The February weather was cold and rainy, which seemed to call for cassoulet. The event was a reunion of the Young Gentlemen’s Culinary Society, a group formed in the mid-1980s by four employees of the East Bay Express. In honor of the occasion, I brought the last remaining bottle of our 1988 zinfandel.
From 1987 to 2006, we had made one wine per year. Our most successful grape was zinfandel, for which we admittedly had a leg up: We bought the fruit from Ravenswood. I had worked there during the ’84 crush, and by ’87 was writing Angels’ Visits: An Inquiry into the Mystery of Zinfandel (later retitled Zin).
Following the example of Joel Peterson, Ravenswood’s cofounder, we fermented our maiden vintage with indigenous yeasts. But we otherwise erred on the side of caution, leaving the liquid relatively cool and pressing the wine as soon as it was dry—i.e., before the “cap” of grape skins floating on the surface had time to sink. Joel and his mentor, Joseph Swan, customarily waited for that to happen before pressing, the aim being to maximize phenolic extraction, depth and heft.
Our ’87, made in plastic garbage cans, turned out okay but fell short of the world-beating product to which we aspired. “You gotta be brave,” Joel exhorted me, and Joe Swan himself told me that he delayed pressing “as long as I have the guts.”
Uncorking the ’88 last February, I had no idea what to expect. But the wine blew everyone’s mind. In a subsequent email, Steve Aibel—the Express’s onetime art director, now a wine broker—extolled its “raspberry/strawberry fruits and soft ethereal tannins, resembling an older Bordeaux in that the wine exuded bottle bouquet rather than a sense of the grape variety.” From my athletic POV, it was like a late-middle-aged player holding his own in better endowed company: It felt fitter than many much younger wines.
After 1988, our best all-around wine was probably the ’96—another zin that, as it happens, came from the same place as the ’88: the Teldeschi vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, a fact that I disguised in Angels’ Visits, as the owners were then contractually obligated to sell most of their grapes to Gallo. In time, those tables got turned: Today, the Teldeschis sell most of their fruit to Ravenswood. They also provide grapes to Joel’s Once and Future label and his son Morgan’s Bedrock Wine Co., as well as to Frick, Sbragia and Truett Hurst (and the family makes its own wine under the F. Teldeschi label). John and Dan, the 56- and 63-year-old brothers who now oversee the operation, are the fourth generation in Sonoma County, but the first to be born in America—they spoke Italian before they learned English, seeing as how their father and grandfather, after emigrating, returned to Tuscany to procure wives and conceive kids. Today, John’s 22-year-old son Lucas (or, as his 92-year-old grandmother, Caterina, calls him, Lucca) is preparing to assume the reins.
Lately, Joel and I have been working on a memoir of Ravenswood and his life in California wine and beyond. A chapter entitled “Vintage Cal-Ital” describes his history with the Teldeschis.
The best wines Joe Swan had made were from a Dry Creek vineyard owned by Mike Teldeschi. I’d gone there with Joe in ’72, ’73 and ’74, but he and Mike were less than compatible. Mike was an old Italian farmer; Joe could be irascible; both wanted things how they wanted things. After 1975 they were no longer doing business.
Having committed myself to Sonoma County, my thoughts turned back to this vineyard. Sporting shoulder-length hair and a tie-dyed wardrobe, I paid Mike a visit. I told him I’d been working with his neighbors at Palace Hill, but knew from my experience with Swan how good his grapes were.
In a nutshell, his response was: “I didn’t get along with Joe Swan, and I don’t like the way you look.”
“Well,” I said, “that’s unfortunate. Is there anyone else you’d recommend who has grapes like yours?”
“My brother is right across the road,” he grumbled. “He loves guys like you.” (Mike’s nephew Dan later told me that his father, Frank, had certain “hippie” tendencies, such as taking off all his clothes to sunbathe in the vineyard.) “Go see him—it’s Sunday, he’s probably home.”
Unbeknownst to me, Mike and Frank hadn’t spoken in 20 years. I would later learn that their grandfather had emigrated from Tuscany at the turn of the 20th century, when Italians operated much the way that Mexican laborers do today—living in labor camps, sending money home, and gradually importing other family members. Both Mike and Frank were born in the village of Casabiasciana, near Lucca; their father, Lorenzo, who enlisted in the Italian army, was presumed dead at the end of World War One, administered a memorial service at the end of that conflict, and then came walking into town a week later.
Lorenzo returned to California in 1922. The rest of his family followed in the auspicious year of 1929. Frank left school at 14 to work in the vineyards with Mike, but somewhere along the line they had a disagreement and never buried the hatchet. Even when they went to mass at the same church in Healdsburg, they had an agreement that the first to arrive would sit in the front pew, the second all the way in back, and the latter would leave before the former so they wouldn’t interact. But they still owned adjoining vineyards, which had certain legal ramifications, so when they had to communicate, they sent their kids back and forth.
