davis said it took a minimum of $1 million to start a winery.

Too proud to approach relatives, he located the rare commercial property he wanted, the site where his visitor center sits today. He rented the 4-acre parcel for $500 per month, including an option to buy it for $72,500. The house on the property was so dilapidated his Finnish first wife wouldn’t move in, so they lived partly in his VW Microbus.

After months seeking the money, he was down to his last $500 when Napa real estate broker Gene Cufaude bought the property and leased it to Daryl in 1975 with an option for Sattui to buy it five years later. He did.

Using college students from nearby Seventh Day Adventist Pacific Union College, and relatives and friends contributing services, he put up the original winery building for $60,000 and went into business on March 1976.

It was strictly bare bones. He had no cash register or other equipment, and used planks on barrels as a bar. Until he could produce his own wine, he bought bulk wines from other wineries and bottled them with V. Sattui labels. His Cabernet came from Robert Mondavi, his Riesling from Peter Becker and he also offered a “Burgundy,” like so many wineries at the time.

He says, “We couldn’t beat the big guys at their game, so we took a different tack.” He opened earlier than other wineries, and he stayed up later. He was open on holidays, welcoming customers when competitors didn’t.

To attract visitors, employees parked their cars in the front lot and his father sat outside at a picnic table eating so customers would think the winery was busy.

The early days were sobering, however. “The first day, we sold $141 worth, mostly to friends who came by to support us.” The second day was even worst. “I was afraid we were going to fail,” he says.

He did end up making a profit the first year —$2400, but a profit. His business has grown every year since except last year when tourism stopped after Sept. 11.

Learning by experience

He first crushed wine in 1975, and admits it wasn’t very good. “I had never made wine before,” he says.

To make the wine, he rented everything but a pump and some hoses, buying some used barrels to store and age the wine. He got professional help in 1977, and hired Rick Rosenbrand, his present head winemaker, in 1980.

While most moderate-sized Napa wineries focus attention on prestigious Cabernet Sauvignon and its cousins, V. Sattui winery offers a wide selection of wine, some quite unusual like a sweet, low-alcohol Muscat and sweet California Madeira and Angelica.

“We do the wines no one else does,” says Sattui. “There’s a cross section of customers coming up the road, and if other people choose to leave a void in their offerings, we’ll fill it.”

“We bring in a lot of neophytes,” he adds, “and they’re often turned off by Cabernet and Chardonnay. We’re glad other wineries stick to Cabernet and Chardonnay,” he admits. His wines are made to be drunk young, even the Cabernets.

A major landowner

Until 1985, Sattui didn’t own any land except the 4-acre winery property, but since then, he’s acquired prime Napa land including the 34-acre Dickerson Vineyard south of the winery (renamed Suzanne’s Vineyard after his second and former wife) and the Carsi Vineyard on Highway 29 south of Yountville.

He bought 131 acres in Solano County to grow Gamay grapes since no one else would, and has 53 acres in cool Anderson Valley.

His largest holding is the historic 526-acre Henry Ranch in upper Carneros Valley north of Artesa Winery and Domaine Carneros. He’s put the majority of it in the Napa County Land Trust to keep it natural and in agriculture, as he’s done with parts of other vineyards.

He has a reputation for being tight, but attributes that to habits learned in hard early days. He didn’t buy a house until he was 48, and never lived in it. Over time, though, he’s set his sights higher.

In 1993, he bought a 171-acre parcel south of Calistoga containing a magnificent 1872-Victorian mansion he renamed Villa Amorosa. “I loved that house and always wanted it,” he says. He also got it cheaply because it was in foreclosure, though restoring it into his present home have been expensive.

With the property came the Nash House, one of the oldest homes in Napa Valley, which he rents out, plus a small stone building from 1850 that is perhaps the oldest commercial winery building in the Valley and is now used for storage. The property also contains about 27 acres of vineyards.

Daryl’s fantasy
Most significantly, however, his new home came with the last winery permit allowing tasting and tours in Napa Valley. The grandfathered permit allows Sattui to produce 100,000 cases of wine per year; his existing V. Sattui Winery has a permit for 40,000.

Ironically, Sattui didn’t appreciate the importance of that permit at first. He already had a successful winery. “I just wanted to renovate and live in my dream house,” he says.

On a visit to Italy, however, he bought and sold a castle near Florence, then bought an old monastery near Siena where he makes wines for sale at V. Sattui.

He got the idea of building a similar monastery-type winery on his property in Calistoga.

