In 20th-century California wine lore, there is probably no winery more famous, more advertised, or more visited than the Italian-Swiss Colony in northern Sonoma County, 85 miles north of San Francisco. Established in 1881, its 2500-acre site was located on the gentle slopes of the Russian River Valley between Geyserville and Cloverdale on the line of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. They called it Asti. The agricultural colony was the brainchild of Andrea Sbarboro (1840–1923), a prosperous S.F. businessman who felt the need to help his fellow Italian immigrants in the depressed business conditions of the day. Before Prohibition struck in 1920, ISC operated nine wineries scattered throughout northern California’s wine districts and several large plants in the Central Valley mainly for sweet wine and brandy production—the combined storage capacity was a staggering 14 million gallons, with 4 million at Asti. Italian-Swiss Colony was the largest winery in the world. And to most of the wine world, Italian- Swiss Colony was Asti.

FUN FACT: “What winery has issued the most postcards!?” In answer to this most frequently asked question about collecting California wine postcards, the Italian-Swiss Colony is far and away the leader. A plain cream, unillustrated advertising postcard announcing “…will have the pleasure of calling on you…” dated June 1895, is the earliest dated postcard in the collection. In all, there are some 213 fascinating postcards that tell and preserve the Italian-Swiss Colony wine story. Second place belongs to Napa Valley’s Graystone/Christian Bros Wine Cellars, with just over 100 postcards.

Italian-Swiss Colony Vineyards & Winery

Italian-Swiss Colony Vineyards & Winery, c1905.

 When this image was published, the vineyards at Asti, then almost 25 years old, covered the rolling terrain surrounding the winery as far as the eye could see, some 1750 acres in vines. By 1900, the 300,000-gallon brick winery built in 1887 produced one of every three bottles of California wine.

Interestingly, for the first several years, none of the Italian grape varieties close to the hearts of the colony founders were planted at Asti. Zinfandel was the chosen variety, with over 150 acres planted in the first two years. But by the end of the decade, the fine varieties of Sangiovese, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, which would produce the award-winning Tipo Chianti, spread across the hillsides.

TIPO. California’s Choicest Red & White Wine, c1907

TIPO. California’s Choicest Red & White Wine, c1907.

Italian-Swiss Colony produced several exquisitely lithographed postcards c1907 that carried preprinted advertising messages. From the outset, the Colony’s top-of-the-line table wine was Tipo Chianti, bottled & sold only in raffia-covered Chianti flasks. In 1906 the winery registered the word Tipo (“type”) and dropped Chianti from the label. These beautiful, artistically designed postcards heralded the beginning of a monumental ISC love affair with postcards that celebrated the joy of wine right up to Prohibition and immediately again after Repeal when the first ISC

tasting room was opened with the greatest postcard campaign ever known.

Golden State Champagne, c1912

Golden State Champagne, c1912.

On the back of our superb Tipo postcard above, the message proudly announced that “ISC has entered the champagne field and is now producing naturally fermented sparkling wines…” With the completion of their new Champagne Vaults in 1910 and renowned French champagne master Chas Jadeau at the helm, the Colony entered into a modern era in champagne making and introduced their new label, Golden State Extra Dry. Amazingly, in the next five years, Golden State brought home five Grand Prix medals, and by 1913 ISC produced 600,000 bottles of California’s 950,000 bottles of sparkling wine. Rounding out this chapter of the ISC story are seven more sepia postcard views in this first-class series produced by Janssen Litho, San Francisco c1912: 1) Champagne 150,000-bottle aging Cellar 2) Champagne Cellar Riddling Racks 3) Champagne grape clusters Petit Pinot 4) Famous French Expert Chas. Jadeau 5) Wicker Basket filled with Golden State Extra Dry 6) ISC Main Office- Salesrooms-Vaults in S.F. 7) View of ISC Vineyard.

The World’s Largest Wine Tank, 1903.