When I knocked on Frank’s farmhouse door, I was confronted by a gray-bearded guy with sharp features and bright, lively eyes. He was only about five feet tall, but his attitude was about 6’8”—suffused with edgy energy, even for a stranger at the door.
“I heard you grow great zinfandel,” I said. “I have a little winery, and I’d love to buy some of your grapes.”
“Oh yeah?” Frank said. “Who sent you?”
“Your brother Mike.”
Frank snorted. “Yeah, yeah—he does that to piss me off. You can get out of here.”
I turned to leave, but Frank noticed that I was holding a bottle of wine. “What you got there?” he asked.
“Well, if you were going to sell me grapes, I thought maybe you’d like to taste my wine,” I said.
He studied me a little more closely. “We’re just about to sit down for lunch,” he said. “We need some wine.”
Thus was I invited to join Frank’s family at an outdoor table made of steel and stone under a big walnut tree. It was a warm afternoon, and Frank’s wife, Caterina—a pretty, petite native Italian who still didn’t speak much English—brought a succession of dishes from the house: stuffed zucchini; chicken from their backyard coop; homemade pasta with homegrown tomatoes; a roast from a boar Frank had shot. Their two teenage boys, Dan and John, came in from the vineyard, and pretty soon everybody seemed to be yelling at each other in Italian.
We finished my bottle in 38 microseconds. Frank said it was a little too oaky for his taste; maybe I should try his homemade wine. He went to the barn and came back swinging a gallon jug, and as he poured some into my tumbler, I was thinking: Dago Red—I’m gonna die. But lo and behold, it was really good, full of Dry Creek’s characteristic black-cherry freshness.
“How did you make this wine?” I asked. Frank said that it was an old Italian secret, but half a gallon later its classified status was relaxed. “In the old days, I made it the old way,” he said. “I used a wooden fermenter, but I’m too old to wash it out now.” He gestured toward some plastic garbage cans leaning against the barn. “Those are my fermenters. I pick a bunch of different kind of grapes—zin, pets, care-ig-nan, malva-zee-a, sometimes a little val-di-gee—and put them through a hand crusher into those cans. Sometimes I take the stems out; sometimes I don’t. Then I put the lids on the cans and take a week’s vacation. Then I come back and look inside, and if it smells all right and I can still see the skins, I push them down and mix it up and put back the lid and take another week’s vacation. In the best years, I get three weeks’ vacation. When I can’t see skins anymore, I dump it into my basket press and put it in a barrel. I leave it there for six months, then I put it in jugs and drink it.”
At that point I knew his grapes really were good. People like to say that wine makes itself; his pretty much did.
After we finished off the gallon jug, he brought out a bottle of what he called “muscatel”—late-harvest muscat, also grown on-site, and finished sweet, with about 17 percent alcohol. The accompanying dessert was biscotti—beautiful little rolled anisette cookies the size of small pancakes. Super-crisp, light and bright, they were the best of that kind I’d ever had. When I asked Caterina’s secret, she said, “Frankie’s grappa.”
Grappa, of course, is a high-alcohol spirit, usually distilled from leftover grape skins and stems. “Want to taste it?” Frank asked, fetching yet another gallon jug.
Needless to say, after a few hours everybody was pretty schnockered. I’d gotten there about noon; now it was about 4:30, and we’d spent the entire afternoon eating and drinking and talking. The experience was wonderful, though in the course of lunch Frank had explained that, like most other growers in Dry Creek, he was committed to selling most of his grapes to Gallo.
When it came time to leave, I thanked the family and pointed toward my car, where I planned to lie down in the back seat. I was having trouble walking straight; there was no way I was going to drive.
“Hey,” Frank called after me. “Why was it that you came here again?”
“I wanted to buy some grapes,” I said. “But you said you couldn’t sell me any.”
“Well,” he allowed, “you seem like an okay guy. How many did you want?”
“About four tons. And I can pay you a hundred dollars more per ton than you usually get.”
“Four tons!” he said. “Is that all? They won’t miss that much. But listen—I don’t want you coming around here looking at the grapes and telling me what to do. You can come when I call you and tell you we’re picking.” I agreed, but said that I wanted the same mix of grapes, picked at the same time, that he used in his own wine.
We shook hands, and I proceeded to take a six-hour nap. I woke up with a screaming hangover and drove home in the dark. I was sure I’d never hear from Teldeschi again, but what do you know? In September, I got a call from him, telling me that the grapes were ready.
“Really?” I said. “When do you want me there?”
“Tomorrow morning,” he said. “3 a.m.”
What?! “You can’t even see at 3 a.m.!”
“That’s the point,” he said. “Nobody will see you.”
