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

Times Wine Writer

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

“The first year we sold more food than wine,” said Sattui. And since he had made no wine in prior years, the wine he sold in the early years was purchased in bulk from other wineries and bottled with a label that read “V. Sattui Winery,” using the logo from his great-grandfather’s winery.

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I have in my cellar magnums of 1973 and 1974 Sattui Cabernet Sauvignon that I bought at the winery in 1977 (for $5 a magnum). Years later, Daryl would reveal that that wine was purchased in bulk from the Robert Mondavi winery.

To make his place look authentic, he needed the trappings of a winery, such as barrels. “But I couldn’t afford barrels. Al Brounstein (owner of Diamond Creek Winery in Calistoga) had barrels, but he didn’t have any place to store them.

“So I told him he could store his barrels in my winery,” said Sattui. For years, the barrels that lined the walls inside the Sattui tasting room read “Diamond Creek” on the side, but few noticed, and V. Sattui had the ambiance it needed.

Still, things were rough.

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“The lack of money hurt for a long time. Hey, I lived like a pauper for 11 years. I slept in the winery on an air mattress that I folded up every morning and I showered under a faucet in the winery.”

The first year he was in business, the “winery” showed a small profit, a virtual impossibility in today’s world. By 1980, V. Sattui was in full swing. Daryl hired as his wine maker Rick Rosenbrand, a local hero who had starred on the St. Helena High School basketball team and had attended the University of Mississippi on a basketball scholarship.

“I just wasn’t cut out for that kind of life,” said the sandy-haired, casually dressed Rosenbrand. So he came back to the Napa Valley and began working at wineries.

“Rick didn’t have any formal training as a wine maker,” says Sattui with candor, “and frankly, one reason we hired him was, we could get a little help from his father.”

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The strategy was brilliant. Now semi-retired, Theo Rosenbrand had worked for years under the great Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu and later, when Rick first joined Sattui, Theo was head wine maker at Sterling Vineyards.

“Not only that, but Rick’s mom, Paula, makes the rice-artichoke salad for the deli,” said Sattui, “and Rick’s brother, Ron, is a grower here in the valley. It’s nice having a family like that around.”

As good as the cheeses are, Sattui’s wines today are the big attractions in the always packed tasting room. Sattui does little advertising, and his major merchandising tool is the tasting bar that wraps around the large room and is ringed with old casks and loads of hand-printed promotional material about the awards the wines have won.

And the awards are numerous, notably for the Cabernet Sauvignons from the nearby property of Dick Preston, whose name appears on the labels. Another name now being seen on Sattui labels is Suzanne’s Vineyard, named for Daryl’s wife. It is a new 34-acre vineyard adjacent to the winery.

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The Sattui Winery was a welcome addition to the valley in the mid-1970s. One former resident recalled:

“When Daryl opened his cheese store and deli, I was working for Louis Martini (a few hundred yards up the road), and we’d send people down there to have a picnic with a bottle of Martini wine, or Daryl’s. We all thought it was a great idea having a place with tables, cheeses, salami and bread.”

But the situation turned heated and controversial some years later as the number of wineries in the valley grew and existing wineries wondered if it was fair for a cheese shop to call itself a winery.

Moreover, as Sattui grew more and more successful and applied for permits to expand the winery and add parking spaces, seven of his 12 neighbors sued him at one time or another.

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Sattui defends himself, saying he was a winery all along, that he began making wine right from the start, even if it was only a tiny amount. Moreover, he says, his expansion plans were modest compared to some other wineries.

Eventually, his neighbors (all but two, Daryl admits) agreed that Sattui expanded carefully and without undo harm to the community. Today, wine makers all over the valley acknowledge privately that Daryl’s wines are very good. And publicly, they admit that he has one of the best cheese shops in the world.

The tasting room and adjoining cheese-gift shop are busy even in the dead of winter, and non-wine goods account for about 35% of V. Sattui’s gross sales. Included in that total are such items as cutting boards, oatmeal cookies, aprons and pot holders.

Not to mention paper plates and plastic utensils (25 cents) and plastic wine glasses (15 cents).

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Almost one-fourth of Sattui’s wine sales these days are via mail order, and they go to virtually every state in the country. Sattui is pleased that he has such strong response to his wines, especially since he does no promotion. “It’s all word of mouth. People come in here and they like the place, and they like the wines, and they go home and order it by mail.”

One element they recall is the hand-chiseled stone facing on the winery building that makes it look 100 years old.

“Just wait,” says Sattui. “When the grape vines start climbing up the side of the building, this place will really look old.”


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