An Italian-American Story.
The first time I saw the label on Nonno Giuseppe Zinfandel at the Bottle Shop in Ukiah I bought a bottle. Straightforward die-cut with a simple gold border, it features the photograph of an appealing Italian gentleman with a distinctive white mustache. It’s old world appeal and the local connection was so compelling that I wanted to try the wine.
That was 2002 and the wine was great–full flavored with charismatic and characteristic Zinfandel flavors and the body and fullness that, along with the label featuring Nonno Giuseppe, encouraged me to step back in time to have a taste of the Italian history that brought winemaking to Mendocino County. I wasn’t the only one who liked it. That 2000 vintage Nonno Giuseppe Zinfandel from Neese Vineyards in Redwood Valley was declared the best Zinfandel at the 2002 California State Fair.
So let’s step back in time. The story of Giuseppe Rovera is an everyman tale of Italian families that immigrated to the United States in search of better lives at the turn of the last century. His granddaughter, Lucille Neese and her husband William Marion (Bill) Neese and their son Bill Neese continue the legacy today and keep his memory by naming their wine brand in his honor.
“Our family has been in the wine and grape business since my grandfather came to Calpella in 1906,” says Lucille. The family home is today is occupied by one of Lucille’s cousins.
Rovera was born in 1868 in Salusa in the Piedmont region of Italy. In 1903, already married to Lucia, he came to the United States. Lucia then traveled with two-year old Maria and three-month-old son, Charlie (Lucille’s father) to Ellis Island and then across the country to join him in California. “Can you imagine speaking no English and traveling with an infant all the way across the country? What a poor brave thing,” says Lucille. “It’s a typical Italian story,” says Bill, Sr.
In 1906 the Roveras settled in Mendocino County north of Ukiah because the geography reminded them of home. The golden rolling hills, fertile valley and benchlands and the warm days and cool nights enticed many Italian immigrants to settle around Calpella and in Redwood Valley. They planted grapes as was the custom and Giueseppi Rovera grew grapes for his livelihood. He and Lucia had one more son, Pete. When they married everyone worked in the vineyards, including the grandkids. In addition to Lucille, Charlie and Pete Barra, Gloria Thompson, Eloise Phies, and Loraine Hoover are Giuseppe’s grandchildren.
“Nonna, my grandmother, took care of all the grandkids while our moms went to work in the vineyard,” remembers Lucille. When they got old enough she and her cousins went to their grandparents after school and worked in the vineyards as well. Later, Lucille’s family bought 40 acres on the corner of West Road and School Way in Redwood Valley when she was 12 years old.
Bill Neese, Sr., was born in Montana and moved to Redwood Valley in 1946 when he was 14. His mom, Margie, was the local school teacher and taught Lucille and her cousins. He and Lucille started going together when she was 15 years old. “We went together for four years before getting married and that was 59 years ago,” says Lucille. Bill and Lucille married in 1950, and purchased 18 acres across the street from Lucille’s family vineyard, which is now included as part of Neese Vineyards.
Bill worked as a logger and had a fleet of trucks. He also purchased the old Lindberg’s Hardware store in Calpella in the 1970s. Son Bill, who went to UC Davis and studied viticulture, runs the hardware store in addition to being a partner in the vineyard and winery. Daughter Susie Mathis lives with her husband Greg and three children in Calpella.
Over the years the Neeses have added to their vineyard. They grow grapes on 68 of the 100 acres they own in Redwood Valley. “My mom always said “buy land, they quit making it,’” Bill, Sr. laughs. The Neeses grow Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel. “In the old days, like everyone else, we sold our grapes to Italian Swiss Colony in Asti in Sonoma County,” says Bill, Sr. Recently their grapes have gone to Beringer and Sterling wineries.
In 1999 the Neeses decided to make their own wine from their grapes. The first vintage, the 1999 Nonno Giuseppe Zinfandel won best of show at the San Francisco Chronicle competition. “John Parducci told me the first time he tasted the wine it was a gold medal winner,” says Bill, Sr.
Over the next few years, they added Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with Nonno Giuseppe on the label. All are made from the Neese Vineyard estate grown grapes. The awards have piled up since then and just last year their Merlot won best of show at a Chicago wine competition.
Their tasting room is open for the Taste of Redwood Valley on Father’s Day weekend in June and for the Redwood Valley holiday sale on Thanksgiving weekend. Other times are by appointment, or if you drive by and see the big door open on the big metal framed building at West and School Streets. Nonno Giuseppe wines are also available at the Bottle Shop and Raley’s in Ukiah, the Superette and Club Calpella in Calpella, and at the Broiler and Redwood Valley Market in Redwood Valley. Look for the sign that says, “Conserve water drink wine.”
Lucille, personable and outgoing, is a good cook. She’s been known to make gnocchi for the Taste of Redwood Valley and her spaghetti sauce is legendary. As the cook, the historian who keeps the scrap books of mementos, and the winery’s bookkeeper, she says she is just one of three votes in the business. Husband Bill says, “she’s the boss.”
Son Bill says the best part about making wine is meeting all the interesting people who come by to taste whether in the Redwood Valley tasting room, at an event for ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) or a pouring in the Bay Area, the Midwest or Oregon.
The best part about carrying on the family winegrowing and wine making tradition says Bill, Sr. is “it’s yours.” As is the story of Nonno Giuseppe and many other Italians who came to Mendocino four generations ago.
TASTING NOTES: Wanting to make something that the Neese family has with their wine, I asked Lucille how she makes spaghetti sauce. The long slow cooking of ground beef and pork with Italian seasonings, tomato sauce, chicken broth, garlic, celery and onions produced a rich sauce I served over penne noodles. It was sublime with 2003 Nonno Giuseppe Zinfandel, a balanced bountiful mouthful with notes of pepper, spice, chocolate and ripe fruit.