Born January 2, 1933, just as Prohibition was ending, Benito Dusi’s life and career spanned an important era of California wine history from 1933 to 2019. During his lifetime, the California wine industry experienced a rebirth and developed into one of the most successful winemaking regions in the world. Benito was an important figure in this rebirth.
Benito was a legend for his integrity, his smile, his handshake, and his generous heart. He was a grower, a winemaker, and a mentor to many in the wine industry. He had a soft spot in his heart for home winemakers, always saving some of his Zinfandel harvest to sell to them. Many of those home winemakers later established their own wineries in San Luis Obispo County. Benito mentored them and enjoyed sharing their stories and their wines.
His Zinfandel grapes were also legendary, making California Zinfandel wines famous and the Paso Robles region well known for quality grapes throughout California and the United States. Old vine Zinfandel grapes grown by Benito were dry farmed and head-pruned in the old-world style on the property his parents purchased in 1925 located just east of Highway 101 in Paso Robles and planted with Zinfandel in 1926 and 1927. Benito grew up in this vineyard, living on the property from the time he was six until his death, working with his family to care for the vineyards, harvest, and sell the grapes. In 1967 Dave Bennion, founder of the Ridge Winery, was searching for old Zinfandel vines when he spotted the Dusi Vineyard, and in 1968 Benito sold five tons of Zinfandel grapes to Ridge. Since that time, he has sold over 95% of his annual Zinfandel harvest to this award-winning winery. The impact of this relationship is that Zinfandel wine transitioned from the jug to the elite bottles of Ridge with a label designating the Dusi Vineyard as the source of the grapes. This was the first vineyard in San Luis Obispo County to receive that recognition on a wine label.
Above all else, Benito was a beloved member of the Dusi family, the youngest of the three Dusi brothers and a member of the second generation of the famous grape-growing family. This is the only family of growers in San Luis Obispo County that has had five generations raising and harvesting grapes. Only two members of the family have made wine commercially – Benito in the 1950s and his grandniece Janell in the 21st century.
This is Benito’s story, but as you know an Italian comes with and is always an important character in his family’s story. The Dusi family is at the heart and soul of knowing Benito Dusi. His love and respect for his parents, uncles and aunts, brothers, their wives, nieces and nephews shaped those memories that bring a warm smile when recounting them. Benito loved people. He had more friends than he could name who loved to share their thoughts, their stories and wine with him. He mentored and encouraged people in their daily lives. He shared his grapes and his knowledge with everyone who knew him.
Benito’s story begins with his parents, Sylvester and Caterina Dusi, who had immigrated to the United States from their villages, Ono Degno and Casto, in northern Italy in the early twentieth century. Sylvester immigrated to the United States in 1907 and decided to move to Templeton in 1920 after visiting his brother Lorenzo who was working for Lorenzo Nerelli.
Sylvester, Benito’s father, was an entrepreneur. He saved his earnings and bought his first hotel on Pine Street in Paso Robles on October 15, 1921. He renamed it, Hotel de Italia, and opened an Italian grocery and restaurant on the first floor. The rooms for guests were located on the second floor.
Sylvester met his future wife, Caterina Gazzaroli, by advertising for a maid and cook in a letter to his sister Martha who still resided in Italy. Caterina responded to accept the job and arranged transportation from Italy. She booked passage on a ship, arriving in Boston on October 9, 1922, and then boarded the train to San Francisco. Sylvester met her at the train station. It was a perfect partnership for Caterina who shared the work ethic and the business skills to make the hotel and restaurant a success. Sylvester, at age 39, married Caterina on October 28, 1922, in San Francisco. Their first son, Guido, was born at the Hotel de Italia on September 10, 1923, with Dr. Stoly in attendance.
In 1925 Sylvester and Caterina purchased their first land, 87.90 acres from Harry Pellanda on December 4, 1925. They had a dream; they wanted to own their land and farm crops to support their family. They believed that if you worked hard you would be successful, a value and work ethic embraced by each member of the Dusi family over the succeeding generations.
