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Long history of Pagani Ranch

Friday, October 21st, 2011 | Posted by

Dino Amantite and his mother, Norma Pagani Amantite, standing before the barn built by Felice Pagani in 1906.

By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent

In the late 19th century, many enterprising European immigrants came to Sonoma Valley to establish farms, and most planted vineyards to make wine for personal use.

The Valley is still graced by some of those early vineyards, although few remain in the hands of the founding family. An exception is Glen Ellen’s 181-acre Pagani Ranch, run today by the founder’s grand-daughter and great-grandson, Norma Amantite and her son Dino.

The story of Pagani Ranch and its founding is one of pluck, luck, and a great deal of hard work. In that way it’s similar to most tales involving the early settlement of Sonoma Valley.

Founder Felice Pagani was born in 1863 in Fenegrò, Italy, one of 12 children. Close to the border of Switzerland, Fenegrò was tiny and poor. Most residents labored in the local silk factory, described as “cold, wet, and miserable” by Norma.

At age 20, hoping to improve his prospects, Felice emigrated to the United States.  He spent two years in Vermont felling trees until the cold weather drove him to Sonoma Valley in 1885, where he found work at the Goldstein Ranch in Glen Ellen. Today the property, known as Monte Rosso Vineyard, is famed for its old-vine Zinfandel, which was tended by Felice when both he and the vines were young.

Before long, the hard-working Felice became foreman of Goldstein’s vineyards and, sometime around 1890, sent back to Italy for 16-year-old Angela Bogani to become his wife.

“The last time he’d seen Angela she was probably 8 or 9,” Norma said. “But he knew she came from a good family.”

“He’d liked her older sister,” Norma’s sister Charlotte Savinovich added. “She was pretty and fun. He figured Angela would be a lot like her.”

At first the couple lived on the Goldstein Ranch. Angela soon gave birth to their first child, Rose, followed by Charles, who would grow up to be the father of Norma, Charlotte, and their sister Marie Meursinge. Felice and Angela ultimately had seven children, although only four lived past childhood.

Felice sometimes brought his crew down the hill to work 25 acres of vines planted in the early 1880s, mostly Zinfandel with a classic field blend of varietals that included Petite Sirah, Alicante, Gran Noir and Lenoir, on land belonging to “Judge Cook.” In 1903 Cook sold the land, today’s “lower ranch,” to Pagani.

Today those same vines produce some of the most sought-after old-vine juice available. In 1992 a Ridge Vineyards wine made from these Zinfandel grapes was named the world’s 10th best wine by Wine Spectator magazine, the first time a Zin made it into the annual list.

The Pagani’s farm was typical for the day. “They grew everything,” Dino said. “You name it: grapes, prunes, apples, pears, cattle, silage and hay, chickens and pigs. They had horses and plowed with them. It wasn’t until the late 1930s or early 1940s, after Felice died, that they bought a tractor.” Shortly before the 1906 earthquake, Felice built a two-story wooden barn. One wall had to be rebuilt after the quake, but the barn is still used today.

Louie Pagani in 1926

In 1913 the family also bought a sawmill and stone winery (today’s Jack London Village) from Henry Chauvet. They started the A. Pagani Winery, which lasted until 1969.

“They had the first label that said Glen Ellen Winery,” said Dino. “There was a tasting room when I was a kid. It was very informal, they’d take it right out of the barrel. They also made brandy there.”

In 1919 Felice bought an adjoining property, today’s “upper ranch,” planting it in 1921 and 1922 with 30 acres of vines. That was the last time vines were planted on the property until this year, when 12 acres of fallow ground was prepared for Zinfandel planting in 2012.

When Felice died in 1926, three of his children—Charles, Louis, and Olive—took over the ranch. After Charles’ death in 1954, “the shots were called by Uncle Louie and Olive,” Dino said.

