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Claudina & Giovanni Pinoli: Roots of the Wine Industry on the Valley Floor

The Johnnie Pinoli funeral at Evergreen Cemetery on a warm winter afternoon two weeks ago was a remarkable celebration of his life and roots in Anderson Valley.  At least a hundred family and friends attended, along with most of the local AVFD fire trucks and volunteers in dress uniforms and equipment.  The reverend Eric Peterman presided.

As I strolled through “The Dusties,” meeting kin and companions of Johnnie’s,  greeting, hugging and reminiscing with old friends, it once again struck me what an astonishingly loyal and complex community The Valley is and how lucky I was to turn left at Cloverdale and in  a way “stumble” into it fifty years ago.  And, naturally, one of the first “locals” I became friends with was the extended Pinoli family, more specifically, Johnnie and his wife Thelma,  cousins Ray nearby sheep rancher, and Norris, also neighbor and homeowner adjacent to Ray’s ranch off Clark Road.  They all were among the first Valley “oldtimers” modelling for this “newcomer” the essence of our Valley’s culture and to how a “city kid” adapts to living here. 

The first generation Pinolis were a large clan born in an Italian Piedmont village named Pientado near Lake Como.  Five brothers and a sister serially migrated to the US beginning in the 1890s and had all settled in Anderson Valley by 1906, the earthquake year.  Brothers Norris and Ray’s parents, Giuseppi and Elvira, became successor landowners of the south third of Gschwend Ranch extending from Highway 128, along Mill Creek all the way to the Navarro River.  In my time Ray was the family farmer, and ran on about 250 acres a traditional operation of sheep, apple orchard and occasional logging in the riverside timber, no grapes.  Ray’s Hole on the Navarro with a rocky bluff for a diving board was one of the deepest, cleanest swimming spots on the whole river, and he graciously welcomed any summertime visitors to it, even “hippies” like I.

Claudina and Giovanni (John) migrated to AV in the early 1900s.  Claudina, born Fumagalli, came from another Como area family, more wealthy than the Pinolis who could afford to educate her.  When she arrived in Anderson Valley she had the equivalent of a doctor’s credentials, but could not practice due to her gender and American Medical Association’s  regulatory bias against professional immigrants.  The Valley property they bought was in a lovely, secluded location, all open pasture about a quarter of a mile up Lazy Creek from Highway 128 and included perhaps 165 acres.   We don’t know whether the Pinolis acquired their place from neighboring Maddux Ranch to the north or Cook to the south, possibly the latter as the access road through redwoods and oaks along Lazy Creek was and is a right-of-way through Philo Foothills property, successor to Cook.

The next generation owners of the Pinoli ranch, Hans and Teresa Kobler, founders of Lazy Creek Vineyards, now Twomey, have been among my oldest and closest Valley friends.  I spent days each year in afterwork socializing or evening dining and story-telling with them, often for long hours at a time.  At my last visit ten years ago the original Pinoli house, nestled in a modest open valley along the creek, was still there, occupied and well taken care of.  And so were Claudina’s one room office, the small storage sheds along the creek and the hay barn across the ranch road from the house, all built of split and milled redwood material and also in good repair.  I use the word “office” here because despite being denied formal practice credentials she maintained this clinical space to provide free of charge her skills and services as a body healer and herbalists to residents of The Valley community, most important to the overworked immigrant logger population.  My friend and mentor, Bill  Witherell, a local woodsman and one time beneficiary of her services, spoke with reverence of her body healing skills, her homeopathic remedies and empathetic kindness, free of charge.  Bill also always described Pinoli family affairs as Claudina’s,  her vineyard, her winery, her medical practices, a commentary, I suspect, on her role as its leader managing the farm, vineyard and winery.

Claudina and her husband planted a vineyard on the open meadow up the hill from the house and west-facing to capture the afternoon sun.  Robert Pinoli, jr. doesn’t know how large the vineyard was or what varieties of grapes it grew.  Hans Kobler built a pond on the vineyard site for storing irrigation water pumped up from Lazy Creek in the rainy season.  He once told me as we walked up to the pond one summer day an interesting geological fact about its construction.  When the contractor dug the anchor trench for the pond’s walls, he found about twenty feet down a redwood tree trunk about thirty feet long and unrotted.  To this day I think about the dramatic saga of mountain-building, earthquake and erosion over eons of our uplifting North Coast Mayacamas Mountains this buried redwood revealed.

