V. Sattui Winery

Reviving a century-old dream

In Uncategorized on October 6, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Napa Valley Register
Friday, September 24, 2010
By Kip Davis

V. Sattui Wine Company, San Francisco

V. Sattui Wine Company, San Francisco 1885

October When he was a small child visiting his relatives in San Francisco, Dario Sattui smelled something. He didn’t realize that he was getting a strong whiff of his destiny that will be celebrated Saturday night.

Decades before, Sattui’s great grandfather Vittorio Sattui was working as a baker in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Like most Italian immigrants of that era, Vittorio made some wine on the side. But Vittorio’s wine was a cut above that of his neighbors and, in 1885, he followed his natural talent and opened St. Helena Wine Cellars on Columbus Avenue.

Vittorio Sattui made his wines exclusively from grapes that he purchased in St. Helena, ferried across the bay and then crushed at the North Beach winery. The wines were a big hit and Vittorio’s business took off. He changed the name to V. Sattui Wine Company and eventually moved the winery to a larger building in the Mission district. The winery was on the first floor, Vittorio, his wife, Katerina, and six kids lived upstairs. Then Prohibition hit in 1920 and, like most American wineries, V. Sattui Wine Company was forced to shut its doors.

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Vittorio Sattui was in his 70s. Neither he nor any of his family was interested in reopening V. Sattui, so the ground-floor winery was leased to another winemaker. But the elder Sattui and several of his grown children and their families continued to live in the apartments above the winery. That living arrangement had a direct effect on the future of Vittorio’s great grandson, Dario Sattui.

“As a kid, we visited my relatives there often,” Sattui said, “and my first sensation was always the reek of wine, because they were still making wine there. So I saw all this and it got to me. I’d play in the cellar and ask questions, saw photographs and heard all the stories. So ever since I was about 9 years old, I wanted to go into the wine business.”

Over the next six decades, that youthful dream stayed alive, leading Sattui to eventually revive the V. Sattui Winery near St. Helena and build it into one of the most successful and popular labels in the Napa Valley. The winery’s founding in 1885 and its long, colorful history will take center stage Saturday night at V. Sattui’s 125th anniversary Harvest Ball.

A head for business — and wine

Saturday’s celebration is a meaningful milestone for Dario Sattui, who kept the dream of reviving V. Sattui alive through his teen and college years.

While the rest of the family moved on, going into the insurance business, Sattui couldn’t shake his fascination with wine — and the wine business.

“I always knew I had a business head,” Sattui said, “because at 8, 9 or 10, I was always running something. A lemonade stand, in high school I was taking bets on the game. In the summer my mother would drive me to Stinson Beach and I’d take her old canning kettle, put it on a rope around my neck and sell Coca Cola.”

After high school, Sattui studied accounting and finance at San Jose State University, earned an M.B.A. at UC Berkeley in 1969 and, upon graduation, headed to Europe, where he spent two years traveling in an old Volkswagen van. Even during these freewheeling years, there was no suppressing Sattui’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“I ran a taxi service,” he smiled. “There were all these hitchhikers standing out in the hot sun and I knew a lot of them were Americans, so they’d probably have a little bit of money. I’d stop and say ‘I’m going to Barcelona,’ or wherever I was going, ‘Would you like to come?’ Of course they’d say ‘yes.’ Then I’d say ‘Well, it’ll cost you so much a kilometer, so do you want to come or not?’ They’d usually pay up, so essentially I didn’t pay for any gas in Europe; in fact, I made a little money.”

Sattui’s outlook on life and business also profited from his exposure to European culture. He developed a fascination with medieval architecture and a love of the European lifestyle that would greatly influence him for the next five decades. When he returned to the U.S. in 1972, Sattui was as determined as ever to pick up where great-grandfather Vittorio had left off.

“I decided if anyone (in the family) was going to do it, I’d have to do it,” he said. “I came back from Europe, I didn’t have much money and I knew I had to get a job and I thought, ‘Damn, I’m going to do what I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was little kid.’ The question was, how do you do it when you don’t have any money, you don’t have any knowledge — that was the hard part.”

