Martinelli family, now in the fifth generation, has farmed in Sonoma County for more than 120 years
By Tim Tesconi
Photo by Steven Knudsen
The Martinelli Family’s farming history spans more than a century in Sonoma County and mirrors the county’s colorful panorama of agricultural history.
The Martinelli Family’s longevity on the land and their legacy of stewardship and leadership has earned them Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year Award. The family will be honored at Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration on July 18 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor.
The award recognizes the Martinelli Family’s hard work and perseverance in changing with the times to not only keep land that has been in the family for generations but to expand and prosper. The Martinelli Family epitomizes the adaptability of the modern American farmer and the daily challenges farmers face in dealing with weather and markets.
“The Martinellis are symbolic of a farm family. They represent many generations deeply rooted in Sonoma County agriculture and their community,” said Lex McCorvey, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “The Martinellis have built their successful family and farming business by being great stewards of the land while harvesting its bounty. Additionally, they have been trailblazers for many other aspiring farmers.”
McCorvey said he has known and respected Lee Martinelli Sr. for more than 40 years.
“I have long believed that recognition of the Martinellis as the Farm Family of the Year is both overdue and most deserved,” he said.
Family patriarch Lee Martinelli Sr., who is 74, said he is grateful for the honor, which, he said also pays tribute to family members who farmed before him. He said since the 1880’s when his ancestors arrived in Sonoma County from Italy generations of his family have produced a range of crops that reflected market demands at the time. Those crops included apples, cherries, pears, prunes, hops, berries, walnuts and, even, potatoes and green beans. Today Lee Martinelli and his wife Carolyn, and their four grown children, Julianna, Lee Jr., George and Regina, farm 450 acres of vineyards and 75 acre of organic apples.
Additionally, the family owns and operates Martinelli Winery, a landmark winery on River Road in Windsor.
The six family members all have an equal vote in running the family’s farming business and winery. Lee and his two sons are the dirt farmers, proudly taking care of the vineyards and apple orchards, some in the family since the 19th century. Carolyn works in administration and daughters Regina and Julianna market the Martinelli wine. The sisters’ goal is to sell more wine so the winery can use more of the grapes grown by their father and brothers. The Martinellis sell about 90 percent of their grapes to other wineries, using select grapes from special vineyards like the Three Sisters or Zio Tony Ranch for the wine label bearing their name.
In its former life, Martinelli Winery was two old hop barns – another sign of the changing farmscape in Sonoma County. The Martinellis realized they could preserve the hop barns by using them as the centerpiece of a modern wine facility that produces ultra-premium wines from their estate vineyards that spread from Sebastopol to Cazadero. The historic building, a monument to the era when hops were king in Sonoma County, reflects the Martinelli family’s deep, abiding roots in the county.
Like many family farmers, Lee and Carolyn Martinelli consider themselves stewards of the land – caretakers really – who nurture the land until it passes to the next generation. Carolyn grew up as a member of the Charles family, which had sheep and cattle ranches in Cazadero. Through judicious estate planning, Lee and Carolyn Martinelli have positioned their children to carry on the family’s agricultural heritage.
“It’s so gratifying that our four children really like being part of a family farming operation and are dedicated to seeing it continue for generations to come,” said Lee Sr. “I am so proud that our family works together in this agricultural business and plays together as a family.”
The Martinelli Family will be honored at Love of the Land along with Tish Ward, manager of the Atwood Ranch in Glen Ellen and recipient of the Luther Burbank Conservation Award, and Saralee McClelland Kunde of Windsor, who is being inducted into the Farm Bureau Hall of Fame. The Love of the Land event, featuring Sonoma County wine and food, celebrates the best of Sonoma County including farm people like the Martinellis, Tish Ward and Saralee.
The Martinelli Family’s long history in Sonoma County started in the 1880’s when Lee Martinelli’s grandparents, Giuseppe Martinelli and Luisa Vellutini, 19 and 16 at the time, eloped form their small village in Tuscany and made their way to California, eventually, settling in the Forestville area. Within two years, Giuseppe had staked enough money to purchase land of his own including the famed Jackass Hill, a forbidding hillside with a 60 degree slope that still produces the Martinelli family’s signature Zinfandel wines.
Giuseppe died in 1918, leaving Luisa alone to raise four children and run the Forestville farm. Her youngest son, Leno, who was 12 years old at the time, was a born farmer eager to take over for his father. Leno’s two older brothers wanted nothing to do with farming the impossibly steep hillside, so Leno began farming the zinfandel vines on what would become Jackass Hill.
Leno’s family told him that only a jackass would be stubborn enough to farm a hill so steep and treacherous. The vineyard became known as Jackass Hill and, today, is used as the vineyard designate on select Martinelli zinfandel. More than 120 years later, Jackass Hill remains the steepest, non-terraced vineyard in Sonoma County and the source of incredible zinfandel grapes.
Leno tended the vines on Jackass Hill the way his father had, even using a horse and plow until the 1950’s when he traded his draft horse for a tractor. Finally, at the age 89, Leno decided to hang up the keys to his John Deere, turning care of Jackass Hill over to his son, Lee Martinelli Sr. Leno died in 2000.
Like his father before him, Lee was introduced to vineyard work as a child, performing all seasonal tasks necessary and learning the old viticulture practices handed down through the generations.
After high school, Lee went off to college and earned an agricultural degree, becoming a vocational agriculture instructor at Santa Rosa High School. Additionally, he served as the adviser to the Santa Rosa Young Farmers.
Following the death of his uncle Tony Bondi, Lee Martinelli in 1973 left teaching and took over management of his uncle’s ranching operations, comprised mainly of apple orchards. Lee began planting vineyards in the rich soil of the Russian River Valley. He quickly earned a reputation as a premium grape grower, with is fruit in great demand by leading wineries.
Lee also was active in community and agricultural organizations serving as a director of the Sebastopol Cooperative Cannery and Sebastopol Apple Growers and as a trustee of the Forestville School District. His farming skills and community involvement earned him the Sonoma County Harvest Fair’s Outstanding Young Rancher Award in 1978. A generation later, the Harvest Fair award was bestowed on each of his sons, Lee Jr, in 2004, and George in 2008.
Along the way, Lee and Carolyn realized the exceptional potential to create superb wines from their vineyards and decided to establish their own winery, utilizing the old hop barns on their ranch on River Road. The wines are made by consultant winemaker Helen Turley and resident winemaker Bryan Kvamme, who has been crafting award-winning Martinelli wines for 18 years.
Previous to its use as a winery, the historic hop barns were used by the Martinelli family as a farm store for their Gravenstein and Golden Delicious apples. In those days, it was common in the late summer and fall to see the four Martinelli children polishing and packing apples for their mom to sell at the store.
In converting the hop barns to a winery tasting room, the Martinellis were careful to preserve the integrity and history of the century old building. Inside the Martinelli Tasting Room visitors can still see the hop pickers’ writings on the walls.
But then the Martinellis are all about history and heritage.
“I feel so fortunate and blessed that my ancestors came to Sonoma County, specifically, the Russian River Valley, with the vision to own and farm their own land,” said Lee Sr.“Our family has been able to continue that farming legacy while respecting and nurturing the land that has made it all possible.”