The project has grown dramatically, however. From a modest monastery, it’s evolved into a castle ten times bigger. The three cellars finished are now used for wine aging, but eventually the castle will be a full winery with a tasting room and extensive visitor facilities.

He’s been at it seven or eight years, and thinks he has five to seven more to go. So far, it’s three cellars deep, with walls, moats, and towers still ahead.

He’s also spent $7 or $8 million on the project to date and anticipates spending much more.

Looking down on Sterling Vineyards across the Valley, it’s going to be a tourists’ dream, but a travesty to locals who decry the commercialization of their beautiful valley. Few seem willing to talk publicly, however. Even ardent environmentalists and preservationists cite Sattui's contributions to the Land Trust and don't want to jeopardize his stated goal of eventually shielding most of his land from development.

Sattui is trying to make the castle authentic, however, if out of place. He’s imported artisans and stones from old buildings in Europe and found craftsmen to construct rare vaulted ceilings. About 15 employees are working on it at present under the direction of a Danish naval architect who lived in Italy.

The new and still unnamed winery won’t have a deli but it will offer tours. “I want people to enjoy themselves,” he says. He intends to have olive trees and chickens running around, dogs lying in the path and signs in Italian. “It will be just like old Italy,” he claims. He also says he’s not doing it for the money, but just to have fun.

“It’s my fantasy,” he admits, “a way to restore my family’s wine tradition”

Visiting V. Sattui Winery
Almost every visitor to Napa Valley has stopped into the V. Sattui Winery. Besides free wine tasting, it has a gift shop selling wine-related items.

The lure for many, however, is the deli and cheese shop, which serves excellent freshly made food like sandwiches, salads and appetizers. They’re made at a modern off-site kitchen under the direction of experienced chefs.

Across the street from rival Dean & Deluca with its fancy cheeses and deli, V. Sattui Winery has a huge advantage: A large yard with picnic tables under a giant oak for the use of Sattui customers.

And the wines? “They’re solid, well-made wines,” notes winemaker Jeff Hansen of Amici Cellars, “but I didn’t find any blockbusters.”

Most national wine magazines don’t review Sattui wines since they’re in limited distribution, and can only be bought at the winery or online but one of the industry’s most influential critics, the Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube, finds the wines generally excellent.

“The wines remain undiscovered gems with a nice balance of flavors.” He particularly notes some of the vineyard-designated Cabernets.

Peter Marks, Curator of Wines at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, rarely runs into the wines, but agrees that most are good. He’s especially partial to the California Madeira, an almost forgotten wine.

There’s something for every taste at the winery tasting room, from sweet wines my sister from Alabama loves to excellent Cabernets. The sweetish and lighter wines are clearly the winery’s strengths.

“The standouts were the Rieslings that captured the fruit of the grapes, both a dry version (0.8 percent sugar) and a sweeter one (2 percent),” said Hansen.

Sattui’s most popular wine, the fruity dark rosé called Gamay Rouge ($15.25) was so grapy it suggested bottled Concord grape juice, but it wasn’t excessively sweet at 1.5 percent, no higher than some popular Chardonnays. The white Zinfandel at $8.95 was one of the better examples of its maligned type.

Hansen also felt the Zinfandels, both from Suzanne’s vineyard, and from Howell Mountain, were excellent, with the Suzanne’s having the peppery quality that eludes most modern zins.

The Sattui family Chardonnay is oaky, comparable to most California Chardonnays.

Most the Cabernets were good, but light and in balance, though some were marred by a barnyard odor. The current Cab releases are mostly from the poor 1998 vintage, however, and reflect that weakness.

The $15 2000 Sattui Family Cabernet, a very early release from that grape, was also light, but in a delightful way. It would be great with picnics and other summer fare.

The 1999 Preston Vineyards Cab was Hansen’s favorite.

Tasting blind, a producer of renowned Cabernets found the $125 Tom Davis Reserve 1997 Cabernet a good wine and drinkable, but hardly comparable to the wines that generally go for that price — or his, which sells for less.

The new $35 Henry Ranch Pinot Noir was heavier and richer than many Pinots, delicious if not Burgundian.

But objective criticism of the wines may be missing the point. Daryl Sattui believes there’s more to the experience than the wine. “We try to make the best wine we can, but that’s only part of it. We’re here to help people have fun.”

Sattui’s staff is friendly, knowledgeable about the wine and makes everyone comfortable. “It’s such a beautiful setting,” adds Hansen. “Everyone is having a great time.”

V. Sattui Winery, 1111 White Lane, St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-7774 Open 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily

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