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The First Growers: Winegrapes in Anderson Valley

Forty years ago Eileen Pronsolino co-wrote a brief history of the earliest wine grape growers in Anderson Valley.  At the time she was working at Al Green’s Greenwood Ridge Vineyard tasting room on Highway 128, and she and others undertook comprehensive research, including in the County Recorder’s files and via locals’ recollective anecdotes.  The research team included local winery owners and employees including Al Green, Pat Daniels, Jed Steele, Hans Kobler and local historians Eileen and Bob Glover, also a viticulture teacher at Mendocino Community College.  Their mission was to provide documentation the industry-regulating US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms required to permit Anderson Valley calling itself a legally defined grape growing appellation like Napa Valley or Dry Creek.  Eileen gave me a copy of her essay back then, and when I read it again last week, I found it as elegant and accurate as I remembered it two generations ago.

Eileen’s local historian credentials include living in Anderson Valley since 1934 when, age three, she moved here with her family.  They haled from Blanco, Texas out in LBJ country, near Johnson City, Fredericksburg, Luckenbach, and knew Lyndon and the Johnson clan.  Her father, John Brown (no relation to the Philo Brown clan), got a job with the California Highway Department (Caltrans today), bridge maintenance engineer for our county’s segments of Highways, 101, 128 and 1, about 200 miles of roadway.  She went to school in Anderson Valley and in Eureka and in 1949 married her husband, Angelo, now 99 years old, and moved up to the Pronsolino Ranch half a mile out Signal Ridge Road and just north of Greenwood Creek headwaters.  In the Boontling lingo the area is known as “Vinegar Ridge,” “Frati Shams,” or “Iteville.”

Last week I drove up to Angelo and Eileen’s home to interview them for this story.  It was a warm, sunny late winter afternoon, and we sat out on her front porch under a large red maple shadetree surrounded by remnants of the ancient apple orchard to our right, to our left behind a barn a glimpse of modern trellised vineyard, Zinfandel of course, the whole open ground five acres framed by redwood trees.  Immediately we dove into Eileen’s life and career in Anderson Valley, her work ethic beginning as a field hand, eleven years old, helping with the hops, apple and prune harvest.  Her business and public service career included the Boonville Branch of the First National Bank of Cloverdale (yes!), the tasting room job, Secretary to the Anderson Valley Grapegrowers’ Association, the Historical Society, etc.  “I was always inquisitive about things,” she commented about her diverse employment career.

Eileen’s essay notes the researchers found no written accounts of first grape growers in nineteenth century Anderson Valley, though she and I both wonder whether the German-American first settlers, Guntlys, Gschwends, Gossmans, et al., didn’t plant down at their Philo north and Deep End farms.  The source for her identification of the first grower was Alva Ingram in 1982 recollecting to Pat Daniels seeing a tiny planting of grapes on the early settler J.D. Balls ranch near Boonville.  He noted maybe thirty vines and guestimated by their trunk size they were about twenty years old.  Pat can’t remember whether Alva noted where the Balls ranch was.  So was the first vineyard in Anderson Valley established about 1875?  One day we will find out.

We do know that in the North Coast’s early agricultural history including Anderson Valley apples were an important commercial crop.  We also know that those first farmers interplanted other fruits, pears, prune plums, walnuts, sometimes chestnuts in their orchard acreage.  Did they also include grapes as well?  In a later story I will describe the few Valley floor plantings I know about.  I do know climatic conditions discouraged the intention down here.  More specifically spring frosts, which never occur at Greenwood Ridge’s elevation,  can burn to a crisp the vines’ first bud tips and thus their fruit crop.  I know from personal experience that when it’s 28 degrees in my Navarro vineyard, it could be around forty up on Greenwood.  And the grape varieties used to make wine back in those days were all ones grown in climates warmer than Navarro, Philo and Boonville.  The culturally important Zinfandel, for instance, originating in central Italy, could not ripen sufficiently to ferment decent wine - due to our typical summer Valley floor nighttime temperatures.  Again I know from experience here that when just before daylight in August my thermometer reads 50 degrees F, it will be 60 degrees at Pronsolino vineyard.

