Sanchietti Family Celebrates a Century on Land They Love

Written By: Tim Tesconi
Published: July 3, 2019

Sanchiettis are Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year and will be honored at Love of the Land Celebration

For 100 years, four generations of the Sanchietti Family have done what it takes to stay on their land, adapting and changing with the times to grow the kind of crops -from pears to pinot noir – that allowed them to keep doing what they love: Farming.

It’s all unfolded on a piece of ground between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol where over the last century the Sanchietti family has produced prunes, apples, pears, walnuts, poultry and, now, wine grapes while being pillars of the agriculture community.

The land and the Sanchietti family have survived boom-and-bust markets, droughts, economic depressions and the impacts of global wars and political turmoil to keep farming. Today, the Sanchiettis focus on farming more than 400 acres of premium wine grapes spread throughout western Sonoma County. They continue a family farming tradition started in 1919 when Italian immigrants Luigi and Filomina Sanchietti, who came from the tiny town of Pesaro on the Adriatic Sea, settled the property on Irwin Lane, establishing a bit of Italy on the rural landscape of the Santa Rosa Plains.

For Mel Sanchietti, 70, the grandson of Luigi and Filomina, and his son, Mark, 35, farming is as much part of their lives as the seasonal rhythms of the land they hope will continue in the family for another century and beyond. They see themselves as merely caretakers of land that will pass to the next generation of farmers.

“Farming is just part of us and what we do. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Mel Sanchietti. Mel and his wife Janeen Sanchietti bought the family farm from Mel’s parents, the late Gus and Anne Sanchietti. Now, son Mark, the owner of Sanchietti Farming, is carrying on the legacy with his wife Jenny and their two sons, Mason, 8, and Meritt, 6. Both boys are smitten with tractors and farm life, offering the promise they will be the fifth generation to farm in Sonoma County.

Mark farms grapes on the family’s 40-acre homestead and more than 300 acres of vineyards on land owned, leased and managed in west Sonoma County including his role as manager of the vineyard at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm in Forestville.

The Sanchiettis are not only firmly rooted in the county’s soil but are part of the social fabric of the close-knit agricultural community, respected for their work ethic, honesty and integrity.  Their longevity on the land, dedication to sustainable farming and leadership in protecting and preserving agriculture have earned them Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year award. Farm Bureau leaders say the Sanchiettis epitomize today’s American farm family – focused on economic viability and environmental stewardship while being involved in community building and the politics of farming.

“The Sanchietti family is an icon of Sonoma County agriculture,’ said Steve Dutton, a director and past president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “No family deserves to be Farm Family of the Year more than the Sanchiettis who over the generations have done what it takes to survive and thrive in farming.”

Dutton said Mel Sanchietti and his father, the late Warren Dutton, became fast friends in the mid-1960s when they farmed fence-to-fence to each other. It was prunes and apples in those days.

“There was never a time when Mel or my dad wouldn’t help each other, and that continues to this day between our families,” said Dutton. “Along with our father, my brother Joe and I grew up learning from Mel and trying to farm and be like him. Mel and his family are outstanding farmers and respected leaders in the agricultural community.”

The Sanchietti Family will be honored at Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration on July 11 at Richard’s Grove and Sarlaee’s Vineyard in Windsor.

In many ways, the evolution of crops on the Sanchietti farm mirrors the rich farming history of Sonoma County. When Luigi and Filomina bought the land, it was in vineyards but Prohibition had caused the market for wine grapes to collapse. They couldn’t give the grapes away so pulled out the vines and planted prunes, pears and walnuts.

Today, it’s come full circle, with premium wine grapes replacing the fruit and nut trees after the market for those crops declined.  For decades, the Sanchiettis also raised poultry, specializing in producing the fertilized eggs that would be hatched to produce laying hens for the egg market. Mom-and-pop poultry farms, once numbering in the thousands, have also vanished from the county’s farmscape.

The Sanchietti family’s determination to survive in farming is legendary. In 1943, when wartime abundance left Mel’s father Gus Sanchietti with a glut of rotting fruit, he loaded his flat-bed truck with pears and headed for the streets of San Francisco. Sanchietti and other Sonoma County farmers, including the late Paul Mancini, stopped at a vacant lot on Market Street and Duboc Avenue and began peddling their pears and apples at bargain prices. They returned to the same spot week after week establishing what eventually became the San Francisco Farmers’ Market.

