Italian Swiss Colony
Why write about a troubled, defunct company? The history of wine in the USA is part of the history of me, Marc Curtis. United Vintners of San Francisco has its roots in the depths of California wine. In the summer of 1966 I was offered a two-week job by one of my father’s old Army buddies who was a sales manager at United Vintners. I was only 15, and the job was originally offered to my sister, but she was locked in to her Candy Striper volunteer work which eventually led her to a long career in nursing.
It was a lucky break for me…my very first real minimum wage job ($1.30/hour in 1966, $9.58 adjusted for inflation in 2016). I took over a desk and for the next two weeks, I audited the field sales representatives. Some of them were double-billing the company, and it was my duty as Sherlock Holmes to catch them in the act. More on Sherlock later! I was good, and caught more criminals in my two weeks than the regular auditor caught in his career. I can safely say that, because he has long-since passed.
The history of United Vintners, Petri Wines, and Allied Grape Growers is extensive. This page provides a quick look at this historic wine business. I’ve also provided some links for more information.
Crane Lake Wines
Petri Wines Ad
Petri Wine takes its name from the founder of the winery, Raphael Petri. He opened the Petri Wine Company in the San Joaquin Valley in 1886. Petri expanded operations by purchasing another vineyard in Escalon North of Modesto and close to the main winery in 1916. In 1935 Louis A. Petri, the grandson of Raphael, left school where he was studying medicine to work with his family. In 1939 Petri Wines became a sponsor of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and had a robust lineup of wines ranging from red, white, rose, sparkling, aperitif and dessert wines. Two years before Petri canceled sponsorship of the program Louis Petri became President of the company and that’s when Petri Wines started on its way to becoming one of the biggest wineries in the United States.
After purchasing the Tulare Wine Company and Mission Bell Winery Petri became the third largest winery in California. Louis Petri continued to grow the company by forming Allied Grape Growers and creating another company called United Vintners which Petri Wines became a part of. United Vintners then sold their wineries to the Allied Grape Growers.
More information at Media Heritage
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Sherlock Holmes Radio
After Heublein took control of United Vintners, most of the sales and marketing staff, which had been responsible for United Vintners success, was dismissed and replaced. Wine sales began to decline for a number of reasons, with a corresponding decline in grape requirements. The Italian Swiss Colony label and the “Little Old Winemaker,” the bulwark of United Vintner’s sales, were dropped and never used again. A series of merger disagreements lead to numerous contract disputes during the next decade. Heublein’s failure to adhere to the requirements stated in the supply contract, while simultaneously authorizing United Vintners to buy non-Allied member grapes in the market place, led to tension between the parties.
Fearing a boycott of their Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, Heublein applied tremendous pressure on Allied’s 1,600 members to contract with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union to harvest all of their grapes. When Allied’s board and members resisted this action, a series of adversarial meetings ensued between Allied growers and Heublein representatives. Suits and countersuits dominated the next several years.
In 2003 Bronco Wine Company purchased the Escalon site where Petri first expanded in 1916. The Bronco Wine Company owns more than 60 brands of wine like Charles Shaw ($2 buck chuck to Trader Joe’s shoppers) and Crane Lake. So if you’re feeling like a glass of Petri Wine, you may have already drank something close to it without knowing it.
More information from Media Heritage
As promised, more about the Sherlock Holmes connection. In 1939 Petri Wines became a sponsor of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and had a robust lineup of wines ranging from red, white, rose, sparkling, aperitif and dessert wines. Two years before Petri canceled sponsorship of the program Louis Petri became President of the company and that’s when Petri Wines started on its way to becoming one of the biggest wineries in the United States. Listen to the first minute of the Sherlock Holmes radio show to hear the Petri Wines commercial.
On the right is an old-time favorite commercial from Italian Swiss Colony with “That little old winemaker.”
For a more in-depth look at United Vintners and Petri Wines pick up a copy of “A History of Wine in America”
Also available is a PDF document about Allied Grape Growers and United Vintners history