The Martinelli family’s winery and tasting room is a distinct set of red buildings just off River Road that were originally hop barns dating back to the 1880s. Inside, the tasting room is full of history. Through the renovation of the old building they have saved the historic wooden interior walls inscribed with the former worker’s century-old signatures and graffiti. An old hop baler still sits as a centerpiece in the middle of the room to remind visitors of the building’s original function.
Like the buildings, the Martinelli’s agricultural background in Sonoma County also dates back to the 1880’s. Nearly 135 years ago, Giuseppe Martinelli and his wife Luisa emigrated from Italy to the Russian River Valley. At only 19 and 16 years of age, the young couple started farming grapes for a landowner in Graton.
Giuseppe and Luisa eventually planted the family’s first vineyard on a very particular hill, one with an imposing slope greater than 60 degrees. Their son Leno began farming the steep vineyard when he was just twelve years old, even when members of the family remarked openly that “only a jackass would farm a hill that steep.” Today the Martinellis refer to this vineyard as “Jackass Hill” and the nearby field planted with the original bud wood as “Jackass Vineyard.” They continue to farm the old sloped vineyard and it remains the steepest non-terraced vineyard in Sonoma County.
Lee Martinelli Sr., Giuseppe’s grandson, is still involved in today’s farming practices. He reminisces to times when he was working in the vineyard growing up, but as a 14 year old, just wanted to go fishing with his neighboring cousin who was the same age.
A few years later, Lee Martinelli Sr. held his first paid job outside the family vineyard practices. He worked in electronics before going back to school and later teaching agriculture at Santa Rosa High School. But realizing his heart was in farming, he moved back into the agricultural industry with his wife Carolyn (née Charles).
“Forty-eight years ago I had the opportunity to start farming full time, so I did it,” said Lee Sr.
Lee Sr.’s uncle, “Zio”Tony Bondi, had purchased the property where the winery exists now, in the 1960’s. At that time the site was diversified with apple and prune orchards, in addition to hops. In 1970 Lee Sr. took over the farming of the estate. Lee Sr. and Carolyn’s four children: Julianna, Lee Jr., George and Regina, grew up selling apples out of the old barn before it was renovated to the current wine tasting room. A difference of opinions exists as to whether the apple stand was a summer job for the kids or merely something for them to do to earn their allowance – either way it represented the beginning of a long and very successful venture for the entire family.
As the apple industry became somewhat depressed economically, the Martinellis began to replace some of their orchards with grapevines. Zio Tony had dabbled with the idea of putting in a mobile home park on the hill, a popular choice during that time period, but their family’s roots were in agriculture, and it was a tradition they wanted to keep and protect.
Those first few rows of grapevines led to many more. Their custom crush processor couldn’t keep up with the production so eventually the idea of establishing a winery and processing their own fruit appealed to the family. They bought their first press and from there their business kept expanding.
As they grew older, Lee Jr., Julianna, George and Regina all took different paths but the entire family ended up back at the winery, working in the family business.
Lee Jr., similar to his father, found himself taking electronics classes at the Santa Rosa Junior College. “Everyone was looking at oscilloscopes, and I was looking out the window,” he said. “It was that moment when I knew farming was what I wanted to do.”
Lee Jr. went on to lease a vineyard from his grandfather, George Charles, and his first year as a grape grower was very challenging due to unusual amounts of rainfall leading up to harvest. The crop was dismal, but he knew it was an anomaly. “Welcome to farming,” Lee Jr. said.
George started his farming career by growing apples. George loves the freedom of the agriculture industry and watching the seasons change, never doing the same thing twice. While the family has transitioned to having a majority of grapes, they still actively farm 75 acres of apples in Sonoma County including Rome Beauties, Gravenstein, and Golden Delicious varieties.
After graduating college, Regina attended graduate school in San Francisco and moved on to work for startups in the training and sales field. She returned to the family business in 2008 and works on sales and marketing, carefully guiding the direction of the family’s brand.
“Having been in the technology world, people were reluctant to share ideas, but here in the agriculture industry nearly everyone wants to collaborate and see others succeed. There’s a lot of trust and community spirit here,” said Regina.
The Martinelli Family knows that even though agriculture is a supportive community, it can be hard to keep land in the family and to continue farming.
Julianna began working early in the business in sales and marketing the family wines. “We have been fortunate to keep our land and not have to sell it to developers,” said Julianna. “It is rare to have had the same lands in the same family since the 1800’s; 4th and 5th generations who have held on to the land through two World Wars, the Great Depression and Prohibition.”
The family wants to keep supporting local agriculture and continue to help with awareness of its importance to the region. For these reasons they have chosen to join on at the Premium Member level of Farm Bureau.
“I remember my dad telling me when I first started farming: “You’ve got to be a Farm Bureau member,” said Lee Jr.
“People will tell you, “farmers have the right to farm,” said Carolyn, “but there are still people that don’t like it.”
Julianna mentioned that, “Local farmers along with the Farm Bureau need to educate citizens about farming and the importance of it in the community.”
The Martinelli Family appreciates the Bureau speaking up for the farmers of Sonoma County, and are delighted to be premium members.