Tradition and Hands On Quality.
Between the mid-1800s and the 1940s many Italian immigrants whose descendants still live in Mendocino County arrived and planted grapes. Among them in the Calpella-Redwood Valley area were the families of Larry and Doreen Venturi. Today, their traditionally farmed and caringly tended grapes are in demand by discriminating winemakers.
The Venturis take pride in their Italian heritage, which is integral to their family, lifestyle and grape growing methods. Longtime members of the Ukiah Sons of Italy Lodge, Doreen and Larry grew up in Italian-American households and worked on the family ranches. “Westside Calpella was called “Little Italy”,” says Larry.
Larry’s grandfather Elieso Venturi emigrated from Tuscany. He moved to Calpella in 1917 with his wife Laudomia and one-year-old son Mario, Larry’s father. In 1938 Mario married Elvira Viarengo and they owned and ran a restaurant in Ukiah until 1943 when they moved to the ranch in Calpella. They also owned Club Calpella for twenty years until 1966. After leaving the bar and restaurant business Mario became a full time farmer and Elvira continues to be renowned for her cooking.
“There was nothing on this land but brush and oak trees when our families arrived,” says Larry. They cut the oaks and sold the wood to make charcoal, which was done in huge kilns located in Redwood Valley. The charcoal was shipped to Hercules in the Bay Area to make gunpowder. Some of the gunpowder was made into dynamite, transported back here and used to blow out the tree stumps. “Much hard labor and perseverance turned the land into vineyards,” he recounts.
Doreen grew up on Road D in Redwood Valley. Her maternal grandfather Giacama Deghi came from Italy in 1916 and cleared and planted grapes along Eastside Calpella Road. Her paternal grandfather Celestino Piffero left Italy in 1913. In 1926, Celestino and his brother Vitorio married two of Deghi’s daughters Lena and Rose and they bought land at the end of Road D and Colony Drive. Celestino and Lena were the parents of Doreen and her sister Stella Barra, who still lives in Redwood Valley.
Both Larry and Doreen went to Ukiah High School but didn’t meet until 1963. By then, Doreen, who had graduated from Sierra College, was working in a law firm in Ukiah and Larry was a junior at Chico State University. Larry didn’t plan to go into farming. His Uncle Guido, who still lives in Calpella, loves to tell the story of a family conversation when Mario asked Larry, who was just about to finish college, if he had interest in being a farmer. “No, I’ll never be a farmer,” was Larry’s reply, he remembers with a smile.
In 1964 Larry graduated with a degree in Business Administration at Chico State University. He and Doreen married in 1965. “We had a big crowd at our wedding at the Redwood Valley Grange,” says Doreen. “Our mothers did all the cooking—pasta, roasts, salads. The next generation did the decorating and the men bartended. This was the tradition for most Italian families.”
The newlywed Venturis moved to Petaluma where Larry worked for 15 years as the regional vice president for a savings and loan. Doreen was a legal secretary. The year they married, however, they also purchased an old 15-acre vineyard just up the hill from Larry’s family ranch in Calpella in 1965.
“Every weekend we drove to Calpella to pull out the old vines and replant,” Larry reminisces. After their two daughters Deanna and Celestina were born, Doreen would take them to her mother’s to stay while she and Larry worked in the vineyard all weekend. “The first grapes we planted were Charbono and Gamay which we sold to Beringer Brothers and Mondavi,” says Doreen.
By the late 1970s Larry and Doreen bought a home in Deerwood Park in Ukiah where they still reside. They rented and in the 1980s bought the Venturi vineyard from Larry’s father who continued to be active in the business until his death at 91 in 2007. His mother Elvira, 93, still lives in the family home adjacent to the vineyard. Until last year, she cooked lunch every day.
“It was funny how grape buyers like those from Beringer Brothers and Gallo always seemed to show up just before lunchtime,” muses Larry. “They were hoping my mother would invite them to lunch.” He points out that one of the advantages grape buyers find when they came to Mendocino County is that they deal with the vineyard owners, something that is less common in other parts of the wine country.