Forty years ago, Gus Sanchietti and Paul Mancini were honored as founders of the famed market, which continues today as a bustling trading post for the incredible bounty grown on California’s farms and ranches.

“My father was the first farmer to bring pears to the market,” said Mel. “He  continued selling his pears and other fruit at the San Francisco Farmers Market for a number of years after the market was formally established.”

Additionally, for many years the fresh fruits and walnuts were sold from a barn on the Sanchiettis’ historic Irwin Lane family compound, which is reminiscent of a  farm in Tuscany with its immaculately maintained homes, manicured flower gardens, fruit and olive trees and verdant vineyards.

Mel followed his father in farming fruit, operating the family’s seasonal retail store that sold what the business produced including apples packed under the Little Angie label, named for his oldest daughter Angela.

Mel has two daughters Angela Sanchietti and Lori Bianchi. There are five grandchildren – Jessica Brimhall, an aesthetician in Petaluma, Gianna Bianchi, a sophomore at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo where she is studying agriculture business, Sophia Bianchi, who is entering her senior year at Analy High School and is a member of the FFA, and Mark’s two sons, Mason and Meritt Sanchietti.  All of the family is involved in keeping the Sanchietti farming tradition moving forward.

In addition to farming the family property and his custom farming business, Mel had a successful 35-year career as vice president of vineyard operations for Korbel Inc. of Guerneville.  He managed 1,000 of acres of Korbel’s vineyards in Sonoma County and the Sacramento Delta. When he retired five years ago, the position was filled by Mel’s nephew, John Bidia, who also has a family farm on Irwin Lane and is a director and treasurer of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Like many other longtime farm families, the Sanchiettis believe premium wine grapes are the salvation of Sonoma County agriculture, a high-value crop that can provide a financial return given the high cost of farmland.  During the late 1960s when other crops like apples, prunes and pears were in financial decline, wine grapes came along to give dedicated farmers like the Sanchiettis and Duttons a new crop that would make money and keep them on their land.  They adapted to the changing market when other farmers did not.

The Sanchiettis knew from their history on the land that they could go broke raising apples and pears in a glutted market.

Growing up in agriculture Mark Sanchietti always knew he wanted to follow the path of his father and the ancestors before who toiled on the land. He knew the challenges but relished the opportunity to farm in what he considers the premier wine and food region of California.

“I wasn’t forced to do this, I chose to do this,” said Mark, who started Sanchietti Farming in 2007 after graduating from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.  “I enjoy my work, and not everybody can say that. I feel very fortunate.”

Mark said people ask him about the long days and nights during frost season and the hectic harvest when sleep is scarce and stress levels are on overload. He said the exhilaration of bringing in the crop and battling frost to save the crop is what drives him every day.

“Being out in the vineyards actually farming with our crew and equipment is what I love, seeing the results of our labor,” said Mark, who serves on board of directors of the Sonoma County Winegrowers. The part that isn’t fun is dealing with the mountain of paperwork for the ever-increasing regulations to comply with land-use, labor laws, pest control and the other issues that farmers face.

Sanchietti Farming, which provides a full spectrum of vineyard services, from new site development to farming established vineyards, has had steady, sustained growth over the last 10 years. Mark credits his crew for this success. “It’s not an ‘I’ game, it’s a team effort,” he said, “and I’ve got a good team.”

Since 2008, Mark has managed SRJC’s Shone Farm vineyard.  The college’s 70-acre vineyard was suffering both in yield and quality when Mark took over management.

“Under Mark, the vineyards have made a complete turnaround. His grasp of farming is exceptional,” said Dr. Merilark Padgett-Johnson, SRJC viticulture instructor and program director.

The Sanchiettis are honored to be Farm Bureau’s Farm Family of the Year, joining other families like the Ballettos, Martinellis and Duttons in being recognized for keeping agriculture part of Sonoma County’s economy and way-of-life. The Sanchiettis, always positive and forward-thinking, said there are more good years than bad years in farming. And most years Mother Nature and the grape market are good, if not, perfect partners.

“It’s all good,” Mel is fond of saying.

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