The sign in the driveway of the Teldeschi ranch in Dry Creek Valley says, “Parking for Italians Only.” Inside the house, the same rule seems to be enforced. The kitchen is commandeered by Caterina Teldeschi. Tomato sauce is simmering on the stove, along with steamed vegetables and rolls of sauteed beef.
On 70 acres in various parts of Dry Creek Valley, the Teldeschis grow Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignane, some Cabernet, a little Gamay, some Malvasia, Cinsault and more. “We have some Palomino and French Colombard, too,” says John Teldeschi, Frank & Caterina’s secondo maschio (second son) “I leave it out for the deer and turkeys. That way they don’t eat the other stuff.” The vines range in age from one year to ninety years. “Three-quarters of them were planted by my dad,” says John, “and most of them are Zinfandel. Zinfandel was his favorite. He always thought it would be what it is today.”
John’s father, Frank Teldeschi, died in 1985. He came to California from Italy in 1929, following in the footsteps of his forebears. Frank’s grandfather Michele arrived at the turn of the century from Casabasciana, a Tuscan village northeast of Lucca, where the family raised chestnuts, olives, and hemp.
When Michele arrived in California, he went to work as a vineyard manager for the Sargenti Brothers in Dry Creek Valley. John describes the situation as similar to that of Mexican farm workers today: The men lived in labor camps and traveled back and forth, gradually sending for other family members. A few years after Michele arrived, his son Lorenzo came to work as a cook for Sargenti Brothers. Eventually the two managed to start a small winery on Lytton Station Road, selling their product to Petri, a large bulk-wine purveyor similar to Gallo or Almaden. In time, Lorenzo returned to Casabasciana to procure a wife; he married a girl named Eugenia and they had a son, also named Michele (later “Mike”).
When World War I broke out, Lorenzo enlisted in the Italian army. When the war ended, he was missing in action and presumed dead. A funeral service was held for him in Casabasciana. One week later, he came walking into town. Franco (Frank) was born the following year, and Lorenzo returned to Dry Creek Valley in 1922.
Mussolini made it hard for Italians to emigrate, so it wasn’t until 1929 that Lorenzo could send for the rest of his family. Five years later, he and his father Michele died within a few months of each other. Frank left school at 14 to work in the vineyards with his brother Mike; both of them served in the U.S. Navy during World War Two, after which they bought a ranch together in Dry Creek Valley.
1946 was a boom year: Winegrapes sold for $135 per ton. The year after that, the price dropped to $35. Wineries didn’t need any grapes, so the Teldeschis responded with a practice that continued until just a few years ago. They loaded their fruit on a truck with a crusher and drove south across the Golden Gate Bridge, selling grape juice to Italian home winemakers in San Francisco.
In 1950, at the age of 30, Frank decided that it was time to start his own family. Of course he returned to Casabasciana, where his eye settled on the Iacomini sisters. He made a play for Caterina’s sister, but she thought he was too short. (Frank was 5’2″.) “I liked him,” says Caterina, who wasn’t as tall as her sister. “He was a nice man, and he spoke Italian like me. My brother thought I should marry him, so I did. But he had to go back to America right away.” Nine months later, she followed him on an airplane. Nine months and four days after that, they had a baby daughter, Nancy.
Dan was born in 1955, (primo maschio), John in 1963. By then, Frank had acquired a couple of ranches in Dry Creek Valley and converted a prune orchard into a vineyard. He and his brother divided their property in 1958; a year later, Caterina’s mother came from Italy to help take care of the kids. This enabled Caterina to work in the vineyards, helping with planting and picking and brush burning.
Frank sold most of their grapes to Frei Brothers, but when Seghesio offered him more money, he took them up on it. Later, when they refused to pay for hauling, he went to Pedroncelli. But then Pedroncelli decided that they couldn’t use all his fruit. Frank went back to Frei Brothers, where he got a frosty reception. The owner wouldn’t stand still and look him in the eye when he talked. Only when Frank demanded, “Do you want the grapes or not?” did Frei relent and agree to allow Teldeschi fruit back into his tanks.
Not long afterward, Frei Brothers became Gallo of Sonoma. This made it somewhat difficult for Frank when a young winemaker named Joel Peterson came to the house and asked if he could buy some grapes. Frank answered that he sold all his fruit to Gallo. But he opened a bottle of homemade Zinfandel, the two sat down under a tree, and several hours later, Frank said maybe he could sell Joel a few grapes. When Joel got up to leave, he could hardly walk. But Teldeschi Zinfandel helped establish Ravenswood as a winery to be reckoned with in the 1980s.
Soon after that, Frank learned that he had cancer. “Dad died from a slow illness,” says John. “He had time to tell us what he expected. He said that he came here with nothing, but we had a head start.”
After Frank passed away, Dan took some time off from the family. He moved to Palm Springs and worked as a wine steward at the Marriott Desert Springs Resort in Southern California. “I was the only employee who was allowed to drink on the job,” he says. “The restaurant served mostly seafood, so ninety percent of the wine was white.” Among his customers were TV actor Robert Wagner and San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo. (“DeBartolo tips everybody twenty dollars,” says Dan. “The bellman, the barman, everybody.”)
After a couple of years selling white wine in the desert, Dan decided that he wanted to make red wine in Dry Creek Valley. He came home, put up a structure on the family property on Dry Creek Road near the corner of Lambert Bridge Road, and started making and selling Teldeschi wine (its label featuring a picture of his father) in 1991. Dan had learned the art of winemaking from his father when he was a teenager and fine-tuned his skills while working at Frei Brothers Winery, running their lab from 1979 – 1990.
Following in his father’s footsteps (does this sound familiar?), John waited until he was 32 to get married. John and his wife Robin took Caterina with them on their honeymoon. Where did they go? Do you need to ask? They went to Casabasciana, which Caterina hadn’t visited since leaving in 1951 to join her new husband in California. “The people there are very simple,” John says. “It’s not a rich society. It’s not run by money. But it’s rich with love.”
John is now the family grapegrower, though Caterina continues to own the vineyards. She pays for chemicals and fertilizers; John pays for equipment and labor. Dan is the Winemaker and sells the product of the family’s years of toil. So continues the fourth generation of Teldeschi winemaking into the new millennium. Only one question remains…will Dan return to Casabasciana to find himself a lovely bride too?