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Pronsolinos & Valentis: Vinegar Ridge Industry Founders, Part II

Last week’s story describing Anderson Valley’s early grape-growing days featured the founding Frati family and their viticultural and enological activities on Vinegar Ridge.  This week I want to visit some of the other grower families along Greenwood and Signal Ridge to record what I know about the details associated with those first vineyard days farming activities.  To write my report I have talked with as many of the descendants as I have met over the years.  But I also vigorously encourage, in the interest of my and your present and future understanding of our community, that anyone who has other anecdotes from those days, or finds error in my reporting, please let me know.

This week with the  invaluable assistance of Eileen, Angelo and David Pronsolino, Jenny Moore and Anne Fashauer my story will focus on their and my recollections of grape-growing and wine making practices at Pronsolino and Valenti vineyards.

Angelo Pronsolino’s parents, Giovanni and Teresa, migrated from a small village in the province of Liguria surrounding Genoa and settled in 1923 on the property their son, wife and some grandchildren still live on.  That much larger piece of land included open pasture and redwood forest which the family logged and then invested in vineyard, orchard, sheep, pigs and chickens.  The original family home still sits unoccupied right on the west side of Signal Ridge Road waiting its restoration, an annual intention, to begin.  

Farming at Pronsolino included a small apple orchard east of the Signal Ridge road containing the typical array of varieties from Gravenstein to Winter Banana, Russets, Jonathans, Baldwins, Pippins, Greenings, and so on.  The vineyard piece lay in two places, on the west side of the road on the east-facing sidehill above their home and on also on the east side behind the apple orchard.  These plantings comprised the typical array of red and white varietals.  The Pronsolinos remember in particular Zinfandel, and Carignan among the reds, and Chasselas and muscats among the whites.  The Pronsolinos also made wine from their grapes and traded and sold some of it to Vinegar Hill neighbors.

In 1942 The family bought from Giovanni Pardini, no relation to the Navarro Pardini family, the adjacent westerly 90 acres or so, the land partly timber, partly pasture, and most important seven acres of mixed varietals vineyard.  Today, the vineyard, owned once again by Pronsolino nephews, the Ariatta brothers, still sustains some of the original Zinfandel along with some much younger Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.

Today even thinking about this vineyard site and its history provokes nostalgia because I have been on-the-ground familiar with it since first settling in Anderson Valley over fifty years ago.  Back then I was a close friend of Deron Edmeades of Edmeades Vineyards and winery.  Deron’s wife Pam’s father absentee-owned the old Cameron/Pardini/Pronsolino vineyard, then called DuPratt, Pam’s sister and husband Tom lived on the property, and Edmeades made a robust, elegant wine from the Zinfandel fruit.  If I recollect correctly, in 1972 the vineyard was aging ungracefully, missing vines everywhere, completely where the soil was thinnest, but there were about five acres of zins, a few other red grapes plants, and some whites too, probably Chasselas, Malvasia bianca and maybe a muscat or two.

My earliest memory of the place was New Year’s Day morning, 1972.  Deron had imprudently proposed we begin pruning the vineyard that morning, 8 AM sharp.  When I awoke at seven, the day after that night at Floodgate after the Bacchi home burned down I reported in a story over a year ago, Navarro was deep in groundfog and frost.  Being a good soldier about work commitments I arrived up on Greenwood and the DuPratt vineyard a few minutes after eight.  The temperature up there was about forty-five, finger-freezing, and the crew consisted only of Edmeades’ main Mexican employee, Juan Delgado, also a good soldier.

So Juan and I started work side by side in the first two vinerows just above the collapsing old family winery.  I had never pruned grapes before, but Juan was a good instructor, and vines with no trellis support and head-pruned are the easiest kind to learn on.  First Juan sharpened my shears to razoredge with his fine-grained whetstone; then he coached me on the appropriate practice for the vines, a two bud spur facing toward the sun on each vine’s ten or so camdelabra-shaped arms.  I am a slow learner of mental/physical activities like pruning, and Juan was patient, kept turning back from his work to appraise and improve mine.  After an hour or so, he was so much faster than I that he had to walk back over 100 feet each time he needed to guide my work.  However, by 10:30 the day had warmed to sixty-five degrees and my skill and speed increased to almost Juan’s.  We were still the only members of the Edmeades pruning crew on site.

