The mid-20th century was a difficult time for the Northern Rhône Valley. After two world wars and the Great Depression, few vignerons had the stomach for the arduous task of farming the steep hillside vineyards. Some slopes were so precipitous, they were considered unsafe for horses, to say nothing of tractors. Instead, growers used a system in which a plow was guided up a hill by a cable attached to a winch powered by a human.
Many younger people left for work in the cities. As farming became automated, others abandoned the hillsides for flatter land, which was not as conducive to good wine but easier to farm. A dedicated few stayed on, like Marius Gentaz in Côte-Rôtie, Noël Verset and Auguste Clape in Cornas, and Mr. Trollat in St.-Joseph, maintaining the regional traditions for little reward.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the local wine was held in such low regard that farmers could earn more growing apricots and cherries than they could with wine grapes. Very few vignerons even bottled their own wines, selling instead to négociants, or wine merchants, who blended it with other wines and sold it under their own names.
When Mr. Trollat began working with his father, he recalled in a 2013 interview, they sold their wine by the barrel to local bars and bistros. Paying only pennies, the coal miners in St.-Étienne nearby would fill up jugs and take them to drink at work. Others in the area bought barrels to consume at home, drinking some of the wine each day, and as the barrels slowly emptied, the wine inside would become oxidized and volatile, but so slowly that nobody noticed.
“It was basically vinegar — we didn’t have to change bottles for the salad,” Mr. Trollat said.
Yet, he kept at it, and shortly after the St.-Joseph appellation was established in 1956, Mr. Gonon said, Mr. Trollat and his father were among the first to begin bottling their wines, sensing an opportunity to sell beyond their neighbors. They were also among the first to explore markets outside the local region.