Robert D. Rossi – Italian Swiss Colony

Wine Label, Italian Swiss_Colony, Tipo California Red
Early Italian Swiss Colony Label

Before I talk directly about Robert D. Rossi, Jr., I’m going to go back in time and space and introduce you to his family. We’ll start with his great-grandfather, about a hundred years before our subject was born and almost 6,000 miles away.

Justinien Caire

Justinien Caire—from now on, we’ll call him Justinian—was born in 1827 in the town of Briancon, located in the French department of Hautes-Alpes (the High Alps), at an altitude of 4,350 feet. It is right up against the border with Italy. In 1846, at age 18, Justinian was sent to Genoa to work in a hardware store that was owned by cousins. It might seem odd that someone born in France would go to Genoa to serve an apprenticeship. It turns out, though, that Briancon and the Ligurian metropolis were at that time part of the same state, the Kingdom of Sardinia, with Turin as its capital. In Genoa, Justinian sharpened his business acumen, perfected his Italian, and developed a lifelong antipathy for the Genoese dialect. He also attended a local business school—some sort of Genoese Heald’s College—where he made friends with a fellow student, Giosuè Molfino, whose family owned a ship chandlery. Giosuè, in turn, introduced him to his sister, Maria Candida Cristina Sara, aka Albina, Justinian’s future wife. When Justinian emigrated to California in 1851, he did so as a Sardinian subject. As regards his continuing ties to Genoa, both of his sons, Arthur and Frederic, were sent there to study, with an admonition never to speak one word of Zeneize.

In San Francisco, Justinian Caire established an import house, eventually called The Justinian Caire Company, which evolved into the 19th-century equivalent of Grainger, an industrial supply emporium, specializing in mining and assaying equipment, grape-growing and winemaking equipment, and chemicals, serving the American West and beyond. In the R.C. Dun & Co.

Papers of the Harvard Business School, there are 19th-century credit ledgers for San Francisco enterprises—a great source for local business history. The precursor of Dun & Bradstreet reported, as early as 1869, that Justinian Caire was “an honest, steady, industrious businessman” with excellent credit and a FICO score of 748. (Are you listening? There were no FICO scores in the 1800s.) At the turn of the last century, the company catalog ran to 290 pages, and its clients included DuPont, C&H and Spreckels Sugar, Standard Oil, the University of California, Stanford, and the US Mint in both San Francisco and Carson City.

Besides this lucrative enterprise, in the 1880s Justinian Caire also became sole proprietor of Santa Cruz Island. This island, 25 miles off the Santa Barbara coast and now part of the Channel Islands National Park, was in the 19th and 20th centuries the largest privately owned island in the US. It measures 61,440 acres or four times the size of Manhattan. Under the stewardship of Justinian and his two sons, a self-sustaining, diversified, sheep, cattle and vineyard operation was established on the island. Eventually, it became a bone of contention between the Caire family and two of Justinian and Albina’s daughters, one of whom was Amélie, who, in 1880, married the grandfather of our subject, Pietro Carlo Rossi.

Pietro Carlo Rossi

Pietro Carlo Rossi was born in 1855 in Dogliani in the province of Cuneo in the region of Piemonte. Dogliani is known for Dolcetto, a light red wine, which is dry in spite of its name.

Dogliani is also the town of origin of another California winemaking family, the Seghesios of Healdsberg. In any case, it can be agreed upon that we’re talking about an area with an established winemaking tradition, una cultura vitivinicola. Rossi graduated from the University of Turin with a degree in chemistry and pharmacology. He came to San Francisco in 1875 to work in the pharmacy of his uncle, Alessandro Zabaldano. Eventually, PC fell out with his uncle and established his own drugstore. PC’s brother, Domenico Rossi, was also a pharmacist. His enterprise, the Rossi Drug Company, which lasted into the late 20th century, had the dubious distinction of being the last North Beach source of live leeches for blood-letting. They stopped selling them in 1974…or maybe they had only rented them out?

