Quick, what was California's second most popular tourist destination in the 1950s, rivaled only by Disneyland? Hint: The magic made there was explicitly forbidden by Uncle Walt. If you answered the Italian Swiss Colony at Asti, you must be of a certain age or one of the few visitors who have dropped in to the recently rechristened, time-capsule tasting room of Cellar No. 8.
Founded in the 1880s, the ISC attracted Italian winemaking talent, garnered gold medals and became among the state's most important wineries. In the 1960s, it was familiar to television audiences in the person of "that little old winemaker," and in restaurants everywhere, straw-basket-wrapped flasks of "Tipo" were as essential as furniture. Old timers tell of a beloved haunt where corks popped, taps flowed and the party went into the night. And then the doors closed for 20 years. The winemaking style was out of fashion—the Asti facility pumped out sparkling wines, brandy, sweet and dry wines, grappa, and even "coffee wine"—but subsequent owners didn't bother remodeling the old tasting room, they just sealed it up.
The happy result: Current owner Fosters Wine Estates reopened a virtually intact tasting room where visitors can walk the same wood floors under Italian-Swiss motif beams, up to the same curvy barrel-stave bar. A barrel head on the wall bears the inscription, "Wines mellowed in redwood," certainly an endorsement from another time, while photographs, souvenirs and a California Historical Landmark placard acknowledge the site. The displays were fun, the staff were great, and to behold and ponder the 19th-century marble carving of a gent in his dotage and his stocking cap, cradling what the caption says is his "last love"—a straw basket flask—is nearly worth the trip alone. So what's this Cellar No. 8? Fosters named it for the eighth cellar of the old buildings. Got it—I think. On to the wine.
Cellar No. 8 is widely available in supermarkets at competitive prices—the 2008 California Pinot Noir is a solid sip for just $10—but Sonoma County wines are available only at the tasting room. No straw-covered flasks, to my moderate disappointment. The whites were aromatic representatives of their respective varietals, while the crisp and modern 2008 Sonoma County Rosé ($16) perked up my tongue; strawberry-raspberry fruit from the nose to the lips, finishing nice and dry.
The 2006 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($20) is on the ripe, juicy side, with sweet blackberry scents trending to raisin; gobs of flavor on the woodsy, brambly palate finish clean and dry. The dark horse of the list, the opaquely purple 2006 Petite Sirah ($20), has deep plum fruit and flakey pastry aromas that lead to a surprisingly lively, bright mouthful. Perfetto! Or so says that little old winetaster, me.
Cellar No. 8, 26150 Asti Post Office Road, Cloverdale. Open daily 10am–5pm. Tasting fee $5; 10 percent off bottle purchase. 866.557.4970.