Kenwood ranchers argue vineyards better than housing on valley landscape

"People can complain about vineyards and tasting rooms. But if we didn’t have them, it all would be paved over into homes."|

Dino Pagani Amantite pulls up in a tractor on a chilly winter afternoon. He has been pruning and his hands are caked with the mud from soil farmed by his family since the 1880s. That’s when his great-grandfather Felice Pagani, one of 14 kids, left Lake Como in Italy for opportunity in America and found it in Glen Ellen.

“I get my hands dirty. The farmhands respect me for it,” said the 58-year-old grapegrower, who oversees the storied Pagani Ranch with his mother, Norma, 80. She lives in a ranchhouse that predates the 1906 earthquake and keeps all the books by hand. She also has firm opinions about how to deal with vines.

“No two are alike. One vine cusses you out and another vine says, ‘How are you old lady?’ And that is what makes it so good. You don’t see any two that are identical,” she said, peering out from the folds of a heavy cap with ear flaps.

Her grandfather, Felice Pagani, bought two ranches and many of the gnarly old vines he planted are still producing flavor-rich grapes prized by wineries like Ridge and Seghesio.

Back in 1972, Norma moved with her young family back to Glen Ellen to care for the ranch. But it was mainly just maintaining what they had. Then six years ago, the family decided to revive the ranch, digging a new well, adding irrigation and planting 25 acres of vines on land that hadn’t been used in some 80 years.

The picturesque Pagani Ranch, with its white New England-style barn built in 1860 against a green hillside, is one of the most photographed in Sonoma Wine Country. In the fall the old Alicante grapevines between the highway and the barn turn a deep red, causing rubbernecking motorists to slam on the brakes and get out of their cars to snap pictures. Sometimes, they brazenly walk into the vineyard.

“We don’t think much about it,” Dino shrugged, “because they’ve been here forever.”

The Amantites are supportive of any new development related to agriculture or the tourism that supports agriculture and that fends off what they feel would be more onerous types of development. Dino believes the new Sugarloaf Crush custom winemaking facility near Oakmont will aid grape growers, and he said he finds the houses that have cropped up along the hillsides unobtrusive.

“People can complain about vineyards and tasting rooms,” Dino said. “But if we didn’t have them, it all would be paved over into homes.”

The extended family is now committed to keeping the ranch within the family, rather than selling off the 181 acres.

“We’re very proud of our legacy here, and we want to keep it going. It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of stress and a lot of pressure to make the right decision when you’re a family,” Dino said. “If it’s a family business, the key is everyone has to get along. We talk and communicate and get along fine. Family fights are what ruin properties. That’s when the big corporations come in and buy it.”

Meg McConahey

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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