Now, back to Pietro Carlo…

In 1881, Andrea Sbarboro with some associates established the Italian Swiss Colony in Sonoma County. They named the place Asti in homage to the town in Piemonte and its surrounding area, famous for Barbera, Grignolino, Moscato and, of course, Asti Spumante. Vines were planted, and the first wine grapes were harvested in 1887. The winemaker that year—who, by the grace of God, to this day remains anonymous—inadvertently made kosher wine, in the sense that it was very Hasidic. In fact, it was vinegar! At that point, Sbarboro tapped the chemist PC Rossi to be the Colony’s chief winemaker. He made a decent wine in 1888, and, over time, he brought professionalism and consistency to the enterprise and became the Colony’s president. In a letter of 1903 from Andrea Sbarboro to Governor George C. Pardee, conserved in the Bancroft Library of UC Berkeley, PC is described as “unquestionably the best wine expert in the United States.” Among Rossi’s contributions to the California wine industry was the introduction of potassium metabisulfite to arrest secondary fermentation, which acidifies wine, and his insistence that the state’s wines be shipped in labeled bottles rather than in bulk. This was of paramount importance to the reputation of California wines, because shipping in bulk allowed for dilution and adulteration by the wholesalers back east. Rossi also worked for the passage of the first Pure Food Act in 1907 which, among its other provisions, prevented tampering with wine.

Pietro Carlo Rossi died of head injuries sustained in Asti in 1911, when a horse pulling his carriage bolted and threw him to the ground. He was only 56. He left behind a widow and ten children. He also left an estate valued at $521,319 in real estate and securities—a lot ofmoney! Upon his death, the Examiner commented that PC Rossi was the “leading capitalist among local Italians.” Executors of his estate were his adult twin sons, Robert D. Rossi and Edmund A. Rossi. They also took over active management of Italian Swiss Colony.

Italian Swiss Colony

Italian Swiss Colony, as a continuous grape-growing and winemaking enterprise, lasted 107 years, from 1881 to 1988, although in the interval it changed ownership several times. It produced still wines, champagne, fortified wines, brandy, and even grappa. During the dark days of Prohibition from 1920 to 1933, it was reconstituted as the Asti Grape Products Company, selling grapes, grape juice and grape concentrate for home winemakers at the 200-gallon-per household legal Unit. The Rossi family maintained an ownership stake in the Colony until its sale to National Distillers in 1942, though the twins—and their respective sons after them—long continued in executive positions with the new parent company and its successors.

As indicative of the Colony’s evolution over time, the trademark at the top center is a straight plagiarism of the coat of arms of the City of Asti in Piemonte, right down to the crown and the laurel wreath. The second item is a postcard mailed from Asti, California, by my parents and me on July 29, 1963. It is brightly colored, purely visual, and not very informative. It is dumbed-down and aimed at a mass audience. It depicts “That Little Old Winemaker—Me!” in lederhosen (Swiss), being kissed by the peasant girl (Italian). Many of you will remember this scene from the contemporary TV ad. In fact, Italian Swiss Colony was the first winery to extensively advertise on television. In addition, due to its free tour, free winetasting, free cookies and free postcards, the winery at one point was—believe it or not!—the second most popular tourist destination in California, after Disneyland. (I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t a close second.)

Now, back to the family…

Robert Domini Rossi, SR

The two Rossi twins were born in 1888 in the Oakland home of their mother’s family, the Caires. Both were educated at St. Ignatius College in San Francisco and then spent one year as postgraduates at UC Berkeley, earning a degree in viticulture and enology in 1909. Upon the death of their father, Edmund became superintendent at the winery, and Robert took over administration and sales in the San Francisco headquarters—an impressive masonry structure that had survived the “Big One” and still stands where Battery St. meets the Embarcadero.
During World War One, Robert served in France as a sergeant in the intelligence unit of the American Expeditionary Force, no doubt aided by his knowledge of the local language. In 1920, he married Nellie Mahoney, daughter of a prominent West Coast builder. Robert continued his employment with Italian Swiss Colony until 1947, when he left to become vice president of the Di Giorgio Wine Company, until retirement in 1950 at age 62.

