There’s a joke commonly repeated in northern California that goes like this: What does it take to make a small fortune in wine country? The answer: A large fortune. While I have a hard time believing that the people and companies behind the multimillion-dollar wineries of Napa and Sonoma are running these businesses out of the goodness of their hearts, there is some truth in the saying. A peek into the backgrounds of a few winery proprietors proves that some of the biggest names in American business are behind places to swirl and sip—and ventured into winemaking after they made their fortunes. Read on and see if they sound familiar to you.
Driving up to Sonoma from San Francisco it’s impossible not to notice the construction and sign announcing the future home of Jacuzzi Family Vineyards. Yes, it’s the latest endeavor of the family that became a household name with their bubbling bathtubs. If only they combined their new business with their last. Who wouldn’t love a winery where you can taste wine while lounging in a hot percolating bath—especially if it were open after hours when you could gaze at the night sky? (24737 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 707-940.4031, www.jacuzziwines.com)
Keep on rockin’ down the highway into Sonoma Valley’s Glen Ellen and you’ll bump into B.R. Cohn Winery. The owner’s name may not be familiar, but his work is. As the longtime manager of the Doobie Brothers he not only makes yummy Cab and Merlot, but also hosts an annual charity concert and golf tournament each fall. (15000 Sonoma Highway, 800-330-4064, www.brcohn.com).
Shuffle eastward to Napa Valley and you can find another iconic American family pressing grape juice. Swanson Vineyards is indeed the next generation of the same family behind the ever-popular frozen dinner brand, which they sold years ago. Now, rather than beef stroganoff they are known for Merlot, a Cabernet-blend, and whimsical-chic hospitality. (1271 Manley Lane, Rutherford, 707-967-3500, www.swansonvineyards.com)
Nearby Rubicon Estate is a historic gem of a winery. Previously known as Niebaum-Coppola—as in Francis Ford Coppola—it is still owned by the famous director behind such classics as Apocolypse Now and The Godfather trilogy. Not surprisingly, he brings drama to the wine tasting experience with private tours, tastings of his varied bottlings, and grounds and buildings that are unparalleled in their beauty and grandeur. (1991 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville, 800-782-5266, www.rubiconestate.com)
To the south, tucked on a quiet side road between Napa’s main thoroughfares Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail is Andretti Winery, which as you might surmise was founded by famed racecar driver Mario Andretti—in partnership with Joseph E. Antonini, then president and CEO of Kmart. Within the Tuscan villa-style setting you’ll find affordable wines and a lovely relaxed atmosphere. (4162 Big Ranch Road, Napa, 707-259-6777, www.andrettiwinery.com)