Joe Rochioli Jr., pioneer Pinot winemaker in the Russian River Valley, dies at 88

Joe Rochioli Jr., the Russian River Valley winemaker and winemaker who played a pioneering role in making the region synonymous with premium Pinot Noir, died Thursday at age 88.

Rochioli Jr. had a stroke in September 2020 and has been in and out of hospital since then. He died of kidney failure, according to his son, Tom Rochioli.

“He was an old badass,” his son said. “He survived COVID and was almost asymptomatic. He had a good run. »

Today, Rochioli’s coveted wines are considered by many to have cult status, and Rochioli Jr. is recognized as one of the founding fathers of viticulture in the Russian River Valley.

“He (Joe Jr.) was a visionary ahead of his time,” said Nancy Bailey, general manager of Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery, which is celebrating its 40th year of buying Rochioli fruit.

“Joe Jr. was one of the first to plant pinot noir in the Russian River Valley, long before anyone was talking about pinot noir,” Bailey said. “He was absolutely an icon and always will be. Sonoma County owes him a lot.

Rochioli Jr. grew up on a ranch on Westside Road in Healdsburg, where he returned after college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a stint in the U.S. Army to farm in 1959.

He moved away from French Colombard, a white grape grown on the ranch, to focus on Pinot Noir with his first plantings in 1968. He led the family to create their eponymous label in 1985, with Pinot Noir the varietal cellar lighthouse.

The undertaking was twofold: of the 128 acres of the ranch, 80 are planted with Pinot Noir and 55 of these acres are reserved for Rochioli wines.

The remaining 25 acres of pinot noir are being scooped up by well-known Russian River Valley wineries like Gary Farrell, Williams Selyem Winery and Holdredge Wines, with a waiting list of growers looking for the most prized grapes.

Davis Bynum was one of Rochioli’s first clients, according to his son Tom Rochioli. Its 1973 bottling had Russian River on its label, a decade before the Russian River Valley became a designated U.S. wine-growing area. In the mid-1970s, the winery added Rochioli to the label.

In 1985, when Williams Selyem put Rochioli on his label, “it catapulted us to fame,” said Tom Rochioli. “The quality of the grapes was so high that it helped make (Williams Selyem) a celebrity.”

Rochioli Jr. has been recognized for championing small yields and higher quality grapes. He received the Copia Wine Grower of the Year Award in 2003.

“My father had farming practices that brought out the best in the field and the grapes,” said Tom Rochioli. “Consistency is key.”

Born in 1934 at the height of the Depression, Joe Rochioli Jr.’s family spoke Italian at home, so he understood little English when he started school at age 6. By age 8, he was pruning vines and by age 12 he was lifting 60-pound bags of hops, which his ranch was initially known to grow.

As a freshman at Healdsburg High School, he was 6 feet tall and weighed 160 pounds, and he earned his place on the football team, where he would become a star player on both offense and defense. He also played on the baseball team.

In high school, Rochioli Jr. helped organize the first Future Farmer Fair in Healdsburg and later majored in animal husbandry at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. His interest in grapes was piqued when he took agricultural courses.

He played semi-pro baseball for the Healdsburg Prune Packers during college summers. In 1957 he was drafted into the US Army and was discharged in 1959.

He married Ernestine Reiman in 1956 and the couple had two children. They divorced in 1972.

At the ranch, he worked six days a week, 10 hours a day, including as his own mechanic.

“He used to build his own equipment,” said Tom Rochioli. “He built bins for picking, tanks to transport the grapes on the back of a truck and cane cutters for working the fields. He was a classic farmer, the son of an immigrant.

“Pioneers like him don’t come so often. It takes passion and hard work. He was by far the hardest working guy I have ever known,” his son added.

Tom Rochioli, who joined his father in the vineyards aged 7, is now at the helm of the family wine business, where he says his father’s legacy lives on.

“He was a perfectionist and I’m even worse,” said Tom Rochioli. “It’s still in me. I am like him. I believe that with hard work, good things happen.

Besides his son Tom Rochioli, Rochioli Jr. is survived by his wife, Vivienne Rochioli; daughter, Becky Richardson; and Vivienne’s three children, daughter Laurie Brendlinger; his daughter Sue Maddigan and son Tracy Tillinghast; and by 11 grandchildren.

Services are held Sept. 7 at St. John’s Church in Healdsburg, with visitation at 9 a.m. and mass at 11 a.m.

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at [email protected] or 707-521-5310.

Elisha A. Tilghman