I did as bidden, loading up my old Caltrans truck with half-ton picking bins. I couldn’t keep up with the buckets as fast as they were coming at me—one of the field hands had to climb up on the truck to help. It took only about 40 minutes to pick my four tons, which seemed physically impossible. In retrospect, I suspected that they had pre-picked some of the grapes to speed things up. They still made terrific wine that, bottled as “Sonoma County Zinfandel,” later won a gold medal at the county harvest fair.
The next year, I got a few more tons from Teldeschi, and a few more the year after that. Ultimately Frank freed me from picking in the dark, having apparently gained some wiggle room in his relationship with Gallo. Still, it was years before the family let me label its wine as a vineyard designate—long after Frank passed away, tragically, of colon cancer, just a few years after we’d met.
Thirty years later, I met another old Italian-American grower named Joe Mengali, who farmed the Nervo vineyard in nearby Alexander Valley. As we shook hands, he said, “You bought fruit from Frank Teldeschi, didn’t you?”
When I acknowledged that I had, Mengali said: “And Frank made you pick the grapes in the middle of the night.”
I admitted that it was true.
“Frank thought it was a big secret,” Mengali said. “But everybody in the valley knew.”
Dan and John Teldeschi
Dan: When Joel first came here, he was kind of a hippie. He had big balls just to go up and talk to my uncle, even though he knew Uncle Mike and Joseph Swan had a falling out. And my dad was always a little rough to people at the beginning, too.
John: He was to the point.
Dan: It was just an act. After about five or ten minutes he’d soften up.
John: He’d see if the guy would run. If the guy doesn’t run, then you know what? Maybe he’s worth talking to.
Dan: I was here when Joel came to the house. And the jug really was empty by five or six o’clock, so what he said about being totally bombed is probably true. But Joel makes the story more glamorous and interesting. The part about showing up at three in the morning? It was more like six or seven.
John: It was daylight.
David: Maybe Joel had to get up at three?
John: There you go.
Dan: We never sold to anybody at that time. Other than home winemakers we’d had since the sixties and seventies, everything was going to Gallo. I worked in Gallo’s lab here for 11 years.
John: They had people come up from Modesto and grade the grapes. They were pretty fair, but they got really picky with the red if it had rot or mildew.
Dan: Remember that load Papa got rejected? Beautiful zinfandel, twenty-four-point-two [Brix]. But it had some virus in it.
John: Gallo goes to dump this load, not telling my dad if it’s A or B. Finally they said, “Frank, we’re gonna give you a B on this one.” And Dad said, “Stop the goddam crusher! Put that son of a bitch back on the truck!” He puts that old ’50 Chevy in granny low—I’m surprised they didn’t blow it up—drove it twenty-five yards, jumped out, walked into the lab where Dan’s at, and gets on the phone with [Sonoma County bulk-wine producer] Martini and Prati. Then the winemaker who rejected the load comes in, grabs the phone, hangs it up and says, “We’ll take it.”
My dad played hardball. He raised us that same way. We know we have good grape—all dry farmed, beautiful stuff. Some years are a little different from others, but it’s the best around this area. So in ’97, when I had this issue…
Dan: Ninety-seven was when we had five inches of rain on August 20—a tropical storm coming up from the Gulf of Mexico when the grapes were almost ready to pick. It was a big crop, too. Usually we pick the first week of September, but there was a lot of rot out there. And you did something you never did before: went out and cut off the rot in the vineyard so it wouldn’t spread.
John: The grapes were getting too sweet. [Gallo] was still coming around telling us when to pick, but it got away from them. There was a little mold in the rachis [stems], so now they have an excuse and they rejected the load.
The guy says to me, “John, we’re gonna stop and come back Monday. I’m gonna show you what I want to pick and what to leave behind.” Well, like Dan said, I had already gone through there, working very hard to bring them nice stuff, and they’re telling me it’s not good enough? I know the game. They had a lot of grape that year—it was supply and demand.
Dan: In years when there’s less crop than normal, they’ll let stuff go.
John: I didn’t like to be treated that way, so I called Joel. He says, “John, I’ll take it sight unseen.” I said, “We’ve got one load that was rejected. We already crushed it.” And he says, “I’ll buy that too.”
Not all farmers are ignorant. Some of them are smart. You gotta be careful with these contracts; I called up the buyer from Gallo and said, “I can’t meet your criteria, so don’t even bother coming out tomorrow.” He says, “What?” I said, “I’m not jumping through your hoops to get rid of this grape. There’s nothing wrong with it. I understand the game—you guys have too much. So: I can’t meet your criteria.” And he says, “You sold this somewhere else for more money, didn’t you?” I says, “Well, maybe.”
After that I told Joel, “This is all yours next year if you want it. I’ll break the [evergreen] contract with Gallo.” He says, “Hey, don’t cut your nose off to spite your face.” I said, “No, I’m done. And I want my name out there [on the bottle]—it’s time to make the move.” Joel has always helped me when I needed help. So whatever he wants, he gets.
