Migliavacca Wine Company. The Migliavacca (the ‘g’ is silent) family winemaking heritage is deeply rooted in the historical fabric of the city of Napa. For some 50+ years from 1866 through to the start of Prohibition, Migliavacca Wine Co was a formidable presence. Founder Giacomo Migliavacca became the city’s first self-made millionaire, at one point was the largest wine producer in the state of California (capacity of 1.5 million gallons) and earned numerous medals and awards for his wines including 1869 First Premium California Red Wine from the Mechanics Institute, 1889 Gold Medal from the Paris Exposition in France, 1892 Dublin Ireland Exposition, 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and 1895 Atlanta Exposition. And his wines were being shipping to a number of states around the country including Texas (Galveston), Washington (Seattle) and Louisiana (New Orleans).
In addition, in 1869 he became the first Napa County resident to receive a winery related U.S. patent – for his “Wine Bottling and Corking Apparatus” – one of these devices is housed at the Napa Museum in Yountville, but is not on display and visitors must fill out a special request form to see this item in person. This item was displayed publicly at an exhibit at the Goodman Library from October 2021 through March 2022. According to Sheli Smith, the Executive Director of the Napa County Historical Society, it most likely was the prototype for the actual patent (the first one he ever built).
Fast forward some 150 years after Giacomo moved to the Napa Valley, great great granddaughter & Napa native Katie Migliavacca recalls how she first met her business partner and winemaker Vincent Traverso. At 10pm one night she was invited on a trip to Lake Tahoe by her friend Padrick (Pad) McGinnis. Turns out Pad also knew Vincent and had invited him to the lake. The first person Katie met that trip was Vincent and both soon bonded over shared interests including history, wine and travel. When Katie met him, he had recently returned to the Napa Valley where he was born and raised after having been abroad for 10 years working for the state department in places such as Afghanistan and Libya. He also lived in France and Italy and during his time in Europe earned his degree in viticulture and enology – studying in Montpellier, France and Verona, Italy.
He currently works with Kirk Venge helping oversee various winemaking projects and properties for Venge Vineyards and is also co-owner of the old Kingfish Pub & Café in Oakland (dates from 1922), located at 5227 Telegraph Avenue. Ever the quintessential local neighborhood bar with character, one comes here to drink, talk history, add to the nonsensical scribbles on the ceiling, play a game or two, eat popcorn and meet other intriguing folks. Open daily from the afternoon until late.
Katie remembers being interested in her family’s wine heritage back when she was in her early teens. Later she became intrigued about exploring the possibility of restarting her family’s wine brand. And as she told us, “if I don’t do something, it will never get done” and there of course, was always the possibility that a non family member would resurrect the label.
She soon sent Vincent an article the Napa Register had written about her family’s heritage in the Napa Valley. He was immediately hooked.
Giacomo was born in the town of Pavia, Italy in 1833 (about an hour drive south of Milan) – his original home is still standing. During a trip to Italy, Katie visited the piazza and saw the outside of Giacomo’s original home. After studying viticulture at the University of Pavia, eventually he immigrated to the United States in 1857 at age 24 sailing into the San Francisco Bay on the S.S. Golden Gate (which later sunk off the coast near Manzanillo, Mexico in 1862 in which approximately 200 lives were lost). Giacomo no doubt had a visceral reaction to this once he heard the news, only 5 years after his own voyage.
Soon after he arrived in San Francisco – he founded and operated a successful vinegar factory. After a few years, he sold the factory and moved up to Hornitos in Mariposa County, home at that time of a number of Italian immigrants including at one point Domingo Ghirardelli, founder of Ghiradelli Chocolate in San Francisco and namesake for Ghiradelli Square. And this would become a pivotal move in young Giacomo’s life. His initial introduction to Hornitos perhaps was through his wife’s family – the Semorile’s who had been living and working in Hornitos since 1855.
