Bottle #8: Italian Swiss Colony Tipo

Feb 22, 2023

This tiny bottle of wine is definitely one of the most interesting bottles I’ve found so far. I had done a tiny bit of research on it prior to the reveal video, and actually got a few things wrong. But now that I’ve had time to dig into it in depth – wow, what a bottle!

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When I first saw it, I thought “oh cool, a mini bottle of Chianti from Italy.” But it ended up being so much more than that. First off, it’s not just a bottle. It’s also a salt or pepper shaker. Or at least, could be once you’d finished the wine. What I’d taken to be just decoration on the cap are actually holes. Want one of your own? There are tons available on Ebay.

Also, it’s not from Italy. The Italian Swiss Colony was founded by Andrea Sbarbaro in Sonoma County, California in 1881 as an agricultural cooperative, with immigrants of Italian or Swiss descent invited to join and grow grapes. But when prices for grapes themselves dropped, they turned to winemaking in 1887. The winery was a tourist attraction nearly from the start, and included an underground stone wine cistern with a capacity of 500,000 gallons built in 1897, where a three night long party complete with band was held in 1898. During Prohibition they took advantage of a loophole that allowed them to make sacramental wine for churches, which gave them a head start after Repeal. By 1937 they were California’s largest table wine producer, and they remained a major player in terms of volume well into the 60s.

Their most famous wine was the one that’s in my tiny bottle, the Tipo Chianti. At the time, no one was talking about varietals, the way we talk about wine today. American wine producers sold giant jugs of things like Burgundy and Chianti – names that are now reserved for wines from specific regions of France and Italy respectively.

What is perhaps most notable and memorable about the brand was not what was in the bottles, but the way they marketed it. In what seems incredibly hokey by today’s standards, the leaned hard into their name, with postcards and commercials and a winery featuring workers wearing lederhosen and dirndls. Their commercial jingle included the yodeled line, “Little ol’ winemaker me” which spawned a Dean Martin tribute/parody song. But this was the 1950’s and 60’s, and it worked, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the winery each year. By 1967 it was one of the most popular tourist attractions in California, second only to Disneyland!

The brand changed hands a few times beginning in 1950s and was successful for years, shipping tankers of wine to be bottled in New York. But in the 1970s, following the famous Judgement of Paris competition where California wine from Napa bested those of France, the focus of California wine shifted to sleeker winemakers. By the late 1980s production at the site had ceased, although it came back to life in the early 2000’s as Cellar No 8 (who seemed only to be around long enough to be featured in this great video with lots of pictures and information about the historic winery). Now it’s owned by E&J Gallo, who purchased it in 2015. The old winery is a registered historic landmark, and while I haven’t been able to tell if it’s still visitable, I did find a nice photo essay about it online.

As for my bottle, I’m not sure when to date it from. The bottom of the bottle does have the number 67, which could be a year and would make sense, as that was at the peak of the winery’s popularity as a tourist attraction. But that’s at least a few years before we think Grandma started collecting bottles. Numbers embossed on bottles only tell you when the bottle was made, not the liquid in it, so it could be later than that if they ordered a whole bunch in ‘67. And I have no idea where it came from. Were these novelty minis only available at the winery, or could you buy them other places? Whatever the actual date, chances are pretty good that it’s at least a 50-year-old bottle of a wine that wasn’t good in the first place, and certainly won’t have gotten any better over the decades!

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Bottle #8: Italian Swiss Colony Tipo

Feb 22, 2023 |

This tiny bottle of wine is definitely one of the most interesting bottles I’ve found so far. I had done a tiny bit of research on it prior to the reveal video, and actually got a few things wrong. But now that I’ve had time to dig into it in depth – wow, what a bottle!

When I first saw it, I thought “oh cool, a mini bottle of Chianti from Italy.” But it ended up being so much more than that. First off, it’s not just a bottle. It’s also a salt or pepper shaker. Or at least, could be once you’d finished the wine. What I’d taken to be just decoration on the cap are actually holes. Want one of your own? There are tons available on Ebay.

Also, it’s not from Italy. The Italian Swiss Colony was founded by Andrea Sbarbaro in Sonoma County, California in 1881 as an agricultural cooperative, with immigrants of Italian or Swiss descent invited to join and grow grapes. But when prices for grapes themselves dropped, they turned to winemaking in 1887. The winery was a tourist attraction nearly from the start, and included an underground stone wine cistern with a capacity of 500,000 gallons built in 1897, where a three night long party complete with band was held in 1898. During Prohibition they took advantage of a loophole that allowed them to make sacramental wine for churches, which gave them a head start after Repeal. By 1937 they were California’s largest table wine producer, and they remained a major player in terms of volume well into the 60s.

Their most famous wine was the one that’s in my tiny bottle, the Tipo Chianti. At the time, no one was talking about varietals, the way we talk about wine today. American wine producers sold giant jugs of things like Burgundy and Chianti – names that are now reserved for wines from specific regions of France and Italy respectively.

What is perhaps most notable and memorable about the brand was not what was in the bottles, but the way they marketed it. In what seems incredibly hokey by today’s standards, the leaned hard into their name, with postcards and commercials and a winery featuring workers wearing lederhosen and dirndls. Their commercial jingle included the yodeled line, “Little ol’ winemaker me” which spawned a Dean Martin tribute/parody song. But this was the 1950’s and 60’s, and it worked, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the winery each year. By 1967 it was one of the most popular tourist attractions in California, second only to Disneyland!

The brand changed hands a few times beginning in 1950s and was successful for years, shipping tankers of wine to be bottled in New York. But in the 1970s, following the famous Judgement of Paris competition where California wine from Napa bested those of France, the focus of California wine shifted to sleeker winemakers. By the late 1980s production at the site had ceased, although it came back to life in the early 2000’s as Cellar No 8 (who seemed only to be around long enough to be featured in this great video with lots of pictures and information about the historic winery). Now it’s owned by E&J Gallo, who purchased it in 2015. The old winery is a registered historic landmark, and while I haven’t been able to tell if it’s still visitable, I did find a nice photo essay about it online.

As for my bottle, I’m not sure when to date it from. The bottom of the bottle does have the number 67, which could be a year and would make sense, as that was at the peak of the winery’s popularity as a tourist attraction. But that’s at least a few years before we think Grandma started collecting bottles. Numbers embossed on bottles only tell you when the bottle was made, not the liquid in it, so it could be later than that if they ordered a whole bunch in ‘67. And I have no idea where it came from. Were these novelty minis only available at the winery, or could you buy them other places? Whatever the actual date, chances are pretty good that it’s at least a 50-year-old bottle of a wine that wasn’t good in the first place, and certainly won’t have gotten any better over the decades!

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