An unconventional plan

Sattui did have a strong vision for what he wanted the new V. Sattui winery to be. He also had the youthful drive and blind ambition to persevere against what many told him were long odds. From 1972 through 1974, Sattui worked at various Napa Valley wineries gaining a general overview “but no depth” of the complexities of the winemaking trade.  During that time, he also developed his vision for reviving the family winery and decided to locate it in the Napa Valley.

“I had a plan that I wrote in 1973 or ’74,” he recalled, “and we’ve stuck to it almost exactly. And it worked!”

At the time, Sattui’s business plan was unconventional — and certainly did not conform to what was being done by most other Napa Valley wineries. He envisioned his winery as a fun destination, “like coming to Europe for the afternoon on a $50 budget.” To augment his tasting room, Sattui wanted to offer a “food component” — in the form of high-quality deli cheeses and bread — and comfortable picnic grounds adjacent to the rock-walled winery.

“Most wineries (at that time) had signs saying ‘Keep off the lawn’ and ‘No picnicking.’ We wanted to provide a place to escape your asphalt environment, forget about the fight you had with your wife or your nagging kids, come out and have a nice picnic lunch, and combine wine and food. It’s that European-type feel.”

Sattui also proposed to market his wine direct-to-consumer, bypassing distributors and retail outlets. Although this is common practice today, it was virtually unheard-of in the mid-1970s.

Before he could launch this unconventional winery, however, Sattui needed capital. He was told by a UC Davis expert that he needed at least $1 million to start a new winery. Sattui thought he could do it for $100,000, but raising that during the cash-strapped mid-1970s was difficult. He finally put together about half of his target capital, leased a four-acre piece of property south of St. Helena and, on a shoestring, began building the winery in July 1975.

The location was not an accident. Sattui chose it based on visitor traffic patterns he had observed in Napa Valley.

“Too far south (on Highway 29) and people don’t want to stop yet,” he said, “and at that time, we saw statistics that showed 40 percent of the people never went beyond (north) of Beringer or Krug. Then, if you were on the left side of the road, people didn’t want to make that left-hand turn. So I wanted to be on the right (east) side of the road.”

New wine — and a 90-year-old corking machine

Sattui made his first wine at the new location in the fall of 1975 using mostly rented equipment. In a nod to tradition — more out of necessity than sentimentality, he said — the first vintage was bottled later using his great-grandfather’s 90-year-old corking machine.

The winery construction was completed in early 1976 and the reincarnation of V. Sattui Winery opened for business in March of that year. Despite its primitive fixtures and lean surroundings, the winery offered visitors the fundamentals of Sattui’s vision: wine displayed on planks supported by wine barrels, interesting cheese in a $200 used deli case all in a European-style stone winery/tasting facility. And as the year wore on, V. Sattui enjoyed some success.

“We were profitable the first year,” Sattui said, remembering the exact end-of-year profit  — $2,640. “And we’ve never had a year since when we weren’t profitable.”

Sattui’s business plan seemed to be working. Traffic steadily increased to the new winery and sales grew.

“People really responded well,” he said. “It was just a natural, relaxed, comfortable thing to do. And often, the experience transcends the wine. It makes the wine even better than it is.”

Davies on board

In 1980, Sattui hired Tom Davies to work in the tasting room and cellar. A recent graduate from Chico State, Davies’ business sense quickly became apparent to the overworked owner and the two have been together since. Davies is now a partner and president of V. Sattui Winery.

Davies said the winery’s success and longevity are due primarilyto Sattui’s original, outside-the-box vision. The direct-to-consumer sales model, he said, has set the winery apart from competition in Napa Valley and beyond.

“We were probably one of the first wineries to ship wine interstate, direct to the consumer,” Davies said. “From day one, we had a newsletter and, fast-forward 37 years, now it’s much beyond that. It’s social media, e-mails and we even have our ‘outbound hospitality,’ a team of people that reaches out to customers over the phone. But we’ve always kept it direct-to-consumer and to this day, 100 percent of what we produce is either sold out the front door of our tasting room or via the Internet.”


“We were innovators of a lot of things,” Sattui added. “There were a lot of wineries who laughed at us initially and now they’re trying to copy us.”

Selling direct, Sattui and Davies said, creates a much closer relationship with the customer. Properly nurtured, this relationship can continue for years and help further expand the customer base without costly advertising or marketing.