At its peak, Hornitos was home to more then 15,000 people and was producing some $40,000 dollars of gold daily (a huge sum of money in those days); the town was also home to the first Wells Fargo office in the county. Giacomo operated a grocery store in Hornitos and it was here that he met Madelena (whose own heritage is from the tiny Zoagli along the Italian Mediterranean coastline); they were married in 1860. Today Hornitos is essentially a ghost town although people still live in town and in the immediate vicinity. A number of buildings are remarkably well preserved from the 1850s and 1860s – the town has two cemeteries – one at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church and a smaller more hidden one near the fire station on the north side of town. One of the town’s most memorable events is the All Souls’ Day candlelit procession every November 2nd – which winds its way up to St. Catherine’s Catholic Church (and all the surrounding grave sites are lit by the flickering candle lights including several of Katie’s relatives).
Hornitos (note: the smoke filled skies were directly from fires in the Napa Valley)
The Migliavacca heritage in Napa dates back to 1866 when Giacomo and Madelena and several of their children (eventually they would have 13 children, 10 of whom survived including Lawrence, Katie’s great grandfather) settled in downtown Napa. For historical reference, this was merely 18 years after the first ‘western’ buildings were constructed in the city of Napa although the Cayetano Juarez Adobe, Napa’s oldest still standing structure was constructed 21 years prior in 1845. Giacomo would become a prominent businessman in the valley – associated with a number of buildings in the downtown area. He established Migliavacca Wine Co in 1866 and produced the first Migliavacca wines inside a grocery store that he owned.
Giacomo was among the early vintners producing wine commercially in the Napa Valley. However, there were a few other important personalities in Napa’s earliest commercial winemaking history – according to the Napa County Historical Society, England born, John Patchett made some wine in 1857 but made the first commercial wine in Napa Valley in 1858, 6 barrels at his winery in the city of Napa called Patchett’s Grove. His winemaker at that time was Charles Krug – starting what would eventually become common in the Napa Valley, hiring winemakers. Interestingly, the Migliavacca mausoleum at the Tulocay Cemetery in the city of Napa is located within a very short walk of Patchett’s grave-site.
Charles Krug would soon start what would become his iconic namesake winery in 1861. St. Helena located David Fulton Winery was also built in 1861 following Krug. The original Schramsberg winery dates from 1862. Suffice to say, there are very few wineries/producers in the Napa Valley that were founded in the 1860s. Others with physical wineries built in the 1860s included Crane, Pellet, Brannan, Woodward and Sigrist.
In 1874 Giacomo built a sizable two-story brick winery, encompassing a full city block on site of what is now the Napa County Library (near the corner of Brown and Division streets). This building was 80′ by 100′ and also included a distillery and made use of a pier out into the nearby Napa River for shipping products to San Francisco.
Between 1890 and 1893, Giacomo built what is referred to as the Migliavacca Mansion at the intersection of Coombs and Division Street next to his winery. The mansion was built in part from redwood and features Italian slate shingles on the upper two stores. This beautiful Queen Anne style home was connected to his winery by a room housing a brick kitchen. This room was was later destroyed when the house was moved several times, ultimately to 4th Street (where it currently stands and is currently used for office space). The architect was Luther Turton, who was also responsible for the gorgeous Noyes Mansion (currently home of the the offices of the Wine Spectator) and the Goodman Library (still standing on First Street and occupied by the Napa County Historical Society).
Between 1904 and 1905 Giacomo constructed a huge stone building – what was known as the Migliavacca Commercial Building (or as locals called it, “the mig” on site of what is now the Dwight Murray Plaza on First Street. A tall clocktower stood on site from 1974 until it was finally torn down in 2000. Soon after its completion, parts of the building were badly damaged in the 1906 Santa Rosa/San Francisco Earthquake with some of the stone walls on the upper level destroyed and rubble piled up on the sidewalk on 1st Street. Repairs took about 4 months.
