The Anderson Valley Historical Society has been presenting a series of talks to the public about different aspects of Anderson Valley history.
Eileen Pronsolino recently gave a wonderful talk on the early years of winegrowing and winemaking in Anderson Valley. Eileen’s main reference was an article she and Niel Bell wrote in a publication called “Sketches from Anderson Valley” written in 1989. The Sketch booklets each cover different subjects and came out each year for several years. I have ones for 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1992. These can be purchased at our history museum for the amazing price of $5 for a set of all four booklets. Other subjects covered include; “Anderson Valley High School — The First Class,” “How the Apple Fair Began,” “Clearwater Ranch,” “Boontling,” “The Days of Resorts in Anderson Valley,” “Tanbark Peeling,” and many others. If you haven’t visited the museum and you have more than a passing interest in local history the museum is a true treasure trove. You can walk way back in time through the publications on offer as well as the many artifacts on display. You are bound to see many names you recognize from families still living in the valley who have roots going way back. The purpose of this article is just to whet your appetite for more Anderson Valley history and set you on a track to find out more.
Digging back into the achieves of the AVA I found some basic information about Eileen in an interview conducted by Steve Sparks in February of 2009. She was born in 1930 in Crescent City, California. Her father was a bridge engineer working in the North West for California’s Division of Highways later known as CalTrans. When Eileen was two and a half years old her family moved to Anderson Valley so her father could work on roads. He became a superintendent working on projects from Fort Bragg to Point Arena all through the valley to Cloverdale up to Hopland and even Leggett Valley. “In those days the river flooded every year and not just for a day or so. The whole west side of Anderson Valley Way was often under water.” In 1936 she attended the Con Creek Elementary (where the Museum is now). While there she was taught by the Famous Blanche Brown. She went to High School where the Senior Center is now. The whole family moved to Eureka for her dad’s job for a time but then moved back to Anderson Valley. Eileen says, “I had a wonderful childhood here.”
On her fifteenth birthday she met Angelo Pronsolino who confided in his friend Mr. McAllister that he was going to marry her one-day. They married in 1949 and had three children David, Gary and Angela. Eileen was a full time mom and ranch wife until her kids were teenagers at which time she started a career in banking. The bank (which was in Boonville) closed and Eileen went to work for Allan Green at Greenwood Ridge Winery for 10 years as tasting room manager. It was during this time she put the article on Wine history together.
Eileen describes herself as a curious person who might have liked to be a doctor. When asked about the happiest day of her life she said, “Nothing can compare to the thrill of holding your newborn child in your arms.” When asked to describe herself she said, “I try to be fair and see both sides to any argument or discussion. You can’t always be right and I can see that over the years I’ve learned that you should never assume that something will happen - so I try not to.”
To read the entire interview by Steve with Eileen go to this link on the internet: https://avalleylife.wordpress.com/category/list-of-interviews/eileen-pronsolino/
According to Eileen’s story the first whiff of wine grapes were perhaps planted by Swiss immigrants around 1856 between the present day towns of Philo and Navarro. However, she found that there is no mention of wine in early accounts of life in the valley. Grape growing probably did not take off, as the early settlers had no winemaking tradition with the exception of the Swiss families. The climate was a second problem. Spring frosts were disastrous for grapes. In the 1890s Italian immigrants were arriving on the west coast. Not surprisingly, they knew how to grow grapes and make wine. Greenwood Ridge was particularly well suited to grape growing as the climate is above chilling fogs. Ridge lands have sunlight but the ocean breezes keep the scorching high temperatures of summer in check. There are many old names of grape pioneering families mentioned in Eileen’s account. She mentions that those who disliked the sourness of wine sometimes enjoyed grappa, a strong brandy distilled from grape leavings. Other areas with warm south-facing slopes began to plant grapes. Unfortunately just as momentum was growing for winemaking, prohibition came on making it fully illegal by 1921. (Areas of the County had gone “dry” in piecemeal fashion before federal prohibition.)
In the 1940’s killing frosts took their toll on already planted vines. After the war newcomers to the valley once again did not have a wine drinking culture. The major exception was in Asti where the Italian Swiss Colony Wine Company existed and they purchased some Anderson Valley grapes. Overall this collaboration was not successful for various reasons (see Eileen’s original article for details). According to Eileen the modern era of winegrowing began in 1964 where Dr. Donald Edmeades planted 24 acres and put up a sign reading, “Edmeades Folly.” Then Tony and Gretchen Husch bought 21 acres on Greenwood Ridge.
In conclusion Eileen and Niel Bell note, “With two family wineries producing premium wines from high quality fruit, it wasn’t long before others followed, creating the modern renaissance of Anderson Valley wine. The rest is history.”