100-year-old winery continues with 3rd owner

The owners of Morgan Hill Cellars, Maryclaire and Mike Sampognaro.

Morgan Hill Cellars is the oldest winery in our region and celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The winery was founded in 1913 by an Italian immigrant named Camillo Colombano who planted Barbera root stock brought over from Italy. From 1945 to 2006, the Pedrizzetti family owned and operated the winery. Changing hands for the third time in 2006, it is now owned by Mike and Maryclaire Sampognaro.

Mike and Maryclaire were only thinking of their grandchildren when they decided to purchase the winery. Their daughter’s family had outgrown their townhome and with the real estate market at an all-time high they were considering a move out of the area in order to buy a bigger, affordable home. Not wanting to be far from their grandchildren, Mike and Maryclaire searched for local property large enough for two homes where both families could live.

The Pedrizzetti property was 10 acres with two homes ready to move into. Although there were no longer any grapevines, the property included a winery complete with a grape crusher, 350,000 gallon capacity holding tanks and a 1,000 case-per-day bottling line. And best of all, there were experienced winemakers who wanted to stay.

At that time, Mike and Maryclaire were both working in high-tech – Mike as a software engineer and Maryclaire as a planner. Not knowing anything about the wine business, but ready for a change, they planned to replant a vineyard and make their own wine. They quickly discovered the long lag time – up to five years – between planting vines, harvesting and aging the wine to actually getting any of it into a bottle for sale. So, in addition to making their own wine, they took advantage of the large-capacity tanks and bottling line to process wine for other local wine growers.

The wine tasting room is gorgeous with two tasting bars and a gift shop adorned with hanging tapestries. The tasting menu is grouped into three categories of white, red and specialty wines. Maryclaire regaled me with fascinating stories about the different wines. The 2004 Petite Sirah was made by the Pedrizzettis – aging beautifully and still tasting fabulous. It’s named “La Fenice” (The Phoenix), in memory of a fire that destroyed the tasting room in 1996. The Blackberry Merlot is unique and probably the best seller – tasting of blackberry fruit up front and finishing with smooth Merlot flavors at the end. Another wine from the Pedrizzetti days is the Red Grape Wine with Natural Ginseng. The story goes that a Chinese doctor dropped off his “herbal” wine to be bottled and, mysteriously, never returned. And Henry’s Art Christmas Port, named after a prolific painter and cherished friend, is labeled with one of his holiday paintings.

When asked for recommendations, Maryclaire advises wedding planners to serve the Chardonnay and Zinfandel, both crowd pleasers. The 2009 Chardonnay is buttery with a creamy mouth-feel. The 2006 Zinfandel has a lot of nice fruit and a smooth finish.

The four different Port wines are wonderful: The Blue Label Port is full-bodied with hints of butterscotch; the Vino Rosso Dolce, also known as their “sweetheart wine,” is a little lighter and sweeter. For fruit wine lovers, there are 12 different kinds, including unusual ones such as pear, peach, cherry and marionberry.

Outside the tasting room is a beautiful patio covered in grape vines – perfect for a picnic or special celebration.

Morgan Hill Cellars is one of the few wineries that do not charge a tasting fee.

“The cost of tasting is a smile,” Maryclaire said. “All the reviews about us talk about how friendly and unpretentious we are. We want people to relax and be comfortable here.”

Lisa Duarte, who pours in the tasting room, is well-known for her fun and entertaining stories.

Just a few miles from downtown, Morgan Hill Cellars is open every day except Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Stop by for a bit of history, some relaxation and enjoy the fabulous wine. And, remember to raise a toast to the grandchildren that gave Mike and Maryclaire a reason to carry on the 100-year tradition of quality winemaking.

Bev Stenehjem is a wine columnist for South Valley Newspapers. Reach her at [email protected]

• Through June: Solis Winery, $5 wines by the glass for selected tasting list wines.
• Two-For-Tuesdays: Gugilielmo’s – every Tuesday, offering two-for-one tasting fees and two-for-one wine (buy one, get one of equal or lesser value free). Limit two bottles.
• Wednesdays, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.: Guglielmo Winery – Vines & Vibes (live music in the vineyard), bring a picnic or purchase food there.
• Every Thursday through Sept. 26: Time for Wine Music Series at Clos LaChance, 5:30 to 9 p.m.
• Every Friday through Sept. 20: Sarah’s Soirees at Sarah’s Vineyard with live acoustic music, wine and catered food for sale, 6 to 9 p.m.  
• Saturday, June 15: Library Wine tasting at De Rose Winery, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. $25/pp includes wine and food pairings.
• Friday, June 21: Fortino Winery: Music in the Vineyard, 6:30 to 10 p.m., $5 advance tickets/$10 at the door.
• Friday, June 21: Clos LaChance and KRTY Event with Bret Eldredge and Joe Nichols. 6 to 9:30 p.m. Tickets $25.
• Saturday, June 22: Concours at Kirigin Valley, Kirigin Cellars, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• Friday, June 28: Groovin in the Grove at Leal Vineyards, 6 to 10 p.m.
• Saturday, June 29: Wine tasting class: Bev Stenehjem will be pouring Jason-Stephen’s wines paired with Chef Calisi’s appetizers at Odeum Restaurant, 2 to 4 p.m. To register, call (408) 852-2801.
• Saturday, June 29: Silicon Valley Wine Escape, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Campbell Community Center, Campbell. Grand Escape Tasting – $50 or VIP Tasting – $75, seminar, food and wine. Details: siliconvalley
• Saturday, June 29: Notte Italiana, four-course dinner and Italian tenor, Pasquale Esposito, Leal Winery at Willow Heights Mansion in Morgan Hill, 6 to 9 p.m. Details: (831) 636-1023.
• Thursday, July 11: Solis Winery, Winemaker’s Dinner at The Westside Grill (Gilroy), 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.