The Pinoli winery was a small building behind the house and on the bank just above the headwaters of Lazy Creek.  Its crumbling partially underground cement foundation was still visible on my last visit to the current winery premises.  The rest of the wooden building has totally rotted away.  I speculate it was all redwood with the upper story used for the grape crush and  press, the cement cellar for the all-year cool temperature best for wine storage and aging.  Robert and I agree the family both consumed the product as part of their traditional daily dining regime and sold or traded it as well to local neighbors.  Robert believes they too were arrested by the relentless County Sheriff Bobby Burns who also busted wineries on Vinegar Ridge and out Fish Rock Road, as I have previously reported.  After national Prohibition was rescinded in 1930 or so, Claudina and John’s winery was the first to become bonded in Anderson Valley, Robert reports.

The Pinolis were the first family to plant grapes on the Anderson Valley floor.  Were they the only early growers down here?   No, but I believe Ray’s and Norris’s uncle Joe Pinoli settled a small farm and vineyard off of Nash Mill road on the way to Clow Ridge, currently owned by the Peterman family.  I know there were numerous Italian families living further up Mill Creek on and around the Hayward Scott ranch, now Nash subdivision; but I don’t know if they too planted grapes. 

And years ago I discovered one old vineyard site down here in the Deep End perhaps no one else knows about.  To the south of my farm, named with irony Harmony Hill, there is a hundred-sixty acre parcel now owned and planted to grapes by Kendall Jackson Vineyards.  One day in the early seventies my old Navarro friend and educator Bill Witherell was helping me repair the property line stock fence separating me from Kendall-Jackson, then owned by some retired city people named Lytle.  Bill asked me if I knew there had been a vineyard on the place.  I replied that sometimes in the late afternoon I saw what looked like its remains, on a west-facing side hill the shadowy ripples in the turf formed by cross-cultivation around now gone head-pruned vines. 

So Bill and I trespassed over to a fairly steep side hill just below the flat where the Lytle house  and barn stood, still stands.  This property had been settled by one Fred Skrbek, probably Czech/German.  Fred had built a home and barn, each still standing, at the top of his complexly rolling mostly pasture land, and planted vineyard too.  And sure enough when Bill and I  walked over to the site, it became really clear, yes, here were the ripples left in the grassy turf by the plowing and cross plowing in years past, evidence of maybe a half acre of vines.  To this day I’ve never heard anyone else mention the Skrbek vineyard.  Elsie Skrbek had sold the ranch after Fred died and was living in the gracious one story home next to Lemons’ Philo Market.  I wish I’d gone to meet Elsie.  Robert Pinoli suspects perhaps an Italian family settled there before Skrbek, and possibly had planted the vines. 

To bring to a close this chapter of Anderson Valley’s grapegrowing and winemaking early days, I will guide us to two more regions around The Valley, the first one out Fish Rock Road.  I am familiar with three old-time vineyards out that way, all Italian and all closer to the coast than Valenti and Faschauer on Greenwood.  The warmest and earliest ripening of them was also closest to the ocean.  Charlie Ciapusci’s father planted his vines around World War I, the largest area, about two acres facing south and was also the steepest.  In fact annual cultivation, winter rain and summer breezes had left little soil around the vines, many of which were missing, others only about two feet tall.  When you stood at the top of this patch near the family homestead, you could see the ocean about four miles away and north of Point Arena.

My first grape-picking job was at Ciapusci, 1972.  I and two other “hippie” friends arrived around 9 AM one September morning.  Charlie handed us each two five gallon galvanized buckets, marched us brusquely to the bottom of the vineyard and started us picking down the rows.  The fruit on this steep terrain was so sparce we had to walk, or shuffle carefully, through the loose gravelly soil for a couple of hundred feet to fill our buckets, then return again to the up-and-down-the-hill avenue to unload our pick.  Charlie didn’t stick around to move the tractor carrying the wooden grape boxes we were dumping the fruit into, so that further trek uphill added more time and shuffle to each pick cycle.

By noontime, I was down to a sweat-soaked tee shirt, shoulders, ankles and calves tensing up from the picking’s off-balance muscular rhythm on sidehill terrain, feeling ready to abandon Ciapusci and call it a day.  Let’s see $3.25/hour times three hours equals $9.75, a little more than the cost of gasoline driving from Navarro.  About then Charlie came down from the house and saluted us with an invitation, “hey, Hippie, wanna have lunch with us on the veranda?”  Turned out that what he meant was, “OK, enjoy your sandwiches, but why not try some of our pasta, too, and maybe a sip of our rose.” Linguine with basil and pinole nuts, Italian hospitality, first class.  Around 3 PM, Charlie terminated our day, as the Mexicans working at Hollow Tree Lumber mill on nearby Garcia River reported for afternoon duty after their mill workday.  Fine with me.  We didn’t return the next day.