Eileen’s story of the first wine grape growing community in Anderson Valley begins with political unrest in Italy and the construction of the L.E. White lumber mill at Greenwood on the coast, now Elk.  Bear with me.  In Italy the world-wide depression and the incompetence of the ruling monarchy provoked social unrest that ultimately led to Mussolini and the Fascist seizure of power in 1922.  Hundreds of thousands of citizens left the country and migrated to the United States and elsewhere in the Americas during this period, our good fortune.  Meanwhile the L.E. White mill infrastructure included a dock for loading lumber onto freighters and a railroad up Greenwood Creek that terminated on a lower pasture at Pronsolino Ranch.  The rail line moved timber logs from all over the creek watershed down to the mill on Greenwood beach, and also transported the immigrant labor families up the line to purchase their own homesteads.  I am exaggerating a bit here about the rail line’s role in Vinegar Ridge settlement.  There was also a seasonal wagon road between Greenwood and Philo, today more or less Greenwood Road.  I say seasonal because until the cement and steel bridge was built in the late 1920s at Hendy Woods, all traffic, foot, horse or wagon, had to ford Navarro River’s gravelly shallows at River Rest.

Among the Vinegar Hill first settlers were the Fratis, Angelo and Rosie, along with other Italian families, Tovanis, Giustis, Giovanettis, Pardinis, Pronsolinos, Valentis and others.   We will hear more about these families and grape growing later.  Eileen believes the Fratis, Angelo and Rosi, settling on what’s now Hagemann Ranch in 1894, were the first Italians to plant winegrapes.  Angelo’s uncle Giovanni and wife, also Rosi, were their adjacent neighbors, further down the hill off of Greenwood Road and overlooking Ham Canyon, also location of the family winery.  The Fratis came from the alpine foothill Piedmont region north of the Po River, a traditional grape growing area whose climate and geography were similar to Vinegar Hill’s.

Eileen reminds us that like today’s vineyardists, the Fratis and their neighbors planted a number of different grape varieties, both red and white.  Zinfandel was a grape indigenous to central Italy they all probably were familiar with.  Never mind the name: In Italy it’s called Primitivo, and the grape originated there on the central Adriatic coast and migrated across the sea to mountainous Croatia where it was also grown successfully.  I suspect the German-sounding name Zinfandel originated in Croatia, then still a part of the German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Now back to “Frati Shams.”  The vineyard was up the hill from the family home and visible from the current Greenwood Road.  When I first arrived in The Valley I recollect driving up there and being able to see some evidence of its existence, perhaps some dying or dead vines, or maybe just the grassy ripples the annual plowing and cross-plowing around the head-pruned grape vines left in the vineyard-abandoned pastureland.  And Eileen reports the Frati vineyard consisted of Zinfandel, but also the red grapes Alicante Bouschet from Bordeaux, Austrian Black Hamburger, Italian Carignan, and whites Chasselas from France, Malvasia blanca and Palomino from Spain and muscats from who knows which and wherefrom.  I know from my encounters with other “ancient vine” vineyards on Greenwood and elsewhere around The Valley, that this spectrum of red and white grapes was an important element of grower personal consumption tastes and for marketing to neighbors as well.  I will write more of that story later.

Frati structure

Eileen reports that the vineyard pioneering Frati family were also the first to install a formal winery in Anderson Valley.  This structure, approximately twenty by forty feet, was located on Angelo’s uncle Giovanni Frati’s adjacent farm.  This photo of the winery, a historic treasure, was given me by Matt Norfleet, and was taken by his father David over a generation ago.  Counting its redwood siding boards I am guestimating it was about a 30 by 20 foot rectangle.  Unfortunately since David took the photo the building has totally collapsed, been scrapped and burned.  Our loss.

As to the wines the Fratis and other families made, when I first arrived in The Valley, I had the privilege of tasting some of them, both red and whites.  Both Charlie Ciapusci and George Zeni, growers out Fish Rock Road, shared their cuvees with me and my friends during our social calls.  What I remember is being surprised by the sweetness of the wines, particularly the whites.  George Zeni reminded me “don’t forget, Brad, this was a summertime beverage to go with a light noontime pasta meal before we went back to work.”  I understood.  And sometimes there was also a slight spritz to the wines, like a subtle sparkler, probably the consequence of their malic acid fermenting after bottling.  Sitting on my host’s front shaded front porch on a ninety degree August afternoon I found the sweet character appropriate.  Ciapusci’s Zin produced with some residual sugar, however, never did please this educated “wine snob.”  Eileen’s essay also reports some families made a “pink” wine, probably a blend of red and white grapes.  And that they also distilled wines to make a local “grappa.”

Eileen’s report reminds us that up on Vinegar Ridge not just the Italian families were planting grapes and making wine.  So were the Germans, including the Hagemann’s, and one Scot Campbell too.  But that’s a tale I am postponing for another article.  Which will also give me the opportunity to spend more time with Eileen and Angelo discussing our grape growing past and other aspects of Anderson Valley civilization.  I can’t wait.

(Next Week: Pronsolinos and their Vinegar Ridge grower families.  The early local commercial wine business.)

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