a two-story stone building with sloping roof and red barn door amid trees and overgrowth
The old Monte Rosso Winery building in Sonoma is set for demolition.

End of line for historic Sonoma winery building with Jewish past?

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

On an isolated, tree-shaded tract in the hills above the Sonoma Valley, the Monte Rosso winery has sat for more than 100 years.

But not for much longer. Vineyard owners at E. & J. Gallo Winery plan to raze the historic building, built in 1886 by Jewish father and son winemakers Emmanuel and William Goldstein. The building was damaged in a 2014 earthquake, a 6.0 jolt that cracked buildings throughout the winemaking region.

A statement from E. & J. Gallo to J. said, “The Monte Rosso winery building was severely damaged in the 2014 Napa earthquake. As a result the building has been deemed structurally unsafe.”

But locals are sad to see this piece of Jewish history disappear.

“There was Jewish presence from the pioneer days back to the Gold Rush,” said Rabbi Steve Finley of Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma. “Not to acknowledge it is to wipe out our history. And that’s been done enough.”

Emmanuel Goldstein, a San Francisco grocery magnate, and his son, William, bought the land in 1880. Together with Benjamin Dreyfus, who was an experienced grower from Southern California, they planted some of the vines that still grow there today, naming the plot Mount Pisgah.

“It was even [later] called Peak Mountain from the original Hebrew,” Finley said.

The Goldsteins built the winery building 133 years ago. Set on a hill, it used the then-cutting-edge gravity method, in which grapes were crushed on the highest level, the juice drained to the next level, where it was fermented, and then the liquid put into barrels on the next level down.

The Goldstein Ranch property was sold in 1938 to Louis Martini, who changed the vineyard’s name to Monte Rosso for the hill’s red soil. Gallo bought the Martini name and properties in 2002.

The unused winery building, made of local stone, experienced extensive damage in the 2014 earthquake, according to a report commissioned by Gallo. Walls cracked, floors buckled and columns split. An examination that same year by structural engineers found that repairing it would be too expensive, the Gallo report said. So it’s set for demolition.

But it’s not a simple process. According to a Sonoma County spokesperson, the building is not only close to a stream, where the demolition would have environmental impacts, but because of the age and historical significance of the building, California environmental regulations require that the destruction be “mitigated” by documenting it as a historical resource.

The report produced by Gallo is part of that process, but more may need to be done.

“We are currently working on next steps with the county to best address safety, erosion and [stream and land interactivity] concerns while being mindful of the building’s historic significance,” Gallo’s statement to J. said.

Although the winery has been long shut, the vineyard lives on. Some of the original zinfandel and semillon vines are still producing, and with their distinctive taste, due to the iron-rich soil, they are in demand.

That’s how winemaker Ernie Weir, founder and operator of Hagafen Cellars in the Napa Valley, knows the vineyard. For a while, he used Monte Rosso grapes for their high acidity, and he knew it had history.

Weir, who opened his winery 40 years ago, said every once in a while he runs into historic Jewish elements in the region, which these days boasts a number of Jewish vintners and winery owners.

“I heard that it has a connection to Goldstein, so my ears perked up,” he said.

Other vineyards still buy grapes from Monte Rosso, including Mount Peak winery, which makes three wines with grapes from Monte Rosso and even references the 1880s building in its marketing: It says it is “inspired by a vestige of one of California’s ghost wineries.”

But that “ghost” might not be haunting Sonoma for much longer.

Though the grapes live on, the winery itself remains in real danger of becoming no more than a memory once it is removed from the map of wine country — and Jewish — history. And that, said Barbara Insel, wine industry research consultant and board member at Shir Shalom, is a shame for today’s generation.

“The message from our teens is how isolated they feel in Sonoma, how few Jewish people there are. Members of [Shir Shalom] say the only Jewish people they know are part of CSS,” she said in an email to J. “Yet there is this long Jewish history.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.