The World’s Largest Wine Tank, 1903.

This Asti wonder was constructed in 1897 during the Great Wine War between the powerful California Wine Assn and its chief rival, the California Wine Makers’ Corp, of which ISC was a leading force. With this underground concrete wine tank able to hold in reserve 500,000 gallons of wine — enough to serve a quart of wine to two million people at a single dinner — ISC hoped to bolster their fighting position. It took the Asti crew just 46 days to dig the hole and pour the concrete for the 80′ x 34′ x 24′ deep vat. It took two winery steam pumps seven days to fill it and four days to pump it empty. This remarkable c1903 scenic postcard is one of the earliest views of this historic California wine country marvel.

ISC Exhibit. Cloverdale Citrus Fair, 1904.

ISC Exhibit. Cloverdale Citrus Fair, 1904. 

Just look at this prize-winning, spectacular postcard preserving for all time the elaborate recreation of the stone coronet atop the 500,000-gallon giant wine tank! The annual Cloverdale Citrus Fair was established in 1893 to celebrate the area’s rich citrus crop. Several years earlier, the Colony planted and cultivated many varieties of fruit trees at Asti, including over an acre of citrus trees, and regularly joined in the yearly celebration. Louis Vasconi, the first Superintendent of ISC, served as a director of the Citrus Fair in 1898. If you look carefully, there are real bottles of ISC wines displayed on each arch. (When viewing this colorful image, “delete” the yellow fleur-de-lis and the orange-encircled good-luck horseshow figures. These two elements are actually part of the exhibit behind ISC, and were most puzzling at first.)


ISC Tourists Atop World’s Largest Wine Vat, c1940.

ISC Tourists Atop World’s Largest Wine Vat, c1940.

The coronet crowning sculpture atop the mighty receptacle was constructed from stones gathered from the Russian River running through ISC, and still stands proudly today. These plentiful river rocks and their astonishing structures have a presence all around the winery estate, which we will explore after a brief stop at the ISC tasting room. But, one more story from this mammoth wonder — it was reported in the San Francisco newspapers: “A hundred couples danced in a wine vat at Asti today!” It seems Cav. Sbarboro was so pleased with his underground tank able to fill well over ten million glasses of wine, he held a dance, including a ten-piece brass band, inside the cavernous tank. In this 1940s’ view, our ISC tour guide has opened the top giving the visitors a glance inside and pointing out where the spiral staircase was installed to transport the revelers down the 24-foot-depth to the dance floor, while regaling them with the age-old story of a magnificent night of dancing in the novel ballroom.

Visitors Welcome! Billboards Signaled the Way to Asti, 1949.

Visitors Welcome! Billboards Signaled The Way To Asti, 1949.

From its founding, the Italian-Swiss Colony was a mecca for tourists. First by railcar and then by automobile, from royalty to budding young wine aficionados, everyone wanted to visit Asti. Shortly after Repeal, ISC opened their first tasting room. Before the end of the decade, over 10,000 visitors came to sample the wines. By the late 1950s, visitor statistics became staggering: 200,000 visitors tasted 4,000 gallons of wine in 1958, and in one month in 1959, 33,000 people toured the winery. As a masterful touch in advertising the Colony’s “Corking Good Wines,” postcards were placed in the tasting room by the thousands, inviting visitors to send cards home with a message to visit Asti – and tour, taste, and buy ISC wines. The banner year was 1962, when an estimated 400,000 people visited the tasting room and sampled over 5,000 gallons of wine. — A postcard fact from Jack Florence, Legacy of a Village : “In 1962 ISC had 6 million postcards printed. There were always about 6,000 postcards in the tasting room, offering 5 or 6 selections at a time. The postcards were free to visitors and the Colony paid the postage if dropped into the postcard barrel in the tasting room. Often, during the summer months, some 3,000 postcards were mailed daily from the official Asti post office (in use from 1888–1978).” Utterly amazing.


— to be continued …