“I think it’s about forming relationships,” Sattui said. “We have employees who have been here over 20 years. Customers come back and see the same faces, the same personalities … people relate to that. It’s like coming home. We have a tremendous amount of repeat business.”

“Because we’re direct-to-consumer,” Davies added, “that really helps us in our pricing model. Every bottle we’re selling is sold at retail, and because we’re selling wines direct, we can offer a much better value — a bigger bang for the buck.”

The diversity of V. Sattui’s wine offerings is designed to appeal to a wide variety of customers. This further sets the winery apart from the Napa Valley norm.

““We do a lot of things different here,” Sattui boasted.  “For instance, most wineries make cabernet, chardonnay and a few other varieties. We make over 40 different wines here.”

Through the years, V. Sattui has acquired 225 acres of vineyards in the Napa Valley, Carneros and Anderson Valley. Davies said 65 percent of its annual wine production is from estate vineyards. The winery also has longstanding relationships with several Napa Valley growers.

“I categorize it as small lot winemaking,” Davies said, referring to V. Sattui’s product strategy. “We make a lot of small lots of many different wines.”

“We always go against the flow,” Sattui added. “When nobody else was making riesling or muscat, we were doing it. Whatever everybody else is doing, we’re often doing the opposite and it works for us.

“Another thing that sets us apart from a lot of the other wineries,” Sattui continued, “is that we try to involve and include our customers, make them part of the family. When we’re bottling, we don’t try to close it off. We open the door and say, ‘Come on in.’ When we’re crushing, we invite the customers out to watch us crush and we bring grapes into the tasting room so they can taste what goes into the wine. Everything we do, we try to involve the customer. It’s their winery. It’s a place they want to bring their friends and relatives to, a place they want to come back to.”

And come back they do. The winery’s annual Harvest Ball, started in 1985, is attended mostly by loyal V. Sattui customers who live throughout the U.S. Many plan their vacations around the black-tie event, Sattui said. With the added significance of the 125th anniversary, this year’s event will be moved out of the winery to a giant tent for the expected larger-than-normal crowd.

Large crowds are a regular feature at the winery, an apparent affirmation Sattui got it right back in the 1970s. Weekends are jammed at V. Sattui with people crowding the deli and tasting rooms, enjoying a picnic on the grounds and buying wine.

Dario Sattui pictured at V. Sattui Winery

Dario Sattui pictured at V. Sattui Winery

Other projects

With Davies handling the day-to-day business, Sattui is pursuing other projects, including his recently completed Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga. As much an architectural attraction as a winery, Castello was a labor of love for Sattui whose fascination with medieval architecture is stronger than ever.

“That was a fantasy for me,” Sattui said, noting that the Calistoga winery is a separate entity from

V. Sattui.

That medieval fantasy extends to Italy, where Sattui spends several months a year and owns several old properties.

“I bought an old monastery over there,” he beamed. “It’s over a thousand years old and I’m renovating it. I don’t know what it is. A medieval building is like a beautiful woman for me. Sometimes I tremble … I get so excited. It’s something inside of me … I’m nuts!”

If that’s what you call it, then “nuts” has been good for Dario Sattui. From his youthful obsession with the old family winery, the bare bones quest to revive it in St. Helena, even his bizarre ideas for picnics, cheese and selling direct, Sattui’s non-traditional vision has had its share of skeptics. Friends and family, he admits, frequently thought he was “crazy.” Competitors laughed, rolled their eyes and, later, quietly adopted some of those weird ideas. But, according to Davies, Sattui invested a lot more than just “weird ideas” to make V. Sattui the success it is today.

“There’s a saying,” Davies said. “The harder you work, the luckier you are. And just from working side by side with this guy for 30 years, I can say he’s got a tremendous work ethic. Most people would not have made the sacrifices that Dario made to build what he’s built.”

To paraphrase another saying, the apple doesn’t fall far from great-grandfather’s tree. Family history indicates that 125 years ago Vittorio Sattui was also a dreamer, probably considered “nuts” for trading his baker’s pans for a wine press, a guy with a vision who worked hard and succeeded. Apparently, that spirit is alive and well three generations down the road.