A year or so later I happened to be visiting the Pedroncelli brothers winery in Geyserville during harvest time.  As I was chatting with brother John, one of their flatbed trucks drove up to the crushing station, and I recognized the Ciapusci grape boxes.  I asked John what he thought of the Ciapusci fruit’s quality.  His reply was what I later learned to expect from a larger winery operator.  He said he simply continued buying the Ciapusci fruit out of loyalty to his father’s and Charlie’s father’s friendship way back then.  The tonnage from the place was tiny, arrived long after all the Geyserville and Dry Creek grapes had been crushed and pressed, and it was a four hour round trip out Fish Rock Road to get the grapes.  I reported back to Edmeades winemaker Jed Steele my findings, and when Jed visited the Pedroncellis to inquire about taking over the Ciapusci contract, he was told there was no contract, just a multi-generation relationship, and he’d be pleased to encourage Charlie to transfer his loyalty to Edmeades.  Edmeades paid Charlie a couple of hundred dollars a ton more for the fruit and added the Ciapusci Ranch label to its nationally famous array of cool climate Zinfandels.

Two miles east of Ciapusci vineyard was George Zeni’s even smaller site.  Last year I wrote an extensive article about the immigrant Zeni family and its contribution to the early and later Anderson Valley grape growing story. I will only note here that though Zeni was two miles further away from the coast climate than Ciapusci, those grapes lay on a flat slightly north sloping bench above the Garcia River, and the cool afternoon breezes coming up the river assured that Zeni’s fruit would be harvested three weeks later than Charlie’s, along about the time DuPratt was picked, early to mid October.  That is a long growing season.

One other old vineyard I know of I also never saw.  Back another mile east of Zeni and on southern slopes below Fish Rock Road was Gianoli Vineyard.  I never met and know nothing of the Gianolis, as only one lone descendant, George, was alive and in residence there when I first moved to The Valley.  I know Guido Pronsolino, Mailliard Ranch manager, and his two sons also managed the Gianoli Vineyard for a while in the 1970s.  Today, Steve Alden, whose family bought the Gianoli  place back in the 1980s, has planted grapes on the property at a scale significantly larger than the Gianoli’s vineyards.  I don’t know what varieties Steve has planted, but suspect Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

This last Valley old vineyard I only learned about during my visit with Mike Mannix at the Boonville dump two weeks ago.  Mike asked me if I knew where that “hippie” commune on Haehl Hill, Pomo Tierra, had been.  I did, knew it had previously been part of the “Old Chatham Ranch,” that the latest owner, Dr. Robert Lee, had planted grapes somewhere up the hill from Highway 128.  I have always wanted to know more about this place’s history and know whom to ask, Wes Smoot.

Well, what Mike Mannix reported to me was that near the top of the ridge on our left as we drive up Haehl Hill towards Cloverdale there was a remarkable artesian-like spring simply gushing out of the ground.  Before World War I, Archie Schoenahl’s father, George, owned the property, understood the value of the available water and planted a typical for its time diverse orchard/vineyard of apples, pears, plums, walnuts and, wine grapes.  Mike wasn’t able to provide me with more information.  It was more the miracle of a gushing spring on at the very ridgetop of Haehl Hill that fascinated both him and me.

I’ll conclude this chapter of The Valley’s early grapegrowing and winemaking days by reminding us all that under the legally regulated Anderson Valley appellation’s description “Anderson Valley” actually stretches from south of Navarro town only to Ornbaun Creek and Ragland Ranch where the Meyer family tasting room is today.  From there south to the County line it becomes a whole different climate, warmer days and nights in summer, more like Cloverdale and environs, or France’s Rhone Valley, more suitable for Zinfandel, mourvedre, grenache, and so on.  Ratto Ranch, on Highway 128 just before the county line is certainly an first settler grower family.  Edmeades once bought Ratto’s fruit back around 1980.  Talk about early ripening and a big wine.  I think we picked the fruit in early September.  And as the sign along Highway 128 at Ratto tells us, the whole grapegrowing area today from here to Ragland ranch has its own formal appellation, “Yorkville Highlands,” very romantic.

My thanks to Robert Pinoli, jr., for guiding me through the Pinoli family’s heritage, migration and settlement story.  Without his help this report would have been even more incomplete than it is now.

(Next week:  The early days of Anderson’s Valley “modern” grapegrowing and winemaking, Italian Swiss, Edmeades, Husch, Kobler.)

One Comment

  1. Marshall Newman March 2, 2022

    Seem to be missing some vineyards near Boonville from the 1940s; Rankin Rickard, Italian Swiss Colony, and Bob and Barky Rawles come to mind. There also was a small pre-Prohibition vineyard on what is now The Land near Philo (maybe not valley floor, but not in the high hills, either).

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