30+ years as told in conversation with President Mike Tierney
The story begins on Taft Street in the Rockridge area of Oakland, not far from the University of California at Berkeley. My brother John was an undergraduate at Cal and I was a grad student. We both were cooking part time in Berkeley restaurants and became intrigued with the developing food and wine scene. We started making wine and John proved his talents early on. He soon made wine not only for himself but for a rapidly growing fan club of family and friends. His efforts during this time earned him a BEST OF SHOW AWARD at the California State Fair – the state’s highest honor for a home winemaker.
At that time in Berkeley there was an amazing business called Wine and the People. Located on University Avenue in an old warehouse, owner Peter Brehm searched vineyard areas all over California and beyond for quality grapes for home winemakers. John took a job there when Wine and the People began importing winemaking equipment from Europe for small wineries and serious amateurs. Eventually Wine and the People became a winery with John as winemaker. It was there John met fellow employee Mike Martini, original Taft Street partner and later mayor and city council member of Santa Rosa.
Meanwhile, back at Taft Street things were jumping. Since our house was built in 1918 and the garage could no longer comfortably fit a car, we turned it into something infinitely more useful – a winery. We added wiring, a new layer of concrete, and we even included an air-conditioned area for cold stabilizing white wines. Barrels, stainless tanks, a basket press and hand corker completed the scene. By the late 1970’s, we were making up to 1000 gallons. With a little quality control and an ever growing following who loved the wine, the house and garage on Taft Street gained a reputation of its own.
Such a reputation had our next-door neighbor (an early to bed kind of guy) complaining to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). He asserted we were illegally making alcohol. I got a call from an agent telling me she would be out the next day to investigate the complaint. A law left over from Prohibition states a family can make up to 200 gallons of wine a year for home consumption. We were able to satisfy the agent that more than five families were involved in making wine and we were well within the law. An interesting aside is that several years later when we received our government bond, it was the very same agent who gave the ok.
The fun continued throughout the 1970′s and dreams began to form about making Taft Street Garage a commercial enterprise. We had everything but money. John and Mike Martini were not getting rich working at Wine and the People; my brother in law Arleigh Sanderson and I were not getting rich teaching school; and my brother Marty was not getting rich enough practicing law. I did, however, have a friend who was not only successful in business but also had a hand in a few start-ups. Andy Barlett became our first president, with the five of us mentioned above as vice presidents.
We would be a boutique winery making small lots of handcrafted wines. We would continue what we had started in the garage, but since we were now a high-class organization we dropped “Garage” from our name. John and Mike Martini were put on the payroll immediately. They began a search for a winery site in Sonoma County, where my brothers and I had spent our summers as kids and felt a close affinity to the Russian River area. We found a warehouse space in the sleepy town of Forestville and moved in early in 1982, just in time for that year’s harvest.