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Topolos Winery - Sonoma County

Topolos Winery Traces Success to it's Roots

It is said that in the mid 1800’s, a Hungarian immigrant named Agoston Haraszthy established the wine industry in California by bringing in thousands of vine cuttings of numerous varietals from Europe. He planted over 300 acres of vineyards and founded one of the first wineries in California, Buena Vista. It is also said by some accounts that Haraszthy was the first to introduce Zinfandel to the new world. We tell you this bit of history because it is from Haraszthy’s Buena Vista Winery that Michael and Jerry Topolos acquired rootstock to produce their outstanding Zinfandel wines. This, as they say, is the rest of the story.

The saga began in 1972 when the Topolos brothers cleared 26 acres of a Sonoma county property they had just bought, and planted 5 acres of Zinfandel using these cuttings from Buena Vista’s vines. It was the culmination of a goal set six years earlier when Michael Topolos first moved to Sonoma. Ever since his days as a wine clerk in San Francisco in the early 1960’s, Michael had wanted to get into the wine industry. Buying this property meant he could finally grab a toehold into the business.

The following year 5 acres of Chardonnay grapes were added along side the Zinfandel. By this time Michael was totally immersed into the grape farming lifestyle. Several years later he was on the lookout for more vineyard land. In 1978 he discovered that nearby Russian River Vineyards was up for sale. It not only had the right sized vineyard, it also had several homes, a winery facility, and a century-old manor house that had been converted into a restaurant. At the time, the winery was not active and the restaurant was leased to a third party.

The original Russian River winery and vineyards were started in 1969 by Robert Lasden, a former home winemaker. Lasden planted the first vineyards on the 30-acre property and built the original winery facility. The winery architecture is quite distinctive, with two tall hop kiln wooden towers and a smaller Russian style turret splashed against the horizon of West Sonoma County. In 1975 he sold his venture to two San Francisco real estate developers, Jack Lowe and Roy Georgio Jr.. They in turn, converted the century old, brown shingle building into a tasting room and restaurant. A few years later the property was sold to a group of winegrape farmers headed by Michael Topolos.

Up until then Michael had sold all of his fruit production to other wineries. But now it was time to get further entrenched in the industry by putting the newly purchased winery back to use. They immediately stripped the building, bought all new equipment, sanitized the barrels and brought in the harvest. The vineyard contained 23 acres of mature Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. The first bottling from their newly acquired winery was a 1978 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon. Since then they have produced dozens of wines including five or so different bottlings of Zinfandel, a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Pinot Noir, Merlot and a hearty red blend of four varietals they call Old Vineyard Reserve.

The Topolos flagship wine is without a doubt, Zinfandel. “We have always been devoted to Zinfandel,” proclaims Michael. “It’s America’s adopted grape, it’s gutsy, it’s fresh, it’s bright and it’s versatile,” he adds. They currently make five different versions of Zinfandel. A “Sonoma County” bottling is a mainstream Zin, fruity and light-bodied. Their “Rossi Ranch” Zinfandel, featured this month, is on the other end of the spectrum—full-throttle, high extract, no holds barred. Every vintage of Topolos, Rossi Ranch Zinfandel has won a Gold Medal and each has scored 90 or more points by at least one of the major wine review publications.

Just about one-fourth of the grapes used to make Topolos wines come from their own vineyards. The rest are bought from other vineyards under strict guidelines that Michael has established for his wines. Virtually all of the grapes they buy are organically grown using no chemicals or pesticides. “We believe in the premise of clean farming,” Michael points out. “It’s a way of life for us, a philosophy we adhere to. We do everything we can to replenish the earth and recycle what we use.” The winery is an active member of The Organic Grape Into Wine Alliance (OGWA) and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) organizations. Recently the winery has gone beyond “Certified Organic” status and into Bio-Dynamic disciplines with their vineyards.

Bio-Dynamics arose in 1924 from the teachings of Dr. Rudolf Steiner. This method incorporates not only mainstream and organic agriculture but considers the effects of the cosmos on the soil, the plants, the animals and the farmer. The earth is viewed as a living being and the farm as an individualized living organism.

Today, overall production hovers around the 16-18,000 case level. The winery houses more than 400 American and French barrels and assorted fermentation and storage tanks where Topolos’ super-premium and ultra-premium wines are produced. “We’re fighting the growth,” says Michael. “I’d rather be out in the vineyard than spend my time on the phone taking orders. We’re at a comfortable level right now.” In fact Michael has preferred the farming end of the business so much so that last year he turned most of the winemaking duties over to winery cohort, Jac Jacobs.

If you ever get a chance to go to Sonoma county be sure to visit the Topolos operation. Since Michael’s brother, Jerry took over the restaurant in 1983, it has been the only family-owned and operated winery and restaurant combination in California. Its unique setting and historic architecture make it a memorable visit.

Michael Topolos

Michael Topolos is right where he wants to be—on his tractor in the vineyard. He started a winery; received critical acclaim for his wines; wrote several books on the subject; and he is a teacher of wine appreciation at a nearby Jr. College. But ‘Farming is on top of the list,” Michael reveals. ‘I’ve met a lot of my goals,” he continues, ‘that’s one reason I handed over the winemaking job last year to Jac. I want to spend more time farming.” Michael plans to put in another 40 acres of vines using better clones. ‘We can always improve,” he says. That statement seemed more a reflection of his personal philosophy than about his wines.

Michael has always striven to improve, to gain more knowledge, to give something back to the world. Ever since he began attending San Francisco City College in the early 1960’s, Michael has never really abandoned academia. He has studied and/or taught at six different northern California colleges, and for 14 years now continues to teach at Santa Rosa Junior College.

To make ends meet while studying at S.F. City College he went to work for a local area wine shop. It was this turn of events that served as a catalyst for Michael’s career in the wine industry. His thirst for knowledge soon spilled into the wine world as he tasted and learned all he could. It wasn’t enough though. He wanted somehow to get closer to the wine industry.

His studies continued after City College with a brief stint at San Francisco State. He was still learning about wines at the wine shop and took mostly history courses at the university. In 1966 he moved to Sonoma to get closer to the action. His plan was to save enough money in order to buy property to plant a vineyard. He would enter the wine industry literally from the ground up.

He transferred to Sonoma State and continued to study history. He landed a job as a wine buyer which led him on frequent European trips to procure fine wines. Eventually he switched to the University of California at Davis to add viticulture to his course studies.

By 1972 he was able to buy a 50 acre parcel in Sonoma with 2 other partners. He later ended up buying half the property for himself. Michael quit his wine buying job to concentrate on planting his vineyard. He also continued his research into wines and even wrote a book about the Napa Valley.
From the outset Michael decided to avoid using pesticides and chemicals in his vineyard. By this time in his life he felt strongly about things like that. To poison the ground and deplete the soil was against his philosophy, contrary to his way of life. The Topolos operation was to be an earth friendly operation, using natural resources wisely and recycling whenever possible.
Even through the beginning stages of his new career, Michael continued his academic studies. He attained his teaching credentials and started teaching wine courses at Sonoma State and Santa Rosa Junior college. Shortly after he and his brother bought the Russian River Winery property he scaled down his teaching time to Santa Rosa.

Taking care of the land, planting better clones, making great wine, researching, educating others—Michael says he wants to continue to improve. Just look at what he is doing and that becomes obvious.