Michelin-star chef Masanti leads a cooking class at Sattui

In Uncategorized on October 6, 2010 at 9:36 pm

Napa Valley Register
Monday, October4, 2010
By Kip Davis

Chef Masanti at St. Helena's Farmers Market

“Look at his hands. If there is dirt under the finger nails, buy your food from him.”
The importance of dirty hands is not exactly what you would expect to hear as the first words of wisdom from a Michelin-star chef who heads one of the finest restaurants in northern Italy. But this is how Stefano Masanti began preparing 40 foodies joining him for a trip to the St. Helena Farmers Market last Friday.

“If the hands are manicured and clean, it means that he (the vendor) does not grow the food. Don’t buy from him.”

This was one of several tips Masanti shared with the group during the two-hour visit to the market. The celebrated chef was in town to work his magic at V. Sattui Winery’s 125th Anniversary Harvest Ball Sept. 25. His visit to the farmers market was the first part of a V. Sattui cooking class he was teaching.

“First, we walk into the market,” he told the enamored group. “We see everything, the people, the vegetables, we taste, we smell — and then we buy.”

Class was in session. One eager student, in an obvious attempt to gain teacher’s approval, pointed out a particularly large and voluptuous eggplant.

“Big doesn’t mean good,” Masanti countered, pitting seasoned wisdom against impetuous naïveté. “Huge is rich in water, not in taste.”

The master reached for a piece of blemished fruit, brushing away a couple of flies from the pile.

“Eeww!” grimaced several students (mostly female) in unison.

“Flies are not stupid,” Masanti replied, a gleam in his eye. “This is the best one. You just cut this portion away and the rest is fantastic … and, I have to say, sometimes you save some money.”

The latter, thrift-based comment drew approving nods from many students (mostly male).

The teacher moved on to a batch of “melanzana” or eggplant, all smaller than the reject from before. He rubbed the skin with his finger and took an approving sniff.

“I suggest that you brush the skin a little,” he said, “and then smell. If you smell something it is a point of quality.”

“First, you have always to smell it,” the lecture continued, tempered by a generous dose of Italian charm. “Sometimes, it looks nice but on top they put some wax. And sometimes it seems not so good but the smell is fantastic. For cooking that is much, much better.”

Masanti and his students were gathering produce that morning that would be used later in the day during a cooking class/demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America. Of the 100 people enrolled in the class, 40 early risers showed up at the farmers market, perhaps hoping for extra credit.

“I don’t like the tomatoes that are all the same,” he counseled students before dispatching them in teams to buy produce. “I prefer different shapes because it means that they are all natural. I didn’t see carrots — did you see carrots? I think it’s not the season. If we need carrots, I will buy them in the Safeway.”

The Safeway comment aside, Masanti carried with him a bushel-full of fresh food credibility as he led the group through the market. The chef is part of the new wave of culinary creativity centered on locally grown and produced food. This “locavore” mentality, he said, is about more than just high-quality restaurant food.

“Buying local is much better,” he told the group. “I know that these things cost a little more, but in the end it’s not true. The first medicine is what we eat. So if you eat good things you have less (health) problems along the way. And second, in Europe industrial (produced) vegetables are supported by the government. So you pay part in the supermarket and part with your taxes, and it’s much more than what you pay in a farmers market.”

This is Masanti’s second year in a row to cook for the annual V. Sattui Harvest Ball, this year for about 400 winery fans. The black-tie gala included a lavish six-course meal prepared by the chef who, at his own expense, brought along his own kitchen staff of nine to assist him.

Masanti’s restaurant Il Cantinone is located in the small, ski-resort village of Madesimo near Lake Como in northern Italy. An avid proponent of the worldwide “slow food” movement, his establishment is one of a handful of Italian restaurants to have earned a coveted Michelin star. Masanti is doubly proud of the honor, considering his style of cooking.

Chef Masanti at CIA 2010

“The thing that makes us very, very happy is that we use only local food,” he said. “The farthest supplier is a fisherman at Como Lake, and that is 30 miles from us. Then, we cook with only (simple) ingredients … I mean potatoes, vegetables, no foie gras, no caviar. Common (ingredients), but good. So to receive a Michelin star with this kind of cooking was, to us, very, very interesting.”

Masanti said the star designation changed things a bit at his restaurant in the tiny town hidden in the Italian Alps.

