With a staggering 60% slant, Jackass Hill is the steepest non-terraced vineyard in Sonoma County and the most harrowing to harvest. Yet every year, Lee Martinelli teeters on his tractor trying to defy gravity on this daunting slope.
Before him, his father, Leno Martinelli, farmed it for 75 years, up until he was 87. And the original daredevil, Giuseppe Martinelli, farmed Jackass Hill with horses for more than 30 years, after planting its vineyard in 1889.
“My grandfather and my father farmed it for so long, so I’m going to keep farming it,” said Martinelli, owner of Martinelli Winery in Windsor. “These vines are just part of the family now. I can’t abandon them.”
He is 83 now, and his persistence in harvesting this precipitous hillside is emblematic of the heritage that defines many vintners of Italian descent in Sonoma County — the A. Rafanellis, the Rochiolis, the Sangiacomos and the Pedroncellis among them.
The wineries they run all were started by Italian immigrants who came to Sonoma County roughly 100 years ago, and all were inherited by successive generations. While today many wineries are being snapped up by corporations, these vintners have no intention of selling. On the contrary, they’re preparing to pass the baton to their descendants.
That continued family ownership, perhaps more than the varietals these wineries produce, sets them apart in Wine Country. Several of these wineries began by growing zinfandel grapes and still maintain zinfandel as their flagship varietal. Yet others have adapted to what grows best in their areas, such as chardonnay and pinot noir in cooler regions locally.
Roughly 100 years ago, many Italians immigrated here from Italy, drawn by word-of-mouth descriptions that painted Sonoma County as a place that looked like their Italian villages and had an ideal climate for farming, with plenty of hinterland to purchase.
Several planted zinfandel, genetically identical to the Italian red grape primitivo. Some were grape growers in Italy. For others, growing grapes was a new career.
Their ingenuity and hard work saw them through the turbulence of World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II. They watched the market with a keen eye, reinventing themselves when necessary and eventually transitioning from farming fruit or hops to wine grapes.
With its backdrop of Jackass Hill, Martinelli’s story is the most dramatic version of the Italian immigrant winemakers tale. Local regulations today limit slopes to a 30% grade. This vineyard, with its 60% slope, is grandfathered in because it dates back to 1889.
Martinelli said the hill’s name dates back to the 1970s when Helen, his father’s late second wife, once groused, “Only a jackass would farm that hill.”
Undaunted by the steep hill, Giuseppe saw Tuscany in it and planted 3½ acres of zinfandel vines, ones that are still producing these grapes more than 100 years later.
“I went back to Italy and saw the village where Giuseppe grew up,” Martinelli said. “It was very steep and very wooded. There wasn’t a lot of production land. I think property here in America was much more available.”
Giuseppe, Martinelli said, would be pleased that his farming operation has remained in the family, though it has changed over time. Martinelli began converting a hop kiln building — used to dry hops for beer — into a winery in 1985. Today the winery produces 13,000 cases of wine yearly.
“I imagine my grandfather would be very happy to see the land he worked so hard to buy and farm all those years is being taken care of and we’ve been good stewards of it,” Martinelli said.
On a recent day, not far from Jackass Hill, Martinelli stopped his Jeep on a steep dirt path overlooking hillsides ribbed in vineyards.
“Like an eagle seeing everything beneath its perch, here I can see Giuseppe’s dream,” the vintner said of his grandfather, who immigrated to America in 1885. “I can sense his excitement to taste the first berry from his first crop of zinfandel.”
The A. Rafanellis
Shelly Rafanelli pointed to a picture of her great-grandmother, Letizia Rafanelli, on the wall.
“She was 5 feet tall, and everyone in our family is vertically challenged,” the winemaker said with a laugh. “I’m 5’3,” so I’ve got 3 inches on her.”
Letizia may have been a petite woman, Rafanelli said, but she had moxie.
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