In addition to being grape growing ranchers both had full time jobs. Larry worked as an independent land appraiser and Doreen was the Superior Court clerk for Judges such as the revered Tim O’Brien (also a grape grower in Redwood Valley). “I had a wonderful career,” says Doreen, who also loves her retirement. She has taken up gardening and quiltmaking and will be part of the Grapevine Quilters Guild show March 6 and 7 at the Ukiah Convention Center. During the grape harvest Doreen still runs the field operation while Larry moves the bins and drives the delivery truck.
“We are a small-to-midsize farm that is fast disappearing,” says Larry. “I do it because I like farming. It’s not eight-to-five and there is always something to do. The work gives me flexibility to do other things I like.” Those include hunting and fishing and spending time at an old hunting lodge known as “The Ponderosa.” The property, purchased by his father and two partners in 1963, is now owned by Larry and his sister Dorene Logan. Dorene and her husband, also named Larry, live next to the family ranch in Calpella.
Larry is assisted by the vineyard foreman Socorro Lopez, who has been on the ranch since he started working at age 16 for Larry’s dad. Socorro lives with his wife Ana and their four children adjacent to the vineyard and oversees day to day operations. His daughter Erica Lopez was last fall’s Ukiah High homecoming queen.
As we drive through the vineyards Larry’s sentimental side shows as he points to the old Carignane vines planted by his grandfather. Some of the hillside Zinfandel is more than 50 years old. He has 45-year old Charbono grapes, a once popular varietal that some vintners are trying to revive. In the Italian tradition plum, persimmon, quince, peach, fig and apple trees planted by his grandfathers and dad grow among the rows of grapevines. Doreen has revived her family traditions and puts up the fruit that comes from the trees.
The family’s old ranch was bisected by the construction of Highway 101 in the 1950s. The hillside vineyard he and Doreen bought 45 years ago is planted to Syrah, Carignane, Charbono, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel. On the East side of the freeway he grows Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Noir, Sangiovese and Merlot.
“My philosophy about which varietals to plant comes from the old Italian way,” says Larry. “We don’t put all our eggs in one basket.” Though more difficult to farm, planting multiple varieties on his 60 acres helps to be prepared for the next trend in the industry.
Larry Venture does his own budding of new vines. He mostly dry farms, and head prunes the vines in the old way. Head pruning is where each vine stands alone in the row of vines, as opposed to being trellised with wire.
“Our grandparents basically grew organically,” says Larry. “Being certified organic increased our grape sales,” adds Doreen.
Venturi Vineyard grapes are sought by winemakers committed to hands on attention and the resulting quality of the fruit. Venturi’s Mendocino buyers include Simaine Cellars, Patianna, Baxter, Magnanimous, Rack and Riddle and Cesar Toxqui, all of whom make highly regarded varietals. Out of the area wineries include Beringer Brothers and Hess Winery.
Since retiring from their other jobs the Venturis have found time to travel. “We’ve spent time in the wine areas of Burgundy and Bordeaux in France, as well as Spain, Germany and of course Italy,” says Doreen. “When we were in Tuscany we realized that our families settled here because it looks similar to their homeland.”
Their grown daughters live in Minnesota. Deanna is a teacher in St. Paul and Celestina works for Wells Fargo in Minneapolis. Larry hopes one of them will come home someday and take over.
“While ours is a mingling of two Italian families,” says Doreen, “the Sons of Italy brings all of us together to the keep the traditions alive.” As president of the Sons of Italy Lodge for nearly ten years, she is coordinating their annual spring fundraiser to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Mendocino Sons of Italy Lodge on April 17. The Sons of Italy was founded in 1915 in New York by Italian immigrants to help each other out. “We still help each other out and every penny we raise goes to good causes in our community including scholarships, fire departments, Hospice and the Special Olympics,” says Doreen.
Italians are noted for having good food, good wine and a good time—“that’s what we do,” adds Doreen and Larry.
Like the title of the Ukiah Sons of Italy recipe book, at Venturi Vineyards “tuto e buono!”