“Before we had the Michelin star, we had people coming from 50 miles around us. Now they are coming from Japan and far away. It’s totally different. It’s also more difficult because they come with a standard (in mind) … foie gras, caviar, you know…and then we serve a potato, we serve vegetables. Ninety percent of the people say it’s amazing, 10 percent say ‘What, no caviar, no foie gras?”

Masanti and others said that the Michelin organization seems to be changing, slowly, with the times.

“The whole world is changing,” he said, “At one time, you went to a Michelin star (restaurant) with a suit. It was sometimes intimidating. Now, you are casual. This thing I love. Now, with less money to spend, the people who go to a (Michelin star) restaurant, they want to have fun and relax with nice atmosphere.”

Cooking class

Casual and fun were at the top of the menu at the cooking class in the impressive demonstration theater at the CIA in St. Helena. As students entered, they passed the huge cooking island heaped with the morning’s bounty of farmers market produce. The animated Masanti, his wife, Rafaella, (a professional sommelier) and staff appeared ready to impress.

Masanti and crew had planned to prepare two recipes highlighting both the chef’s innovative style and fresh, local ingredients gathered earlier at the farmers market. The first dish – Vegetable Ravioli – zucchini, celery, tomatoes, onions, fennel and, yes, the Safeway carrots were uniformly diced and sautéed in extra virgin olive oil.

“What about garlic?” an inquisitive student shouted.

“We don’t have garlic,” Masanti replied. “No one bought any.”

Italian without garlic? Talk about working without a net. This guy must be good.

Flour, egg and water were combined and expertly formed into a ball of fresh pasta dough that was then passed around the group of 100 to “feel and smell” the fresh texture. Other fresh dough prepared in advance was then put through a hand-cranked pasta machine, flattened into sheets and formed into vegetable-filled ravioli.

The ravioli were plunged into boiling water that, Chef said, must be salted “to taste the same as the Mediterranean Sea. If you’ve never been to Italy to taste the Mediterranean Sea, it is about 25 grams (1 ounce) of salt per liter of water.”

Students then enjoyed the cooked ravioli finished with a light tomato sauce paired with V. Sattui’s 2008 Henry Ranch Pinot Noir. Both pasta and vegetable filling were prepared al dente enhancing both texture and freshness.

The next dish was simple, with a twist. Pasta pieces left over from the ravioli preparation were cooked and combined with butter that had been lightly smoked. The preparation was rustic and rich with just a hint of smokiness that paired well with the V. Sattui 2008 Mounts Zinfandel.

Earlier in the class, students were asked to create their own recipe from a list of ingredients provided. Three of the recipes were randomly selected and the authors invited to prepare their dishes with help from Masanti and his staff. In what was called “La Competizione” (the competition), the three dishes were judged by panels of fellow students. La Competizione ended in a three-way tie.

Masanti has taught cooking classes in the Bay Area for the past nine years and has been a frequent visitor to Napa Valley. He clearly enjoys the region and has witnessed first-hand its evolution as a food and wine Mecca.

“More so than in Italy,” he said, “you come here and feel the wine country. You feel, you smell wine.”

His view of the changing American culinary scene is equally complimentary.

“Six years ago in the United States, you could find Italian style, French style but not American style,” he said. “Now you have an American style. And you are better than us (Europeans) in the (culinary) schools.”

Many European chefs are envious of America’s relative freedom from tradition that allows American chefs to try new things.

“Maybe because I’m Italian, I know how to prepare spaghetti,” he said. “The American chef doesn’t and so he studies and then he starts with a new approach to cooking it.”

“You know,” he continued, “We are Italians and to mix Italian with Chinese, it is not possible. Mix Italian with French, it is not possible. In the United States, it is possible. So in the United States, you have new things, new tastes, new experiences.”

Pasta di Pesto

In Uncategorized on June 22, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Did you know? Pesto was invented in Liguria,  a coastal region of north western Italy. Its capital is Genoa and was home to Vittorio Sattui  in the village of Carsi.  We like to believe that  the Sattui family could have been the “Pesto Pioneers!” The Pesta di pesto is our featured item in the deli as we continue our 125th Anniversary Celebration.   Come on by and try some for yourself!

Pasta di Pesto with Sundried Tomatoes & Parmesan Cheese

A great article published recently in the NY Times regarding Pesto origins in Genoa, Italy. Birthplace of Vittorio Sattui