Both Robert Rossi, Sr., and his brother were members of Il Cenacolo. In fact, the oldest living memory of a Cenacolo meeting features Robert. Listen to this! Our past president, Joseph Peter Simini, was commissioned as an ensign in the US Navy in 1945. Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas of that year, he had a leave which he spent in California. A friend of his father, Frank Bergallo, the Italian Swiss Colony wine rep in Buffalo, New York, told him to get in touch with Robert Rossi while in San Francisco. He did. Rossi invited him to lunch at Vanessi’s on Broadway, where there were six or seven Cenacolisti gathered around a table, including Sal Reina. This was an informal meeting due to the wartime suspicion regarding Il Cenacolo and fascist sympathies. Joe Simini celebrated his 94th birthday just four days ago, on Sunday, February 15th, at the Patio Español.

This is a good segue to the life of our subject…

Robert Domini Rossi, JR

…because for him, membership in the Cenacolo was, in a way, a family tradition.

Bob was born in San Francisco on February 6, 1921. He had two siblings, Richard and Mary Elena. Like his father before him, he attended St. Ignatius High School and the University of San
Francisco, previously known as St. Ignatius College. He graduated in 1942 with a degree in business administration. During World War Two, Lieutenant and, eventually, Captain Rossi was stationed in various State-side Army bases. In early 1944, he was back in San Francisco for his wedding with Evelyn Bulotti, of Ticinese (Italian Swiss) and Irish heritage. Later that same year, Captain Rossi took up with one of the Andrews Sisters.

Upon discharge, Robert Rossi, Jr., went to work at— Where else?—Italian Swiss Colony. He managed its Fresno operation for ten years, from 1946 to 1956. During the family’s residence there, two children were born to Bob and Evelyn: Robert A. Rossi and Dianne E. Rossi. He was then transferred to San Francisco as assistant production manager. During his years of business activity, Bob was employed by three successive owners of the Colony: National Distillers, United Vintners, and Heublein. Under the last-named company, he was appointed vice president responsible for grape and wine production. He retired in 1991 after 45 continuous years in the California wine industry. Bob also served on the board of The Wine Institute, the lobbying arm of the industry.

Robert Rossi, Jr.’s activities were certainly not confined to the strictly occupational. Bob had two Rossi aunts who were nuns and an uncle, the Rev. P. Carlo Rossi, SJ, who was professor of Romance languages at USF. Bob himself remained close to his Catholic heritage. He was vice president of the Salesian Boys’ Club in North Beach, a Knight of Malta, and he served on the board of Catholic Social Services and the Hanna Boys Center of Sonoma. True to his school, he was on the board of governors of USF. Within the local Italian community, Bob was for many years a director of the Italian American Community Services Agency (now, thankfully shortened to Italian Community Services).

Finally, Robert D. Rossi, Jr., was a Cenacolista. Bob became a member in 1957 shortly after his return from Fresno, perhaps sponsored by his own father. His widow, Evelyn, remembers that he always looked forward to his Thursday luncheon meetings and was insistent on wearing an immaculate white shirt and tie. He served as our president from 1971 to 1973, following the tenure of Fred Campagnoli. During Bob’s presidency, the annual summer Opera Outing continued under the pergola of the Monte Rosso vineyard of the Louis M. Martini Winery in the hills above Sonoma. (For those of you who are not complete newcomers to Il Cenacolo, you’ll understand my paraphrase of Talleyrand: “How sweet life was before the Gallo takeover!”) Rossi also continued the Cenacolo donations to the Merola Opera Program, granting awards to up-and-coming opera singers. During his tenure, we gave $250 each to the following Merolini: Adrienne Leonetti , Jeanette Wall-Wood , and Norman Philips. In 1980, during the presidency of Joe Simini, an honorary gavel was presented to all living past presidents of Il Cenacolo. Bob Rossi is the third from the right. He is beaming and proud.

Bob Rossi enjoyed red wine and martinis. He loved to spend time with his family up at their retreat in Asti. Back in 1904, PC Rossi had built an 8,000-square-foot house there, the Villa Maria, surrounded by ten acres and still owned by the Rossi family. Bob liked to do landscaping work up there (trimming, raking, pruning, and so on), as did his uncle, the Jesuit priest. Bob passed away less than a year ago, on April 16, 2014.

© 2023 Il Cenacolo, Introduction to a talk by Andrew M. Canepa  February 19, 2015

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