Monday, September 6, 2010

German Wine Makers in the World: The Korbel Brothers from Bohemia Introduced "Champagne" to the US

Picture: Francis, Anton and Joseph Korbel, founders of the Korbel Champagne Cellars in California (Source: Korbel)

Korbel Champagne Cellars is one of the leading American producers of sparkling wines. It was founded in the late 1800 by 3 brothers from Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic.

The Korbel Brothers - Were they German Winemakers?

Bohemia is historically home to both Czechs and Germans. The first German University was founded in Bohemia. When the Korbel brothers were born, they were born in the Kingdom of Bohemia, which was, along with 39 other sovereign states, part of the German Confederation (Deutscher Bund).

The State known as Germany was unified as a modern nation-state in 1871 only, when the German Empire was forged, with the Kingdom of Prussia as its largest constituent. Before that, following the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Congress of Vienna convened in 1814 and founded the German Confederation, a loose league of 39 sovereign states. The Kingdom of Bohemia was one of the 39 sovereign states. The German Confederation lasted, with some changes in the member states, until 1866, under the presidency of the Austrian imperial House of Habsburg, which was represented by an Austrian presidential envoy to the Federal diet in Frankfurt am Main.

Korbel Champagne Cellars

Based in Sonoma County, California, F. Korbel & Bros. Inc. has been known for its sparkling wines since the 1880s, produced through subsidiary Korbel Champagne Cellars. Korbel is owned by the Heck family, which bought the business from the Korbels in the 1950s.

The Korbel Brothers from Bohemia

Sparkling wine production in California dates to the late 1800s, when two groups--Almaden Vineyards and the Korbel brothers--offered their first bottles of sparklers for for sale. The Korbel brothers--Francis, Anton, and Joseph--were born in Bohemia and immigrated to the US.


Bohemia is part of the Czech Republic today, which is a small landlocked country in Central Europe. The region is historically home to both Czechs and Germans, the latter being largely expelled to Germany and Austria after World War II.

Picture: Map of Czech Republic with Bohemia on the left side

Before World War I, for many centuries, the Czech Republic was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with Vienna its center, beginning in 1526, when Ferdinand of Habsburg was elected King of Bohemia.

The first German university is the Prague University, founded in 1348 by Charles IV from the House of Luxembourg, who became King of Bohemia in 1346. His reign brought Bohemia to its peak. both politically and in total area, resulting in his being the first King of Bohemia to also be elected as Holy Roman Emperor.

Picture: Charles IV, first King of Bohemia

After World War I, the Czechs and Slovaks of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire were forced to merge together to form the new nation of Czechoslovakia. The country was annexed and occupied by Germany during World War II. After World War II, Czechoslovakia fell within the Soviet sphere of influence until 1989. In 1993, the country underwent a "velvet divorce" into its two national components, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czech Republic is now a member of NATO (since 1999) and EU (since 2004).

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka, also from Bohemia, lived at about the same time as the Korbel brothers (1883 – 1924). He was one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century. The term "Kafkaesque" has entered the English language. Kafka was born to middle class German-speaking Jewish parents in Prague.

His body of work—the novels The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927), short stories including The Metamorphosis (1915) and In the Penal Colony (1914)—is now considered among the most original in Western literature.

Kafka's first language was German, but he was also fluent in Czech. He studied law and worked as a lawyer. Kafka never married, but he had relationships with various women. In 1923, he moved to Berlin, where he lived with Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher from an orthodox Jewish family. She became his lover, and influenced Kafka's interest in the Talmud.

Picture: Prague Today

Kafka considered himself in the early part of his life as German-Jewish Bohemian and later as a German-Bohemian Jew. He was a citizen of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and had also a Czech Passport from 1919 on. He died at age 41 in Austria.

Francis, Anton and Joseph Korbel

Francis was the driving force behind the sparkling wine business that would emerge in the United States. He arrived in San Francisco in 1860, where he opened a cigar boxes repair shop. In order to manufacture his own cigar boxes, he asked his brothers back in Bohemia to join him in San Francisco.

