Thursday, March 29, 2018

Glenn Alvin Smith and the Winemaking Years

Glenn Alvin Smith in his office

In my last two posts, I've quoted from my great-uncle William B. Ross' recollections of his in-laws, Glenn Alvin Smith and Genevieve Murray Smith. Glenn Alvin was an inventive and successful entrepreneur, who had already founded and closed two lucrative ventures, in wholesale jewelry and in oil exports to China. When those businesses lost their momentum, Glenn pivoted to a new endeavor. World War II was on the horizon, and this presented new challenges and opportunities. Here, I will continue to quote from the notes written by Bill Ross.

World War II broke out in 1939 in Europe, shipping lanes were in peril, and soon any remaining oil exporting ceased. So, Glenn was looking around for something new and this is how he became a success in the wine and brandy business. You might say he was just lucky in getting started, but he took full advantage of the opportunity.
Prohibition ended in the United States in December 1933. By 1939, Europe was sputtering into war and France was unable to ship its fine wines into the profitable American market. California wines were grown in the Napa-Sonoma region north of San Francisco, but were unknown nationally. The Cucamonga area east of Los Angeles was the other wine producer, but of lesser quality except for fortified wines and brandy. Dad Smith heard about the fine Chilean wine which could be imported via open sea lanes on the west coast and thought there was an opportunity. France and Italy, Spain and Portugal couldn't deliver and imported wines were preferred by the haute cuisine trade and in homes of the rich and famous. 
First, Dad found contacts in Chile who put him in touch with vintners and he began testing and tasting samples. He did a lot of reading on what made good table wines, and then began to blend various Chilean wines. To my uneducated taste, he put together some good mixtures and then put his own labels on them. I don't know where he found his distribution outlets but he began to sell some. This led him to buying a good supply of Chilean wines and putting them into a bonded warehouse. A bonded warehouse was one in which you could pay no liquor tax until you took the product out of bond. In other words, the alcohol tax people had the key and you didn't get product until you paid the tax on what was withdrawn for sale. So there he was, sitting on a big stock of Chilean wines when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. And because the U.S. Armed Forces needed alcohol for war purposes, the price of all alcoholic beverages soared... the good, the bad and the indifferent... and Glenn's stuff was good.
I will never forget December 7, 1941, the day that Franklin Delano Roosevelt said would "live in infamy." It was a day that would revive Glenn Smith's bankroll and give birth to the Del Norte brand of wines and a cognac-type brandy whose formula he himself perfected. But back to the "infamy/prosperity" day. Virginia and I took a drive into the San Fernando Valley that December 7. At 1 PM that day, when it was 10 AM in Honolulu, I turned on the car radio and heard all about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We rushed back to our home in View Heights, but stopped by Virginia's parents' home on the way. Dad Smith was in the kitchen pouring wine from a big bottle into a little one-- still working on his own wine blending. We told him about the bombing. He said that was ridiculous -- probably another Orson Welles radio play. We said that the White House had issued a statement. He said it was another Roosevelt trick. We went home, leaving him still unconvinced. Remember, we had no TV set to turn on and see the pictures of battleships and harbors and aircraft facilities in flames. Maybe Dad Smith went to be that night not realizing that a new business career for him was launched that day.
Del Norte was on its way, but Glenn Smith knew he couldn't depend upon Chilean suppliers alone. He quickly bought the Santa Nella vineyard and bottling house near Guerneville in Sonoma County from an Italian named Mario Barsotti1. Later, he leased the Cherpin Vineyards near Etiwanda in the Cucamonga region, and ultimately bought a warehouse on a railroad signing in nearby Alta Loma and installed a rectifying plant (type of distillery) to convert grape alcohol into his excellent Del Norte brandy.

The house on the property of the Santa Nella vineyard, now a bed & breakfast.

Dad Smith's son, Glenn Murray Smith, was an invaluable aid in those days. He and his wife LaVerne lived in a lovely home owned by the winery on the south bank of the Russian River-- complete with sandy beach and a dam downstream which created a swimming hold in front of the sandy beach and a dam downstream which created a swimming hole in front of the sandy beach. A good living, but plenty of work keeping up production with aging and somewhat obsolete equipment and a wartime shortage of labor. When the rectifying plant went into production, Glenn Murray was called from the idyllic life to manage brandy production at Alta Loma and live in Pomona. Son-in-law, Frank W. Doherty, handled all the legal contract problems and mandatory reports. My agency did magazine advertising, label and point-of-purchase design, publicity articles and promotional pieces. Working for Del Norte and Dad Smith guaranteed a wonderful "perk"-- a ready supply of good brandy and fine red and white wines. Scotch was unavailable, but brand and soda or water made a good substitute. 
In the Del Norte years, the producers of good California wines who guided the industry and won nation and international awards could be counted on the fingers of your hand -- possibly on the hands of a four-finger man. Herman Wente was the acknowledged leader in white wines and Louis Martini for reds. Add in Korbel, Beringer, Beaulieu, Christian Brothers-- that's all I can remember. But the important thing is that Glenn Smith became good friends of these people-- buying their grapes to blend with his wine, gathering information and supporting the concept of naming wines after the dominant variety rather than the old world practice of naming wines by regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, etc. His distinctive Del Norte Brandy couldn't be called cognac, because cognac is a region in France. But Dad Smith got around that with his advertising slogan: "Sip it slowly, the Cognac way." Hey, it was good stuff and carried in the better liquor stores. 
The war rolled on to its atomic-capped conclusion in August of 1945 and that capped the rise and led to the end of the Del Norte years. The big distillers moved into brandy production. Big advertising budgets soon dominated the wine markets, profit margins narrowed, and Glenn Smith withdrew from the market. He sold the Sonoma County vineyard at a handsome profit, I presume, for good wine properties were in short supply. He dropped his lease on the Cucamonga acreage and closed the Alta Loma plant. It had been a great ride, but it was over in his eyes. It is my opinion that Glenn Smith was an entrepreneur and not a marketer. He was a genius at searching and finding an import-export niche that yielded big bucks, and when it became too competitive he moved on to the next opportunity.

This part of Glenn Alvin Smith's story is particularly meaningful to me, as I now live not far from Santa Nella Bed & Breakfast, formerly my family's winery. I've taken my children there, and we've walked around the property and admired the vines growing on the adjacent hills, which are now the property of Korbel. While Glenn Alvin may have gotten into wine and liquor production strictly for the profit, it sparked a love of wine in some of our family members that continues today. I remember, as a preteen, my grandfather, Glenn Murray Smith, telling me how to read a wine label properly. It was years before I would need to use that skill, but it was a moment that is still special to me. My grandmother, Glenn Alvin's daughter-in-law, always told me that her years living in Forestville, while she and Glenn Murray tended to the Santa Nella vineyard, were some of the happiest of her life. She adored the big dinners with the local Italian families, and the beauty of their property on the Russian River. I loved sitting with her while she described that time, and watching her face light up with those happy memories.

I'm very thankful to my great-uncle Bill Ross for having written down these recollections of my great-grandparents. It's the best account we have of Glenn Alvin Smith's career and personality. In just ten pages, Bill helped pass on wonderful memories that my family will always treasure. It's another great reminder that writing about your ancestors is so important.

1 Mario Barsotti was born in 1878 in Italy. He arrived in California about 1909, where he established himself in the wine industry in Sonoma County. He is not to be confused with the Mario Barsotti who was a judge in San Francisco in the mid-1900s. Described at the time of his death in 1967 as a "retired winery operator and grocer," Mario sold the Santa Nella Winery to my great-grandfather, and then moved to San Rafael, where his lived in his later years.

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