Sonoma vintner Joe Roche: 1939-2019

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Joseph Roche, co-founder of the Sonoma Valley winery which bears his name, died at home surrounded by family on April 15, following an illness. He was 79.

According to family members, Roche was a tinkerer whose fascination was science, and he indulged that curiosity throughout his life. His mother, a schoolteacher, and father, an FBI agent, traded the urbanities of East Los Angeles for the more rural pleasures of Orange County’s La Habra Heights when Joseph, the youngest of their three children, was born in 1939. Joe, as he was known to family and friends, was introduced to the fundamentals of botanical science while tending the small avocado orchard his family farmed there. Roche was a quick study and a prodigious student, and he learned those early lessons well. So well in fact that, according to his family, Joe’s proudest accomplishment in a life that produced many, was the cultivation of finicky Hass and Fuerte avocado trees at his home in Sonoma.

“He was pretty proud that he got avocados to thrive in our Northern California climate, said Roche’s son Brendan. “There was always enough production to hand out to his kids, and we anxiously looked forward to the harvest every year.”

Roche left La Habre for the University of Southern California, followed by medical school at Creighton University. It was at Creighton that a classmate named Genevieve caught his eye. After graduating in 1965, the newly minted doctors moved to San Francisco and were married.

Roche did his medical residency at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), focusing his expertise on pathology. When his residency was completed in 1970, Roche joined the pathology department at St. Mary’s Hospital, where he was in continuous practice for the next 43 years. Eventually he became chief of pathology and nuclear medicine at St. Mary’s, as well as a clinical professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF.

“A few hundred residents rotated through his lab,” Brendan said. “Dad was a scientist, but he had a good bedside manner.”

While Roche’s medical career was based in the city, the rest of his life was built on the fertile plains of the Sonoma Valley.

In 1976, yearning for a country property on which to spend weekends with their young family, Joe and Genevieve found a large estate at the southern end of Sonoma Valley. Thought at that time to be unsuitable for grape growing, the 2,000-plus-acre property was a relative bargain.

Though they had purchased the land with no plan to grow grapes, the Roches’ thinking evolved as the years passed. In 1982, when a prominent local grower convinced them that the dark clay soils and cool summer nights common to their property were ideal conditions for chardonnay and pinot noir grape cultivation, the couple planted their first vineyard.

That decisions proved to be prescient. A year later the region was incorporated into the newly formed Carneros American Viticulture Area (AVA), a nascent appellation that is now world-renowned.

With an initial production of just 2,000 cases, Roche expanded his brand over time. By 1989, he had built a winery and tasting room on a knoll at the edge of Carneros, and was serving wines cultivated from merlot, syrah, cabernet, zinfandel, muscat and gewürztraminer grapes.

Twenty years after building the first winery, Roche sold the property and opened a tasting room on West Spain Street in Sonoma. Construction of a new winery on Bonness Road, a 17,000-square-foot structure capable of producing more than 50,000 cases per year, is slated for completion in 2019.

Roche came to winemaking somewhat accidentally, and his approach to marketing was unconventional, too. In the history of the brand, Roche wines have never been available at restaurants or stores, found exclusively at the Roche tasting room and winery instead. Roche was a garrulous and skilled entertainer, and he enjoyed meeting his customers personally.

“Dad was a pioneer of the direct-to-consumer model. He wanted to provide an experience for the customer. He was there — always Joe, not Dr. Roche, not Joseph — hand pouring the wine. People loved him,” Brendan said.

In 2007, Roche sold 1,651 acres of his Carneros estate to Sonoma Land Trust, linking the protected lands of San Pablo Bay to Sonoma Mountain, and expanding the acreage in the Land Trust to 20,000. “Dad was a conservationist. We owned the Tolay Creek watershed for more than 28 years, and when the opportunity to pass it to the Land Trust came along, he jumped at it. He knew it would be protected forever,” Brendan said.

Roche lived in the Valley for 43 years, and farmed beef, olives and acres of grapes. He often pulled fish from the large pond on his ranch, as passionate about angling as he was everything else. When Genevieve died in 2012, Roche met Patricia, whom he married in 2015. Roche is survived by his children Mara, Sara, Carrie and Brendan, as well as five grandchildren and many nephews and nieces.

A rosary service will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 23, at Duggan’s Mission Chapel, 525 W. Napa St. A funeral mass is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 24, at St. Francis Solano Church, 469 Third Street West.

“We’ll celebrate his life,” Brendan said. “He lived it well.”

Email Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com

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