Last month I was delighted to be invited to a wine club event at a beautiful Sonoma County vineyard – Trione Winery in Geyserville.
I was the guest of a member of the band playing 80’s music outdoors on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It took five decades but I can finally say that I know a guy in the band. So, thanks to James Marshall Berry for making a nerdy woman feel ever so slightly cool for a brief moment in time!
I admit that I did wonder if attending a wine club members-only event would make me feel like an interloper, but I found Trione to have a laid-back and welcoming feel. The tasting room is lovely, with knowledgeable people pouring – including Director of Hospitality Jess Poshepny Vallery. It’s immediately obvious that Jess works hard to ensure that visitors to Trione have a fun and memorable experience – and she’s happy to help tailor a tasting or a visit to meet the needs of guests. Jess is also a local with a wealth of information about fun things to do in Geyserville.
Here are just a few of her suggestions:
Coppola Winery for it’s incredible swimming pool and extensive movie memorabilia (including Academy Award statues)
Daviola for amazing pizza and seasonal dishes
Catelli’s Restaurant has a beautiful outdoor patio and great ravioli’s
The Sonoma County Sculpture Trail spans 9 miles between Geyserville and Cloverdale and changes throughout the year
Insider Tip: Be “in the know” and refer to Geyserville as G’Ville like the locals do.
Fun Fact: Jess was President of the Geyserville Chamber of Commerce for two years, so she’s an expert on local businesses and attractions.
I’m always interested in how people make the decision to become wine club members and Jess’s response is that Trione puts a great deal of effort into making it’s members feel like part of the winery family. Newly-constructed bocce ball courts, a covered patio overlooking the courts, and adirondack chairs with umbrellas offer a festive spot for members to reserve to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays or anniversaries. The winery is also regularly used as a venue for memorable life events including marriage proposals and weddings in the Old Stone Building next to the tasting room.
The common response I hear when I ask why people have become wine club members is that of course, they enjoy the wine and the special events, but they also want to feel a connection to the location, the history, and the philosophy of a winery. By joining, they choose to support a winery’s mission and to help guarantee its long-term success.
I’m always drawn to family-owned wineries and the history behind them, and Trione doesn’t disappoint on those fronts. The Trione legacy spans forty years, five vineyards in three different Sonoma County appellations, and three generations of family members involved in the wine industry. The winery was opened in 2008 by Denise Trione Hicks, the granddaughter of founder, Henry Trione. Trione Hicks is the Director of Sales and Marketing and oversees all winery operations. Kris Hicks, her husband, is the operations manager for the 650 acres of Trione vineyards. Jess Vallery’s husband, Tim Vallery of Peloton Catering manages the food selection and preparation for winery events. Trione clearly doesn’t waver on it’s commitment to a family business model.
Trione’s history began with Frank Nervo, an Italian immigrant with dreams of owning his own winery. In 1896, he started with 10 acres of vineyards and eventually grew to over 200 acres. In 1908, Nervo built the stone building to use as his winery. With the devastation from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire fresh in everyone’s mind, the winery building was framed with old-growth redwood timbers so large that each was cut from a separate tree. The building was reinforced with heavy chain embedded into the exterior walls and had a cement floor, which was unusual at the time. The concrete floor and stone walls were both strong and fire-resistant and had the added benefit of keeping the building much cooler than the traditional wood and tin construction used by most other wineries.
I noticed old railroad tracks and learned that there was a Northwestern Pacific Railroad “Nervo Station” freight rail stop right behind the winery. There was a second set of tracks, called a spur track, which enabled another train car (likely filled with passengers) to pass by as fifty gallon barrels of wine were loaded onto box cars for transport to San Francisco.
Nervo Winery utilized a unique business model for selling their wine. Aside from shipping barrels in bulk to commercial customers, they only sold to the public directly from their winery at a reasonable cost. This greatly reduced their need to store inventory for long periods of time and allowed for very competitive pricing. Their motto was “sell them young” and then instruct customers to age the wine at home. Generally, Nervo’s white wines were ready to drink, but they advised that their red wines would “improve greatly” by home storage – and they recommended a year or more. One has to wonder if this may have been the genesis of home wine cellars!
The down-to-earth approach of the Nervo’s is evident in their winery brochure which stated “should you like to visit our little old winery, we are 4 miles North of Healdsburg.” Before there were more creative names for wine, the Nervo’s bestsellers were “California Burgundy” and “Farmer’s Table Red.” The winery hours were ten to five every day, other than “selected holidays… and our birthdays.” A phone number was listed in the brochure – subtly suggesting that it might be a good idea to call ahead to be sure your visit didn’t coincide with a family member’s birthday celebration.
My own early wine tasting experiences had zero pretension (paper cups and a choice of red or white) and was closely aligned with the Nervo’s approach. Winery owners were weathered from the sun, their fingers stained from working their land, and their uniform was worn denim and boots. There were no wine glasses, carefully chosen food pairings, or bocce ball – but what remains unchanged at Trione and many other wineries is the deep appreciation owners have for those who enjoy their wines and support their passionate commitment to the vines.
New beginnings, changing environments, and evolution is always part of the vineyard experience. What we tend to view as a glamorous industry faced all that and more – including years of prohibition. Imagine your life’s work and main source of income suddenly deemed illegal. Vintners ripped out vines and planted prunes, pears and cherries and the vineyards that remained produced table grapes and raisins. Nervo had 250,000 gallons of wine in storage during prohibition – which became over-aged and so high in acidity that it was sold as vinegar for pennies on the dollar.
Somehow, many of the old wineries were able to survive by tightening their belts, working longer and harder, and by having little to no debt. In an oral interview with Julius and Margaret Nervo (children of Frank) they proudly report that their father never engaged in “bootlegging” – even when some of their competitors allegedly found ingenious ways to continue to sell wine in violation of the law. There were stories of filling wine vats with large rocks to keep the wine levels inside appearing full to federal inspectors. And rumors of those selling grape juice and packets of yeast with strict instructions not to mix the juice and the yeast together or risk fermentation (wink-wink!)
Once prohibition ended in 1933, the Nervo family started the first – and free – tasting room in the area. They continued their old-school way of both marketing (word of mouth, price, good value) and distribution (no home shipping or deliveries – pick up at the winery only) which worked for them and for their customers. At first glance, the Nervo’s way of wine growing may seem to have little resemblance to our modern-day wine industry, but there are enduring similarities. One is certainly a belief in the power of wine to help people slow down and savor the moment, to support relationships and social activities, and to be part of celebrations and rituals that span generations. Other parallels are offering winery experiences that include visiting and learning, appreciation for a loyal customer base, and the quest to be responsible stewards of the land and of a legacy that will survive long beyond their lifetimes.
After visiting Trione Winery and learning of it’s history, I have little doubt that Frank Nervo would approve of the present-day incarnation of his original dream.