Then as the day progressed, we entertained ourselves by contesting one another to see who could prune faster down the rows, at the same time swapping stories about our lives and adventures in Anderson Valley.  Immigrant stories are always very interesting.  Juan, of course, continued to be the faster and more skilled master of the vines.  By three o’clock we decided we’d done enough for the day, so we stopped work and began an exploration of the property and its manmade features.  Among them were the old winery back where we started pruning.  It was in open field across the ranch road and  slightly down the hill, I believe a two story building, larger, roofless and even more caved in than the Frati winery my story last week illustrated.  Back closer to where one entered the vineyard on the ranch road off of Greenwood Road was another collapsing building, a hay barn.  The old Pardini family home had vanished entirely, though in our final interview last week Angelo remembered it was on a slight rise south of the vineyard area, capturing the morning sun and on the edge of the steeper slope down into Greenwood Creek.

Speaking of restoration and good intentions, let me confess that I have here at my place the winepress the Pardini and Pronsolino families used to service their harvests, an embarrassing story.  One day forty years ago a careless friend and Edmeades employee dropped by my place their old basket press, the largest non-commercial family-style one I have ever seen.  The press sat, still sits, on a three foot square redwood slab, the basket holding the crushed grapes is in fact a small tank of  hand-split redwood staves two and a half foot tall and that wide held in a perfect circle by steel straps.  Someone had hand-drilled one inch perfect holes all over the basket.  I believe it could have held up to ten gallons of fruit at a time, with a yield of around a gallon of wine.  The rolled steel pressing device I still also have, though the wooden frame to support it and the basket cap did not arrive with the rest of the equipment.

Eileen reports the press was powered by the Pronsolinos inserting a walking beam through the eye atop the steel press screw and then harnessing a mule to the beam.  Her job during the crush was to walk ahead of the mule with some candy or fruit thereby assuring steady energy to drive the press. 

When I asked my friend “Whacky Wayne” why he decided I should have the press, he said he didn’t know except he was helping clean up the DuPratt property and that I was a historian.  And each year I promise to do what I wanted to do back then, return the press to the Pronsolino family, where it belongs and who also  would know better than I the craftsman to restore it.

All during the 1970s I visited the DuPratt vineyard, even after it transferred to another absentee owner, Hollywood production technician David DePatie, during which time Edmeades winemaker Jed Steele vinted the DuPratt Zinfandel, along with Ciapusci and Zeni Zins from out Fish Rock Road (more next week) to build the winery’s nation-wide reputation as perhaps the finest Zinfandel wines producer in the United States, I am not making this up.  And Jed and I would recon these vineyards off and on during each growing season right up til harvest to assure the quality of the pruning, look for mildew and plan the appropriate harvest date for a “perfect” wine.  A lovely meditative activity to randomly walk the rows evaluating these elements of good grape farming.

The other family and vineyard I want to introduce you to is also to my knowledge the western-most grape growing location on Vinegar Ridge.  The Valenti Ranch is along Greenwood Road almost halfway to Elk.  The Valenti family migrated from Liga, a village in Tuscany province, northern Italy, and settled on Vinegar Hill around 1895.  After they had cleared land and established a working family homestead they began planting grapes, eventually two vineyards on the south side of the road.  Both sites were “all reds, “ Jenny reports, probably Zinfandel.  The larger twenty five acre one stood where the current “new” vines are, west of the Reis Berry home and sloping northeast down to  the road.  The smaller fifteen acre site was behind the Berry house, was fifteen acres and sloped southerly down toward Greenwood Creek.  None of the old vines have survived.

I have been fortunate to know two generations of Valenti’s and relative Berry’s, including Louie Valenti, brother in law to Reis and Jenny Valenti Berry, and in recent years, Jenny  Moore, school teacher and head butcher at Lemons’ Philo Market, whose grandmother, Gloria, was a Valenti.  Jenny and Marilyn Pronsolino, born Berry, agree the Valentis were ambitious grape farmers, I believe fostering the largest plantings on Vinegar Ridge, and they also had commercial ambitions for their harvest, “selling,” meaning trading their wine to neighbors and to commercial customers like the Ross family’s Greenwood Hotel restaurant  and Navarro by the Sea resort before and during Prohibition. 

