It’s been over three week since I embarked on my experience with the Pedroncelli family and I am no closer to being able to bring to life the amazing journey that I experienced. In an over sanitized, over marketed, over messaged world; trying to use words to capture an experience that was real … and authentic … and uncensored … and completely humble – still escapes me.
Julie and Jim Pedroncelli share a 90th celebration moment
The Pedroncelli family – while in the middle of celebrating a 90-year milestone that should have been squarely about, well, about them – chose to share the credit with Sonoma County and the businesses that make up the fabric of the city. As I quickly learned, this is a family that would rather share the spotlight than be in the middle of it.
In 1927, John Sr. (Giovanni) and Julia Pedroncelli purchased the vineyard and a small winery with a total of 90 acres in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley in Geyserville, California for $11,000. Pedroncelli was one of the first wineries in Sonoma Country and the property originally consisted of a home, 25-acress of vineyards of mostly zinfandel and a winery – that was quickly closed when Prohibition struck.
During this time, like most Italian families, they sold grapes door to door in town. The also conducted early “social media of the day”, was a the word of mouth that resulted on how they sold grapes in that door to door fashion. The family tells the story of Uncle John’s memory of his Father’s Model T breaking down in town. The axel snapped and John was left to guard the grapes in the broken-down car while his grandfather trekked back to town to fix the situation. They continued to tend the vines and sell grapes to home winemakers who had the ability to produce 200 gallons for sacramental or medicinal purposes.
When Prohibition ended, the Pedroncelli’s were ready and the first vintage was produced in 1934. The original focus was on bulk wines, sold in barrels to stores and individuals. In the 1940’s, they started their own label and the second generation joined their father with their son John becoming winemaker in 1948 followed by Jim becoming sales director in 1955. The two sons later purchased the winery in 1963.
At this point, the strategy shifting from bulk wines to estate and single vintages as well as vineyard expansion and diversification. The acreage doubled from 90 to more than 180 acres. Over the next 20 years the significant changes continued — the third generation came on board, the Home Ranch Vineyard was replanted, a national sales and export team was established, a new barrel and tasting room was added. In 2015, the family suffered a devastating loss with the death of John Pedroncelli, Senior Winemaker. He still is very much a part of the family, but in 2015 the family named Montse Reece as the third winemaker in nearly 90 years and the first woman winemaker. She is no stranger to the family as she joined the winemaking team at Pedroncelli Winery in 2007 serving alongside John Pedroncelli for seven harvests.
Gabe, Amy and me
It should be noted that much about Pedroncelli is old school and based in tradition. For example, both Jim and Julie work out of offices that were once their childhood bedrooms. I had a great and very honest conversation with Jim where he told me he really didn’t understand the whole blogger and social media thing. Let me be clear that he said this in the most charming and candid way possible. And, with Gabe Sasso and Amy Anderson Gross representing the blogger’s world along with me, he has a point (grin).
Me and Ed St. John, a Self-Described Innovator and Aggravator
However, the winery is making some key strides ahead of many other wineries in California. They were the first to bottle Cabernet Sauvignon in Dry Creek. Pedroncelli not only has a women winemaker, but it is now a 70 percent woman owned company. And Ed St John, Vice President, has used his 25 years of wine experience to introduce new practices to the winery and in marketing – especially social media with the help of PR pro Robert Larsen. It appears to be working as the buzz for Pedroncelli’s 90th (even with its own hashtag #ped90th) continued to build. I’m sure this is a continuous debate as the fourth generation comes up the ranks and it will continue to encourage more debate.
As changes press forth, I feel confident elements will remain unchanged: The commitment this family has to the land; to growing their own grapes; and to making affordable delicious wine they are proud to have their name on with a focus on family legacy.
Now let’s talk a little about the Pedroncelli 90th celebration. We were picked up on Thursday night from San Francisco and brought to the Dry Creek Inn, where I ironically was checked into the Rodney Strong Suite (you may remember that my dear friend, Robert Larsen, who helped with the strategy of the 90th celebration used to run communications for said winery – he assured me it was a coincidence).
We got to know the entire family over dinner at Catelli’s in Geyserville. Catelli’s was originally opened in Geyserville around 1936 by Italian immigrants Santi and Virginia Catelli. The restaurant was originally known as Catelli’s “The Rex” (“The King” as translated from Latin). Third generation Catelli’s and siblings, Domenica and Nicholas Catelli, are now co-owners. I think the Pedroncelli’s were a little nervous when Richard, the second-generation patriarch, and myself got into a spirited conversation about politics and Texas and it appeared neither of us was going to back down. Reinforcements were sent in (unnecessary as strong Italian opinions are part of my heritage and a debate is always fun in my book).
On Friday, we began our morning with breakfast at SHED, a market, café, and community gathering space with a mission is to celebrate and nurture the connection between good farming, good cooking, and good eating.
We moved to the winery with Julie to learn all about the family, it’s history, the wines and to tour the historic winery and walked through the Home Ranch vineyard tasting the wines made from the diverse soils including Zinfandel, Sangiovese and Petite Syrah. My biggest takeaway is that wine is part of the family’s culture and has been since day one. We learned that Julie and Ed have known each other since they were in kindergarten when they took the same bus and took a long journey to come back together as they both ended up in the wine business and found each other again.
We then visited Dry Creek Peach & Produce where proprietor Gayle Sullivan allowed us to taste two of the juiciest most wonderful peaches I have ever been lucky enough to taste. We toured the orchard where more than 30 varieties of peaches, nectarines, vegetables and even a few fig trees are planted. We even started our day with a lovely Bellini that was bursting with ripe peach and delicious bubbles.
