Julie Pedroncelli holds up a barrel stencil that will be donated to the Smithsonian as part of the wine history of Sonoma County, Thursday Sept. 12, 2013 in Geyserville. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013

Safe-keeping Sonoma's story

Soon to join such iconic items of Americana as the Star Spangled Banner, Dorothy's ruby slippers and Abraham Lincoln's stovepipe hat at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is a tiny slice of Sonoma County history — Italian immigrant John Pedroncelli's original winery sign.

The old family heirloom will soon be professionally packed by museum staff and shipped to Washington, where it will join 137 million other artifacts in the national museum's permanent archives that collectively tell the vast American story.

The Pedroncellis are one of several prominent old California winemaking families who have been approached about contributing ephemera, photos and historical items to the Smithsonian. That group includes the Gallos, Martinis, Bundschus locally, and the Wentes of Livermore.

They all have been invited to the nation's capital in October to participate in a special invitation-only winemaker dinner at the museum, in advance of the 80th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition on Dec. 5. The dinner, overseen by Darrel Corti of the famed Corti Brothers Italian Grocery in Sacramento, will raise funds for the museum's expanding American food and wine history project.

"The Smithsonian wants to expand their collections and they want to reflect the whole American experience," said Julie Pedroncelli St. John, whose father, Jim, was one of four children of winery founder John Pedroncelli. "We have this great heritage. Why not share it?"

In addition to the "John Pedroncelli Winery" sign that hung on the original building from the 1930s to the 1970s, the family will send a wooden grape box stamped "Pedroncelli," a stencil used to mark the old tap barrels, the copper polenta pot Grandma Julia Pedroncelli used to cook up huge meals for family and crew and a copy of the property bill of sale from 1927. Giovanni "John" Pedroncelli paid $11,000 for a failing winery and 90 acres of Dry Creek Valley land.

"I think they were thinking Prohibition was going to end sooner than it did. The good news is that basically the 25 acres of vineyard that were here were their source of income," St. John said, explaining that her grandfather survived selling grapes to home winemakers, who were allowed to make up to 200 gallons a year.

The Pedroncellis came to the attention of the Smithsonian a few years ago when they contributed photos for a traveling exhibit. One of those, an old black-and-white of a Pedroncelli harvest feast, is part of a current exhibit in Washington, "Food: Transforming the Table 1950 to 2000."

Winemaker Mike Martini, whose grandfather, Louis M. Martini, built his eponymous winery just as Prohibition was lifted in 1933, said it's important for the California wine industry to be included in an institution the size of the Smithsonian.

"A lot of people go through there that aren't familiar with the wine industry. Anything we can do to show we're a valid part of the American economy is important," said Martini, adding most of what he has shared are old photos.

Martini said his grandfather survived Prohibition selling sacramental wine and grape concentrate from San Joaquin Valley fruit for home winemaking. But with the election of anti-Prohibitionist President Franklin Roosevelt, he knew that to make better wine he needed a coooler climate. In the spring of 1933, he started building his winery, which was sold to the Gallo family in 2002.

The Bundschu family, which will be represented at the Smithsonian dinner, is still weighing what it might give to the archives.

"We have a pretty decent amount of historical information but historically, our relationship has been with The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley," said Jeff Bundschu, current president and sixth generation grapegrower and vintner at Gundlach-Bundschu.

The "Rhinefarm" that forefather Jacob Gundlach bought in 1858 in Sonoma was shuttered in 1919. His grandfather, Towle, started building up the vineyards in the 1930s; father Jim restored the winery in 1973.

One of the historical prizes still possessed by the family and that would be of keen interest is Jacob Bundschu's original journal from the 1850s.

"Its a rare, first-hand account of the immigrant journey in full detail," Jeff Bundschu said.

"Certainly we're supportive of the Smithsonian project and we're going to definitely come up with something," he added. "This will force us to take a look at our entire historical portfolio."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204.

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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