It is a truly a shame this building was torn down in 1973 (as part of downtown Napa’s redevelopment program). St. Helena couple and Napa Valley historians David and Kathleen Kernberger (both deceased) were part of a group that tried to save this old building in late 1972. They even wrote a book together inspired by their efforts to save this old building among others in downtown Napa – called Mark Strong’s Napa Valley, 1886-1924 with a spotlight on the Migliavacca building on page 24. And also directly resulting from their initial preservation efforts, they helped form the Napa Historic Preservation Society in 1973. Kathleen was a founding board member of the St. Helena Historical Society.
It was once the largest stone building in all of the city of Napa and over the years housed numerous tenants – some of the most prominent being the headquarters of the Napa City Water Supply Company, James H. Goodman & Co. (Napa County’s first bank having been established in 1858 by James and George Goodman who would later build Eschol Winery – today home to Trefethen Vineyards), the Napa Chamber of Commerce, it was in this building that Goodman Bank merged with the Bank of Italy (the earliest references we have found to a branch of the Bank of Italy in the city of Napa was in 1917) – Bank of Italy later became Bank of America and much later the Migliavacca building house a Mervyn’s department store. It was also home to numerous doctor’s offices.
Other remnants of his business and contributions to the economy of downtown Napa can still be seen. The brick building across from the present day Archer Hotel is called the Migliavacca Building (Giacomo’s last name is carved in stone above with the date of the building, 1916).
After his move from Hornitos to the city of Napa, Giacomo convinced his brother in law (Madelena’s brother, Bartolomeo Semorile) to join him in Napa in the grocery business. Bartolomeo built a grocery store on First Street – it burned down along with other nearby buildings – he then constructed the handsome Semorile Building (1888) which still stands and today is home to Bounty Hunter Wine & Spirits. The original construction used three stained glass windows from a building in Mariposa County (perhaps Hornitos, where the family has previously lived). So well built, it survived the 1906 earthquake. The family lived upstairs and operated their store on the first floor until 1924. Today the building shows well, but it wasn’t always this way – from about 1969 through as recently as the mid 1980’s this building was abandoned and visually was in bad shape. And the Kernberger’s worked to get this building listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
And much more recently the Napa Historical Society used an image of the Migliavacca Manson on their brass medallions – with signs located in specific neighborhoods in and around downtown Napa.
Other Migliavacca family continued to work in wine and spirits including in Galveston Texas where Giacomo and Madelena’s son John (Johnny) moved to in 1891 to oversee and operate the family export branch of Migliavacca Wine Co, taking full advantage of that city’s port to ship wine to Italy – numerous old newspaper articles reference a number of wine barrel shipments originating in Napa shipped to Galveston between the turn of the century and approximately the start of Prohibition. In 1893 John also started a cigar manufacturing plant in Galveston.
What is still the nation’s largest casualty number as a result of a natural disaster, the Galveston Hurricane in 1900 occurred when John and his family were living on Galveston Island. Their house was right next to the beach and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Their story of escape is rather miraculous having fled on foot as the water and waves began to destroy their home and their neighbors’ homes. According to John’s wife Rosa (maiden name, Toselli from Sestri Levante) quoted in an article in the Napa Journal from September 22, 1900, she and her two sons (including their infant child) and her uncle survived by clinging to a piece of drift which carried them into a severely damaged nearby house where they battled the waves all night before being able to escape in the morning – walking through drift from the storm and the dead bodies of their neighbors. Her husband John was not home at this time along with two of their other children – and it wasn’t until 5 days later that he learned of their survival. Their story is eerily similar to many of the survivor stories from Hurricane Katrina.
Migliavacca Galveston heritage
Visit and photographs coming by mid 2022.
John’s brother Sero Migliavacca settled around Seattle in Washington state and opened a branch of Migliavacca Wine Co near Pioneer Square in 1899 called the Migliavacca Liquor Company. We have also seen references to Migliavacca & Corglat at 109 South Main Street. Later Sero was president of Bremerton Bank and involved in other banking activities. According to the March 5th edition of the Napa Weekly Journal from 1909, the Migliavacca Bank Building was built in Seattle in 1909.