As my earlier article described, the warm Piedmont-like microclimate and growing season nighttime  temperatures were key to the success of the early Vinegar Hill vineyardists.  At Greenwood Ridge’s more or less 1,500 foot elevation and southern exposure the Mediterranean climate grapes could ripened sufficiently to  produce the rich wines everyone has made from its fruit for a century and a quarter now.   However, as one heads west along Greenwood Road and toward the ocean that ridgetop temperature advantage declines.  At Sandkulla ranch, for example, five miles west of Valenti’s vineyards, it was possible a century ago to ripen successfully only apples.  Today Sandkulla’s neighbor, Jason Drew, has in recent years planted Pinot noir, but ripening is only possible due to general global warming and higher nighttime temperatures than a hundred years ago.  Back then Valenti/Berry Ranch, about 3.5 miles west of Pronsolino/DuPratt was the westernmost vineyard on Vinegar Ridge we have knowledge of.

Let me amend that observation: Jenny recollects and Anne Fashauer confirms that her grandfather Louie Fashauer planted on his ranch, around two miles west of Berry and on ground sloping down toward Greenwood Creek, white grapes, more aligned with the palate of the German community in Europe and America.   Anne reports Louie made wine at the ranch for family consumption at nd “sale,” and that County  Sheriff of those days, Bobbie Burns, busted him and forced the destruction of the winery building.  Bobbie must have been a relentless enforcer: I have heard stories of his raids and arrests on our side of the hill all the way from Ray Gulch along the Navarro around MP 4 (“Jumbo” Zanoni and grape brandy), over Greenwood and out Fish Rock Road.  And that’s only about a tenth of the county’s topography.

PS: Thank you Eileen, Angelo, David and Marilyn Pronsolino and Jenny Moore for your invaluable historical contribution to my Vinegar Ridge articles, and for your hospitality while helping me improve them.  As I invited at the top of this story, anyone wishing to add to or correct our reporting, please phone me.

(Next Week:  Claudina and Giovanni Pinoli and the industry on the Valley floor.)

One Comment

  1. Jeffrey Burroughs February 14, 2022

    Very interesting history indeed. I remember hearing a funny story about the old vineyard up on Greenwood Road, the one that the Pardini family once owned.
    I believe it was sometime around the turn of the century when this story takes place.
    It was mid summer and a young Ernest Pardini (sr.) had been working for one of Wendling’s elder citizens doing odd jobs for different folks all over the valley. One such job was cutting and delivering firewood to people up on “Vinegar Ridge” and so on this particular day it was decided that a load of firewood should be delivered to the Pardini ( no relation to Earnest) Family. When the two arrived at the entrance to the ranch they proceeded through the two familiar wooden gates and made their way up the small hill to the family cabin. As they continued on with their wagon load of firewood they did not see a single soul about the place. Curious they got off the wagon, set the wheel brake and walked around the cabin for some time calling out but no one answered. Investigating further, young Ernest walked up to the side of the cabin, peered through one of the cabin windows that had been left open, and to his horror he could make out the unmistakable sight of human bodies strewn about the floor of the cabin. Ernest jumped back and yelled out for his partner to “come quick!” When the other fellow ran up to Ernest he asked what was wrong, to which Ernest replied, ” They’re all dead, look!” The out of breath fellow looked at Ernest with puzzlement then slowly leaned in toward the open window and peered in. Upon seeing the entire family laid out on the cabin floor he jolted back and fell over backwards. He fumbled around on the ground trying to gather himself then leaped to his feet and took off in a dead run. Ernest was just about to follow behind the man when he heard a moaning from within the cabin. “They’re alive!” Ernest busted through the cabin door with a swift kick of his boot and ran to the first body he came too. It was then that he got the first whiff of what smelled like very strong wine. When he looked down at the childs face he realized the child was not injured at all, just drunk.
    After piecing it all together Ernest and the other fellow realized the family had stopped work for lunch that day and with their meal had drank too much of their own wine and one by one passed out on the cabin floor.
    Ernest and the other fellow unloaded the wagon and left without uttering another word

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