This historic California winery once rivaled Disneyland as a tourist attraction

Many of us know Sonoma as a destination for its scenic views and stunning wines. More than just wine country, however, it has consistently drawn visitors, and at one point even tied with Disneyland as one of California’s most popular tourist destinations. However, little known to most, Sonoma’s success is largely due to the small town of Asti and the man who founded it: Andrea Sbarboro.

Credit: Sonoma County Library

As published by the University of California Press, Sbarboro first immigrated to America as a teenager and sought a way to provide sustainable work for his fellow Italians who had emigrated to San Francisco. In 1881, he found the answer in a small plot of land.

Located between Cloverdale and Healdsburg in Sonoma, Sbarboro named the new town Asti and laid the foundation for an agricultural community focused on growing vines. But as grape prices began to fall in 1887, Sbarboro was forced to change his business model and build a winery.

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Aptly named the Italian Swiss Colony, the winery quickly grew from a local farm to a high-performing facility that produced some of the most renowned wines in the state. Success led to larger orders and Sbarboro took on partners, including Pietro Rossi, a pharmacy graduate who helped grow the business as well as its wine portfolio.

This historic California wine once rivaled Disneyland as a tourist attraction.  Photo of the interior of the Swiss Italian colony.
Credit: Sonoma County Library

In 1905, Italian table wines from the Swiss colony were gaining recognition. Several of the wines had won medals in competitions locally and around the world. Business continued to boom, and just five years later the company had grown to such size that it owned over 5,000 acres in separate locations in California’s Central Valley.

After Prohibition, the Italian Swiss colony was acquired by Louis Petri from the San Francisco winery Petri wine, which made it a mainstream brand. In the early 1960s, the winery’s tourist offer began to flourish. With the help of branded postcards, print ads and TV commercials featuring workers in Italian Swiss uniforms, and the catchy jingle “the little old winemaker – me!” it has become a hotspot for those traveling the west coast.

By 1967, the Italian Swiss Colony had become Sonoma County’s main tourist attraction, attracting approximately 300,000 visitors annually. In the following years, the cellar will be anchored in American pop culture, with derivative songs like the “I’m a Little Ole Wine Drinker” by Dean Martin and an honorable mention in the hit movie “Fat.”

Napa’s wine scene had begun to garner international attention, thanks in large part to the Judgment of Paris blind tasting, shifting the spotlight from Sonoma to its neighbor. While Asti’s charm has lost some of its appeal, it is not forgotten. Today, the Italian Swiss colony is celebrated for its role in American wine history and its contribution to the growth of California’s wine tourism industry. Visitors are always welcome, and although the cellar is no longer in use, the buildings and tours remain a popular experience.

Keith P. Plain