In 1862, they formed a partnership, F. Korbel & Bros., and opened the first cigar box factory in San Francisco. It was not long before they owned their own schooner to import veneers from around the world. They became involved in the export of hardwood. They also bought timber for shipping and opened sawmills to produce lumber for use in San Francisco's booming building industry.

Picture: Bohemian Sparkling Wine, Drank at the Prague Opera House in 2010

It was the timber that first attracted the Korbel brothers to the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County in 1872. When the building boom subsided, however, they found themselves holding a lot of timber for which there was little demand. Forever resourceful, they researched what could be done with the cleared acreage and decided the land was ideal for any number of agricultural purposes. They began to grow alfalfa, beets, corn, prunes, and wheat, and also began to plant vineyards on their Russian River property. As the Korbels were supplying their grapes to California winemakers, other growers emerged, the market became too crowded, and the brothers shifted gears once again. They became winemakers themselves. The winemaking operation was so promising that over the next two years they devoted all their attention to it, converting their farmland to vineyards and shutting down the diary.

Again they turned to their native land for help, bringing in a Prague winemaker named Frank Hasek in 1884. Hasek used the methode champenoise approach to making sparkling wine. By 1894, the Korbel brothers began to sell their sparklers and by the end of the 1800s, Korbel was an award-winning, internationally recognized label.

Picture: Frank Hasek with his Cellar Crew (Source: Korbel)

The Korbel brothers' winery business was interrupted by the advent of Prohibition in 1919, forcing them to turn to other business interests. None of them would be alive to see the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and the resumption of sparkling wine making at the family estate. Ownership of the winery passed to a second generation, seven cousins in all, who continued the family tradition.

In the early 1950s, the cousins decided among themselves that the time had come to sell the business. They were careful about making sure the winery passed into the hands of someone who respected its family tradition. The Korbels found their man in
Adolf L. Heck.

Korbel and the Heck Family

Heck was a third generation winemaker whose family had roots in the Alsace Loraine straddling France and Germany. In 1956 he reintroduced Korbel Brut, making it much lighter and drier than other American sparklers. He developed his own yeasts and introduced Korbel Natural, Korbel Blanc de Blancs, and Korbel Blanc de Noirs. Adolph Heck ran Korbel until his death in 1984. His son, Gary, took over as chairman of the board and Robert Stashak became Korbel's sparkling wine master. Gary’s son Aaron is being groomed to one day become the third-generation of the Heck family to lead what the Korbel brothers had begun in the 1800s.

1862: F. Korbel & Brothers is founded to make cigar boxes.
1884: Frank Hasek is hired as a champagne master.
1954: The Korbel family sells the company to Adolph Heck and his brothers.
1984: Adolph Heck dies and is succeeded by Gary Heck.

This is part of the series German wine makers in the world:

Wolf Blass in Australia

Swiss-German Donald Hess, US, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia

Hermann J. Wiemer, Finger Lakes, US

Anton (Antoine) Mueller, 1800s,France,

Dr. Konstantin Frank, 1900s,USA

Christian Woelffer and Roman Roth, USA

Robert Anton Schlumberger, 1800s, Austria

Robert Stemmler, USA

Eduard Werle, 1800s, France

German Winemakers in the World: Johann Schiller in Canada

California Wine Pioneer Walter Schug: From Assmannshausen in the Rheingau to Carneros in California

German Wine Makers in the World: Karl Heinz Johner in New Zealand

Schiller-Wine: Other Related Postings

The Exciting Wines of the Czech Republic

Emerging Wine Country Serbia - Still in the early Stages after the Break-up of Yugoslavia

Champagne in Russia

Vinograf Winebar - Arguably the Best Place to Taste Czech Wines in Prague

Saint Valentine's Day: French Champagne, German Sekt or Virginia Sparkler!

In the Glass: Volker Raumland Sekt Estate - The Discovery of the Year, Eichelmann 2010

German Wine Basics: Sekt

German Wine Makers in the World: Eduard Werle - Owner of the Veuve Cliquot Champagne House

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