Charles had three children, all daughters: Marie, Charlotte, and Norma. Each married and moved from Glen Ellen with their husbands, returning to help out when they could. The only daughter who yearned to return to the ranch for good was Norma, who lived in Point Richmond with her husband and three sons. “I always came up to help out at harvest,” she said. “I kept hoping they’d ask me to move up.”

But it wasn’t until 1972 that Louie, by then in his 70s, felt that he needed help. “Uncle Louie asked me to move to the ranch,” said Norma. “I said, ‘I’ve been waiting 17-½ years for that offer.’”

Fourteen-year-old Dino hadn’t wanted to leave his friends in Point Richmond, but after the move he began to fall under the spell of working hard and being outdoors. “I liked working the land so much that I’d come home right after school instead of playing sports. Uncle Louie taught me everything I know about growing grapes, like how to grow a head-trained Zin vine the old fashioned way, with no trellis wires.”

In 1976 Dino graduated from Sonoma Valley High School, and then enrolled in the Viticulture program run by Rich Thomas at Santa Rosa Junior College. “He was my mentor,” Dino says. “He and Louie Pagani. I learned Old School from Louie and then the modern techniques from Rich Thomas and taking classes at UC Davis. All have been important to managing the vineyard.”

Felice and Angela’s last two children died in the first decade of this century: Louis in 2000 at age 98, and Olive five years later at 97.

Today the Pagani Ranch is run by the third and fourth generation, with Norma as ranch manager and Dino managing the vineyard (he is also Director of Vineyard Operations and Grape Sales for Cook Vineyard Management).

Changes are slowly underway. Aside from the upcoming 2012 vine plantings, a new well has been dug with a capacity to irrigate new vineyards. Plans are afoot to fill in misses in the old blocks. “We just can’t do it all at once,” Dino says. “But we’ll do it.”

No matter what’s done on the Pagani Ranch, though, the family is always conscious of those who worked the land before them—especially the man who started it all, Felice.

Asked what she might say to him if she could, Norma responded simply: “I’d just thank him for buying this property.”

“I’d say: ‘I admire your courage and adventuresome spirit,” Charlotte said.

Dino, who labors in the fields just like Felice once did, had more to say.

“I’d tell him I’m a man of the land,” he said, “and that I cherish being out amongst the old vines. It’s worth more than money. You can’t put a price on that. The beauty of this ranch is spectacular. I’d say thank you for purchasing this property and planting grapes and providing for generations that weren’t even born yet.

“It’s our turn to do something that will provide for future generations. And make you proud we’re carrying on your legacy.”

  • http://pressdemocrat.com Steve

    Don’t give up the ship, drowning in a sea of money is not worth it! Wish I was still farming (cantaloupes).

  • Jayne

    Wonderful article! It is nice to see a family work hard to keep what was started by previous generations. Keep on planting so when we drive by we can enjoy all of your hard work, your Great Grandfather would be very proud of those family members that are working so hard on the ranch. I met Dino at a tasting once and really enjoyed speaking to him about the ranch, I know he is very proud of what his family has been able to hold onto with hard work. Steve is right, the money isn’t worth it, it’s only money we are here for such a short time, keep the ranch in the family so generations to come will have something to hold onto.

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Thanks, Jayne. I think you’re right: Felice would be proud of his descendants.

  • Gary

    What a terrific article! I’ve driven by for years and years and love the barn, house, vineyards on this ranch. It’s really inspiring to read all the effort they’ve put into the land to maintain their family legacy.

  • Arnold Coda

    This story really goes to my heart. I’m first generation born in the US and I still have cousins in Italy who my family and I have visited several times. They farm in the small town of Pellegrino Parmense. My grandfather’s sister, Annunciata Conti, became a teacher, left Pellegrino, and spent all of her teaching years in Fenegro. She was apparently highly liked and respected and in her honor, a classroom in the Scuola Elementari was named for her. On our next trip to Italy, we will visit Fenegro. I hope that the classroom, with her photo over the door, is still there. Tanti grazie per quest’articolo!

    • Suzie Rodriguez

      Thanks for your message. I will pass your comment on to the Pagani family. Best wishes!

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Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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