We had a picnic lunch at Lake Sonoma and learned all about the steelhead conservation that happens with a docent tour of the hatchery that included props to bring the story to life.
Our last stop before the hotel was Wisdom Vineyard, one of the first Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in Dry Creek as well as one that grows all five Bordeaux varieties. This is an example of innovation as one block was machine picked for the first-time last year after 89 years of hand picking. That night we ended our festivities with another small family gathering that included cocktails, wines, ribs, reds and fun. We may or may not have had a late not stop at Duke’s but photos will be concealed to protect …well everyone…
We awoke on July 22 excited that it was the big day, the 90th anniversary of Pedroncelli. This is the date the family originally signed papers to buy the original property and winery. We started at the Sonoma Farmer’s Market with a goal of grabbing breakfast and food for an alfresco lunch at John’s Grove on the shore of Dry Creek. Little did we know what an intimate family experience we were in for later.
We quickly stopped at the winery and we were in for such a fun surprise. The winery had just received its certification from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). As Ed joked, “We’ve been sustainable for 90 years and counting and it’s in our DNA.” This is an arduous process that was handled by Mitch Blakeley, a fourth generation Pedroncelli, who worked for a month to answer the hundreds of questions. He met with an expert, reviewed the self-assessment and in the spirit of good things happen to really good people, got to put up the signs the day of the big anniversary party.
We toured the Bushnell Vineyard, which has been associated with the Pedroncellis for over 50 years. John Sr. purchased the land in the 1940s and it was passed to their son-in-law Al Pedroni in the 1950s. Al’s daughter Carol Bushnell inherited the vineyard in 1990 and she and her husband Jim continue the extension of the family estate where they farm Bordeaux variety blends.
Altogether, two-thirds of all Pedroncelli wines produced are red, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel comprising nearly 50% of estate vineyards.
Courtesy of Gabe Sasso
We left the vineyard and headed to John’s Grove, where we immediately knew we were in for something special. John’s Grove was built as a tribute for the family to go to remember the special family member they lost in 2015. It is located around a lovely creek and is tree lined and picturesque. We had a beautiful picnic and Gabe, Linda, Amy, Julie and I figured you had to get in the creek to experience Dry Creek. It was amazing and I’m blessed to have been included on a milestone day in a blessed family place. I know John must have been looking down and smiling at the legacy he helped to build.
Gia, Gabe, Amy, Linda, Dick and Julie
The big event began later that afternoon at the winery kicked off by one of the press attendees that I have yet to mention. Author Dick Rosano (as well as esteemed wine writer) talked about the Italian influence on winemaking in America. I knew about the influence of agriculture on these families, but Dick really brought to life the tenacity it took to sell grapes door to door in the middle of Prohibition just to keep the families financially afloat. I got to know Dick and his lovely wife, Linda, pretty well over the trip and I loved getting to know them. Dick’s friendship with the Pedroncelli’s, his knowledge of wine and his passion for learning made him one of the most interesting Renaissance men I’ve gotten to know in a long time.
Me and Pedroncelli Friend and Bill Smart, General Manager of Lambert Bridge Winery
Syndicated columnist Dan Berger led us through a Flights through the Decades event of Cabernet and Zinfandel wines beginning in the 1970s that I cannot image how hard it was to curate. Here was our first flight line-up (reach out if you want my notes – I know this is getting long…):
1982 Magnum Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel
1994 Mother Clone Zinfandel
1995 Bushnell Vineyard Zinfandel
2004 Mother Clone Zinfandel
Our second flight line-up of Cabernets were as follows:
1977 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (still dreaming about this one)
1992 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
1996 Three Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
2000 Morris Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley)
2009 Three Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
After the tasting, we joined the Pedroncelli family to dedicate the newest vineyard, the Noventa Vineyard, where Ed had arranged for a drone to take a picture of the entire crew as he, Jim and Julie toasted to “family, wisdom and consistency.”
A brief glimpse at our dinner, which was served by Ken Rochioli of KR Catering:
Braised Chicken over Creamy Polenta with Mother Clone Zinfandel
Filet Mignon with Bacon, Bourbon, Shallot and Mustard Sauce; Grilled Asparagus and Sweet Peppers; Pepper Jack Whipped Potatoes with Cilantro with Wisdom Cabernet Sauvignon
Almond Bar with Caramel Drizzle and Fleur de Sel; Cappuccino Chocolate Mousse Cups in Mini Phyllo Cups and Peanut Butter Bars with Honey with Four Grapes Vintage Port
I want to share the video that was played where the family talked about the legacy that they built together. It’s special as they will never willingly do this.
Finally, we drank from Big Bottles – we ate, we drank, we shared memories and I can’t remember laughing so much. The room was filled with people who began the journey with the Pedroncelli’s and clearly will be around the next 90 years. It had all the signs of a big family gathering of people who cared a great deal about each other. And, it’s interesting – you can’t spend any time with any of the Pedroncelli family without feeling as if you are a part. As I left, I felt a sense of sadness, as if I was leaving behind a group of near, but very dear friends.
And as I left a few weeks later for my family reunion, my Pedroncelli Rose, Sauvignon Blanc and Mother Clone Zinfandel occupied 25 percent of my wine suitcase. Because it was important for me that I bring the Pedroncelli experience to my family as they made me feel a part of theirs.