Louis J. Foppiano

The Lou Everyone Knew

Louis J. Foppiano, patriarch of Sonoma County’s oldest winemaking family and a man of firm ethics, never forgot his humble roots growing up in Healdsburg, California. He dedicated his life to farming his Russian River Valley vineyard, and promoting quality grapes. In the process, he became a wine industry legend. Foppiano was a founding member of the Wine Institute, and remained a director for 45 years. In 1942, he also was a founding member of the Sonoma County Wine Growers Association. When this group was created, there were only 14 wine companies in Sonoma County.

He was one of the wine industry’s great pioneers. Although he was well known for being a tough businessman, he was also known for being just and fair in all of his dealings. His word was trusted and respected. His accomplishments were great, not only for Russian River Valley, but also for the industry at large. His passing is a huge loss to the industry’s thinning number of old-time iconoclasts, who have helped to put the California wine industry on the worldwide, global map.

Foppiano was born November 25, 1911, Healdsburg, California, in what serves the company today as their administrative offices. His grandfather, Giovanni Foppiano, immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York from Genoa, Italy, and traveled to California by way of Panama looking for gold. In 1864, Giovanni settled in Healdsburg, California. His son, Louis A. Foppiano was born in 1877 (father of Louis J.). Louis A. married Mathilda, the sister of one of his North Beach customers after three “arranged” dates. When Louis A. passed away in 1925, Louis J. inherited the responsibility of managing the family winery. (Doing the math, that was at age 14.) In 1937, after the repeal of prohibition, Louis J. rebuilt the winery from the ground up, and Foppiano Wine Company became one of the first Sonoma County wineries to bottle wine under its own winery label.

A longtime member of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Healdsburg, Lou is survived by his son, Louis M. Foppiano, and daughter, Susan Foppiano Valera. He also is survived by four grandchildren ~ Paul Foppiano (Rod’s son), Gina (Rod’s daughter), James and Joseph Valera (Susan’s sons) ~ and two great granddaughters (Gianna Ann Foppiano, Paul’s daughter and Joy Marie Hocker, Gina’s daughter). Lou’s son Rod Foppiano passed away in 1984 of leukemia.

Lou and Toby

The Lou I Knew

I spent eight years as the family’s publicist. That ended a couple of years ago, when the current administration took over the reins. My time with Lou Senior was when he was in his 90s. Imagine having a 90 year old client. It was a blast. It was the Foppianos who taught me everything I needed to know about Petite Sirah, and blessed my starting the Petite Sirah advocacy group called PS I Love You. The Foppianos’ first vintage of Petite Sirah was a 1967 vintage. They led Sonoma County with the first county Petite Sirah. (Concannon Vineyard had the first released Petite in 1964. It didn’t take Lou long to realize this was a great way to go with his Petysarah…)

I loved calling him Lou Senior, even though there’s no Lou Senior, nor Lou Junior: Senior is Louis J., and his son is Louis M..

Lou went by “Lou” and Louis goes by “Louis,” for those who know them pretty well.

At first, Senior was in the office every day, 90s be damned. (He’d like that I just wrote that “be damned” part for him; although, I’m not sure he’d like it coming from a woman… Those are his words and I’m channeling.) He had a great habit, that only a farmer of the old world would develop. The winery had a huge desk calendar that showed the date by monthly activities. Each day, he’d go to the calendar and write the daily weather. This was how he could track the weather for each vintage. Brilliant…

The memories of a man who could be endearing, and even sometime volatile…

I only saw him explode once; and it let me know that Lou knew how to stand his ground, when the time called for it. I’m thankful that it was only once. That was enough. He could be tough as nails. He could also be pretty charming in his ways.

The other 99.99 percent of my time with Lou was enlightening, from this freedom-loving, adventurous man, who had a whole period of flying around with his friend Walter Varney.  Walter was the founder of Varney Flying Service and Varney Air Group, the predecessor of United Airlines and Continental Airlines. Louis (M) just told me that Varney was like a second father to Senior. Lou actually spent a couple of winters with Varney in 1928 and 1929 in Palm Springs. I remember him talking about Walter Varney, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Walter would let Senior drive his Duesenberg SJ, and they’d rip it up at 130 miles an hour joy riding. Why am I not surprised?

Another vehicle story was his red truck, the one in this picture of him with his faithful companion Toby. During Toby’s life, they were inseparable… Red truck saying it all, as we all know the psychology of car colors… Lou’s truck was his lifeline in the early 2000s. When he first got it, it was all bright and shiny. Then, the dents began to happen ~ a dent here, a dent there. The family had taken him off the main road (Old Redwood Highway). But he had a clear path off the road from his house to the winery, a few rows of vines down toward the river… and I’m not sure how many end poles for vines he bumped along the way, but he did meet with a few obstacles. He’d try to hide it from his family, but his paint jobs just really didn’t cut it.

My last favorite story of Lou was at the Second Annual Petite Sirah Symposium. At the first one, the late Steve Pitcher has been present and wrote a quintessential story about Petite Sirah, after that importation day for PS. It was so amazing, in fact, that at the second Symposium, Steve was going to be thanked for the story. Senior was uncharacteristically cool to me, to everyone in fact, and then I overheard him talking to people at his table. He was grumbling that his son had been in that story. I heard him say, “I built this G.D. winery!” Oh my God… I went right over to him, bent down and said in his ear, “You be quiet. This isn’t the time for this. Let Louis have his moment. I have something much better for you,… like Wine Spectator.” And, I was very firm. Probably as firm as his mother had been with him for so many years. He just stopped, like he hadn’t even been upset. I had hit the nerve I needed to hit.

Whew, “I thought, “dodged that bullet.” But now, what the heck was I going to do? No one can make promises like that and keep them. Within a month’s time, on the very last page of Wine Spectator, there was a vintner profile – full page with a wonderful image – of Louis J. Foppiano, and a very poignant short story by Tim Fish. I couldn’t believe it!

Are you kidding me?

I emailed Tim and told him my story, also thanking him for saving my life with Senior. Tim said, nonchalantly, “Some things just happen.” And, so they did.

When I brought the magazine to Senior, he just looked at it and must have thought that I knew more than I really did. I didn’t mess with a good thing. Never before and never again will I pull that card. It was just one of those things that perhaps divine intervention gave me the right words, words that were so needed to quell the flames of passion form this mighty man of wine.

Happy trails, Senior. No one can say that you didn’t do it all. RIP… November 25, 1911 – March 23, 2012.




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