Dan: There was a lot of personal stuff with my dad and Julio [Gallo], just like with us and Joel. When my dad died, Julio was the only one who offered help to Mom. During harvest, he came up every Thursday with his helicopter and hung around the winery. In the early eighties, Julio took Papa out to Catelli’s [in Geyserville] for lunch; as soon as they sat down, Papa goes, “I know why you’re inviting me here—you want to buy my ranch. The answer is no, but if I ever do decide to sell it, you’ll be the first one who has a shot at it.”
There are only five or ten family grapegrowers in Dry Creek now. Most of the people around here were Lucchese—Unti came from Segrimigno, which is fifteen minutes out of Lucca; Forchini I think is from Lucca; Foppiano is Genovese. Our great-grandfather came at the turn of the century and worked for Sargenti Brothers, which turned into Frei Brothers [and was later bought by Gallo]. When our grandfather came over in ’22, he worked on the ranch too. When Dad and Uncle Mike got out of the Navy in ’46, they bought that vineyard across the road, and then this one in 1952. When Dad and Mike split up in 1958, we kept this ranch and Mike’s family kept the first one.
Dad used to experiment. He planted grey riesling and a couple of other weird whites—he even had some green Hungarian. In ’71 he pulled out prunes and planted gamay Beaujolais, which was a hot variety then. We learned from that. Dad said, Never plant what’s trendy in the wrong place, because you’ll have low quality, and then when the wine is out of favor you won’t be able to sell it. That’s why we planted zinfandel, carignane and petite sirah, because they’ve been doing well in Dry Creek since the 1880s. This is zinfandel country. My dad didn’t like cabernet—he thought it was overrated.
John: The old Italians knew something about this soil. I don’t know where they got their information back then, but Manzanita Red Loam is beautiful for zinfandel. You don’t have to water it—it’s got its own moisture, so it’s something you can dry-farm. Let’s go back in time: The old-timers didn’t have a drip system. So the mentality they had was: “How are we gonna grow this crop and not water it?” They all plowed around here instead of permanently tilling. A horse used to run the plow, but somebody shot the horse on the opening weekend of deer season, so Dad bought a tractor. I still have the tractor and the plow. This ranch I still plow because it builds the soil—everything’s mulching under there. What that does is create a sponge on top: You got a foot of fluff on the soil that brings the moisture up.
Zinfandel is a pretty good-sized berry. You can put it in some really terrible soil, but then you have to water it all the time. You start watering zinfandel and it’s not the same. Go across the road—the fruit there sure tastes good, but they’re giving their vines a false pretense: You’re watering them, you fertilized them, they’re growing really good, so now you can hang more spurs and get more grape. Everything’s great—but wait a minute. There’s too much grape on that vine. You need to go in and drop some fruit. Over here, I don’t thin. Mother Nature gives us the same deal every year—sometimes we’re gonna get five tons to the acre and some years we’re only gonna get three, but whatever the crop load is, it’s gonna be good if we don’t get rained on.
Dan: On most of the ranches now, there’s a vineyard manager working for an absentee owner. Some of the old families didn’t have anybody else to succeed them, or maybe their kids just didn’t want to be farmers. They bought their ranches for hardly anything in the fifties and sixties, and now they can get eighty thousand dollars an acre.
John: We all used to congregate at Gallo during harvest when the trucks were lined up, waiting [for the grapes] to get crushed and sugar tested. If machinery broke down, Drew Frei went out and got beer for everybody. There was camaraderie between all the old farmers, sitting out there bullshitting at six or seven o’clock—everybody knew each other because they’d been farming together for twenty or thirty years. So, you knew who had ADHD, who was a little high strung, who was the passive guy—all these different personalities. It was a beautiful thing, you can’t even imagine. Now when you come to the winery with your fruit, you don’t know a damn person at the table. It’s weird. Where’s that feeling of roots that we came from? That personalness, the biscotti, a glass of wine. There’s a coffee shop in Geyserville where a lot of farmers still go, and everybody shoots the shit in the morning. But all the old farmers are gone.
There’s been a lot of changes. My only reason for staying in the business is because I have children. We have a twenty-two-year-old boy, Lucas, who can take this on and handle it, and I have a twenty-year-old daughter who’s thinking about being a winemaker someday. So it’s going somewhere. That was my father’s wish. He came here and worked for all this, and he wanted it to go on through his family—not only his kids, but the grandkids and on and on. He wanted a legacy, so I have to comply. It’s up to me to uphold his legacy.
Editor’s Note: As this issue went to press, Gallo purchased Ravenswood from Constellation Brands, which has owned the winery since 2001. If the Teldeschis continue to work with Ravenswood, they will once again be selling their fruit to Gallo.