Sonoma County’s 115-mile Russian River is a vital Northern California resource and its “Russian River Valley” is a premier American Viticultural Appellation, established in 1983. Flowing from its headwaters to the north near Ukiah in Mendocino Co, it meanders in every direction through the heart of wine country to make its way to the Sonoma Coast and the Pacific Ocean. The beloved River provides essential water for residential and agricultural uses, and has been a San Francisco Bay Area popular summer vacation destination since the 1860s.
Korbel Champagne Cellars. c1970s & Today
The history of Sonoma County Korbel Bros Champagne Winery & Distillery has been a popular wine story for ages. California wine historian Charles Sullivan exclaimed, “The Korbel estate is the finest survivor of the impressive 19th century wine history of Sonoma County. The great old brick winery (1886) and wine tower (1889) look out on the Russian River a few miles east of Guerneville…” as he proceeded to write this enterprising history into his California Wine Companion in 1998.
In my collection are a handful of rare old Korbel Winery postcards that add several favorite highlights to this age-old story. There are 42 Korbel postcards in the file, so mostly they are not particularly hard to find; it is the early Pre-Prohibition cards that always have been quite rare, and the most exciting—preserving not your usual bits of Korbel wine lore.
Redwood Stump Placed On Another Stump
Although not noted on these two c1900 postcards, this Herculean scene was at Korbel, the largest wine operation in the area, where thick stands of redwoods and firs were doggedly cleared to establish vineyards along the river frontage and fertile slopes on this Guerneville stretch of lower Russian River valley. By 1888 Korbel had 175 acres in vineyard; by 1892, only a few years before the big flood, there were 220 acres of bearing vines. Thankfully, at this time, the frontage vineyard land was being cleared but not yet planted. The Brothers would use a good deal of the prized wood from these redwood trees for their bustling S.F. business making specialty boxes— cigar boxes & other Victorian niceties.
Korbel Winery, Rear View 1906
There is no caption printed on this extremely rare, rear view real-photo postcard. Our sender has dutifully written and marked the postcard: “Dear Uncle, This is Korbel back view 1.Cellar 2.Distill house tower 3.Blacksmith shop.” The riverside vineyard, with remaining tree stumps visible among the vines, is seen on the front side of the winery. The postcard, postmarked from Guerneville, was sent to H. E. Lobeck, Rheims, NY. In 1897 Herman Lobeck, with a noted interest in the Korbel operation, ran the government weather station at Rheims, near Hammondsport on Lake Keuka in the Finger Lakes Wine District, while he was Asst. Superintendent of a nearby winery. What a wonderful card!
Korbel Vineyard. Hilton Brick Factory 1907
At first, this postcard was a fascinating puzzle. Described as “a farm scene” by the postcard seller, the background vineyard caught my eye. It had to be Korbel. But what was that foreground scene? I was thrilled to find that this unknown postcard showed the Hilton Brick Factory, in construction in late 1906 by Hilton Ridenhour of the Ridenhour family, pioneer settlers in the area and owner of the property adjacent to Korbel Winery on the east—and thus the spectacular view of Korbel vineyard in the background. Wonder if the winery approved of a brick factory?
Korbel Station … Only Remaining Station
A fun fact. Built 1876, the station is the only remaining station on what was the Guerneville Branch of the N.W.P.R.R. serving the Russian River area. Korbel train history tells us the railway was operated until November 1935 when the present county road was opened. The station, on its original site, was purchased by Korbel from Northwestern Pacific for five dollars. Today the picturesque depot is the spot where winery tours begin. Korbel Wine & Champagne Cellars has remained a favorite wine-lover’s destination into the 21st century, with guided tours and informed tastings offered to all. The wine estate is still beautifully surrounded by redwoods and vineyards, but River Road passes near the front door instead of the once busy railroad tracks.