Once Prohibition started, for a few years, one of Giacomo’s sons operated Colonial Grape Products Company. One of his other sons, James later became director at the Bank of Italy (the precursor to Bank of America).
Because of both Katie’s strong interest in her family heritage and the fact that Migliavacca was once an integral player in downtown Napa – numerous records and historical items surrounding the old winery have been preserved and collected over the years.
Mirroring her great great grandfather’s winemaking, Katie’s philosophy has been to produce premium and affordable wines that are accessible to a wide range of budgets. And the focus so far has been on Italian varieties, honoring her family’s heritage. Similar when Giacomo was producing wines, Katie’s wines not only come from the Napa Valley but from sites within other parts of northern California.
Vince enjoys making the Migliavacca style of rosé – picking at a slightly higher brix as he puts it, “to get more out of the grape”. He looks for phenolic development, length and complexities on the palate – especially on the finish. The 2019 Migliavacca Rosato is 100% Petite Sirah and was sourced from the Tamayo Vineyard in Contra Costa County; it is not a lightly colored wine of this style rather is a darker salmon color in the glass. The bouquet offers a variety of aromatics including a sweetness of strawberry, hints of honeycomb and citrus. Quickly noticeable is this wine’s texture – creamy and supple with a viscosity the runs the breadth of the palate. Shows flavors of nectarine, mandarin and some mineral nuances. A richer showing.
The 2018 Migliavacca Vermentino was sourced from a south east facing block in a vineyard in Lodi. This site features even and slow ripening – the wine was aged in neutral French oak for 17 months. Offers pretty aromatics with notes of honeysuckle, citrus blossom and perhaps a tiny note of pineapple. Very balanced across the palate with flavors of golden delicious apple and mandarin orange. Clean finish with an appealing suppleness across the palate. And a bright acidity that carries the length of the palate and continues on the finish. This vintage and wine was rated 92 by Dr. Liz Thach MW – her notes and comments are here.
These are terroir driven wines but beyond the site and varietal characteristics, Katie and Vincent are quick to point out that these wines are best enjoyed when paired with food, family and friends – creating moments where conversations and wines flow effortlessly.
And starting in 2019 the source for their Vermentino moved to the Napa side of Carneros from a block within one of Francis Mahoney’s vineyards. Vincent was already familiar with this particular block through his work with Venge Vineyards. With Venge focusing on Bordeaux varietals, the decision was finally made to cancel their contact for this fruit. While Kirk Venge was on the phone canceling the contract with Francis, Vincent overheard the conversation. After Kirk hung up the phone, Vincent asked him if he would be OK if he called Francis back – he did and ultimately Francis transferred over the contract to Migliavacca.
The 2017 Migliavacca Sangiovese was sourced from a small block of this varietal growing high on the slopes of Atlas Peak in the Antinori Vineyard (Antica Winery). Medium ruby in color; shows its varietal characteristics immediately on the bouquet with a darker spiciness, dried tobacco leaf, plum and dried herbs. Somewhat savory in its aromatics. Very balanced food friendly wine. Lingers with some spice notes along with nicely integrated tannins. The finish is seamless with bright acidity.
Katie and Vincent initially tried to create a contemporary label and even hired a designer to do so. After numerous iterations on a label and months into the process, ultimately they decided they liked Giacomo’s original label. Good choice!
Eventually the plan is to introduce a higher end range of wines focusing on the Napa Valley including a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet Sauivgnon. The wines are sold primarily direct to consumer with limited local distribution including sometimes at Allegria Restaurant (right next to the site of the Migliavacca Commercial Building and the first restaurant placement of Migliavacca wines), Foodshed in the city of Napa, Farmstead, Gary’s Wine, the French Laundry and Press in St. Helena. Sometimes Katie will represent the wines at certain events – including previously at an event hosted in part by San Francisco based Mechanics Institute. For more information or to purchase wines, visit: www.migwine.com
Wine Corking Device from late 1860s
Other Historically Relevant Buildings or Heritage
Labels from Picturesque Locations
Original Migliavacca Winery Site, now Napa County Library