The Korbel story is more than a chapter in Sonoma County history. It is the saga of two enterprising families with pioneer spirits and old-world resourcefulness who envisioned the great opportunities emerging from the development of 19th-century America. Although generations apart, the Korbel and Heck families created and preserved a singular tradition of champagne-making excellence that has now been in existence for over 132 years.
In the mid-1800s, America offered new hope to three brothers seeking to escape political unrest in their European homeland. The Korbels, born in the farmlands of the province of Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic), found the remote and rugged redwood country in Sonoma County irresistible.
Lured by the beauty and opportunity of the mountainous timberlands, the brothers eventually moved their families from San Francisco and settled in the Russian River Valley. F. Korbel & Bros. began as a manufacturing business in San Francisco that produced materials for the building industry. As their enterprise expanded, the brothers eventually acquired a sawmill and began a full-scale lumber operation near the town of Guerneville in Sonoma County. As Northern California’s lumber boom slowed, the Korbels turned their attention to farming prunes, beets, wheat, corn and alfalfa, and operated a commercial dairy on their Russian River Valley ranch. During this time, they planted their first vineyards and began experimenting with different grape varieties, including Pinot Noir — early evidence of the Korbels’ ambition to become champagne producers.
In 1882, the three brothers began a small winemaking operation at their ranch, and produced some 20,000 to 30,000 gallons of wine from their vineyard yields. Korbel wines were so well received that two years later the brothers closed their dairy, converted all of their ranch lands to vineyards, and devoted all of their energy to winemaking. A tradition that was to become a legacy was well under way.
The Korbel winery continued to grow throughout the 1880s. It was during this time that the Korbel’s sent for winemaker Frank Hasek in Prague to come to the United States to be their champagne master. Employing the time-honored French method of producing champagne, méthode champenoise, the Korbels quietly, but aggressively, experimented with cuvées. By the late-1890s, the Korbels had shipped their first California champagnes, and by the turn of the century, KORBEL was an internationally known, award-winning label.
Prohibition in the 1920s forced the closing of many wineries, but the Korbel Winery survived by depending on the brothers’ other business ventures and accumulated resources. Sadly, Francis, Joseph and Anton all passed away before Repeal in 1933. They died not knowing that their champagne creation had become an enduring legacy.
By the 1950s, as the second generation of Korbels successfully carried on the family tradition of producing fine California champagnes, the large winery building – constructed from the Korbel brothers’ own handmade bricks nearly 70 years earlier – had been expanded, and more vineyards had been planted. Eventually, the surviving Korbel family members decided that it was time to sell the winery and vineyards – but on very specific terms. They insisted that the new owner, Adolf Heck, carry on the Korbel tradition of producing fine California champagnes using méthode champenoise.
In 1966, Adolf invented and patented the first automatic riddling machine, which allowed each bottle of KORBEL California Champagne to undergo exact turns at precise times. This ensured consistent taste and quality in every bottle. Adolf Heck set out to pioneer what he described as “California-style” champagnes, which displayed more fruit and less yeast than European champagnes.
In 1984, Adolf’s son, Gary Heck, was named Korbel Winery’s Chairman of the Board. He has been active in nearly every aspect of the winery operation, from harvesting grapes by hand to sales administration. Under his guidance, KORBEL enjoyed double-digit growth during the 1980s, and the brand currently sells more than 1.3 million cases annually. * KORBEL is a name that tells the unique story of two families – their dreams and dedication – and it stands for over 130 years of fine méthode champenoise California champagnes. Toast Life®!
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