Wine pioneer Alfred Fromm, S.F. philanthropist, dies at 93

As a young man, Alfred Fromm helped bring 37 family members from Nazi Germany to safety in the United States. Fifty years later, the internationally known wine industry leader was a major donor to the campaign to help resettle Jews from the former Soviet Union in Israel.

"He saved a lot of Jewish lives, personally, as well as in a collective way," said his son-in-law Rabbi Brian Lurie.

The dedicated philanthropist, who made both Christian Brothers and Paul Masson wineries household names, died at his San Francisco home July 2. He was 93.

But San Francisco may remember Fromm best for founding, together with his wife Hanna, the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco. The program of daytime university courses engages emeritus professors to teach retired people over age 50 and now has a student body of more than 950.

For establishing the school, the Fromms were granted an honorary degree of doctor of public service by USF in 1979. That year, they established a USF sister program, the Fromm Institute, at the Hebrew University.

"He was truly committed to Israel," Lurie said.

Born in 1905 in Kitzingen, Bavaria, Fromm was the fourth generation of a family of vintners. He got involved in the business as a teenager. After a three-year apprenticeship, he joined his family's firm, N. Fromm, and by 1930 was their export manager, traveling abroad extensively for the sale of the firm's wine.

In 1936, he married Hanna Gruenbaum, anticipating a conventional life and career. As the politics of Germany changed, however, so did Fromm's life. The couple moved to this country and found backers to help the rest of the family immigrate here.

In California, he founded Fromm and Sichel Inc., which as worldwide distributors of Christian Brothers wine and brandy, became one of America's largest distributors of fine wines.

While deeply involved in the wine industry, he found time to dedicate himself to numerous charitable and civic causes. Among many involvements, he served as director of the San Francisco Opera Association and as a trustee of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

He founded the Wine Museum of San Francisco, co-founded the Jewish Museum San Francisco and was an ardent supporter of the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley.

"He had a particular interest in Jewish art and culture," Lurie said. "He would say `man does not live by bread alone. Art and culture makes one's life richer, better.'"

A member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, he also served on the board of the Jewish National Fund.

"He was just a truly wonderful, great man," Lurie said. "What he did for anyone who came to see him was make them feel important, worthy. You left his presence feeling blessed."

Fromm, in his autobiography, wrote that three things were important to incorporate into daily life: "the importance of learning, strong family bonds and charity."

"By his own measure, Alfred Fromm led just such a good life," said Robert Fordham, director of the Fromm Institute. "He embodied those precepts he espoused."

Fromm is survived by his wife and two children, David Fromm and Caroline Fromm-Lurie. He is also survived by five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A private memorial service for Fromm was held Sunday. The family asks that contributions be made to the Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton St., S.F., CA 94117, or the charity of one's choice.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.