This land had history; it was laid out on a survey map of Rancho Paso de Robles in 1886 by R.R. Harris and George Story. Originally known as Lot 5 of the subdivisions, in 1925 it became known as the Dusi Ranch. This land is historic in its origins and as the place where Benito grew up and lived with his parents. It is the place where the entire Dusi family shared their Italian recipes, Zinfandel wine, and friendship with friends, winemakers, growers, and tourists who frequented the first tasting room on California State Highway 101 in the 1950s and 1960s. It is the place where the family gathered on Sundays to enjoy Caterina’s home cooking on her iron wood-burning stove, particularly polenta and stew with homegrown vegetables from her garden. Her favorite flowers filled the house.
In 1926 Sylvester hired Steve Medrano to help clear the land and plant their vineyard in Zinfandel grapes; these vines would make the Dusi family famous for growing grapes that became known as among the best Zinfandel in California. On this property, they built their home, planted the vineyard, gardens and raised their three sons, Guido, Dante, and Benito.
The planting of the vineyard began in 1926 and was completed in 1927. This vineyard was planted with a field blend, which was the tradition at the time. The majority of vines are Zinfandel. Small amounts of Carignane, Mission, Alicante Bouche, Petite Sirah, and Grenache were planted. The vineyard is now known as the Benito Dusi Vineyard.
There were three existing buildings on the land dating from the 1880s. Over the years, as the land was cleared of its trees, charcoal pits were built, and charcoal was made from tree trunks and sold to bring in extra money before more vines were planted. This is the land where Sylvester and Caterina built their home, with an extraordinary kitchen in the basement where Caterina cooked the legendary family meals and the Sunday dinner that all the generations attended.
Benito Dusi was the “last Italian baby” as he often described himself. He was born in San Luis Obispo at French Hospital on January 2, 1933. Sylvester and Caterina had decided to move to San Luis Obispo so that Benito’s older brothers, Guido (born in 1923 in Paso Robles) and Dante (born in 1925 at the Atascadero Hospital) could attend the Mission Catholic School. Legend has it that Sylvester paid for their tuition by donating wine to the Church.
Prohibition was just ending in 1933. The vineyards of Sylvester Dusi and local Italian families were thriving. There was a demand for their grapes, particularly among the Swiss-Italians who lived on the Central Coast and the Basque populations in the Salinas Valley. In 1934, the Pesenti family established the first bonded winery in San Luis Obispo County after Prohibition ended. The families spent time together supporting their vineyards and sharing information.
In 1936 Sylvester and his brother Joe teamed up with 12 other Italian Zinfandel growers to take out an ad in the local newspaper to advertise their grapes for sale at $28 per ton.
Sylvester was an entrepreneur, always looking for business opportunities. Caterina was a talented businesswoman who knew how to make a profit in the food and liquor businesses. They invested in several buildings and businesses in San Luis Obispo on Morro Street between Monterey and Palm, including Stag’s Liquor and Pool Hall. Caterina opened an Italian Restaurant behind the Pool Hall and did most of the cooking.
In 1936 she opened the La Pergola Liquor Store at 978 Morro Street. She sold wine from local producers including York Winery and Pesenti Winery, by the pint, quart, half-gallon, and full gallon with a five-gallon limit. Dante worked in the store as a delivery boy and Benito watched the comings and goings of family and friends. Benito spent time on the weekends working at the Dusi Ranch with his family. He was fascinated with the farm equipment, trucks, and cars that his father was accumulating. Benito learned to drive the iconic gray CAT 10, the first crawler that Sylvester purchased, and enjoyed a life-long passion for mechanical equipment.
In 1939 the family moved back to the Dusi Ranch and focused on the grape business. Benito learned to farm, driving the equipment and tending the grapes. By age six he was working on the land that would be his home for the next 80 years.
In 1940 the family took a memorable vacation in the 1930 Packard to Yosemite. Sylvester drove the car through the opening in the giant redwood. An iconic family photo shows Guido looking very stylish, Dante, Sylvester, Caterina, and seven-year-old Benito in overalls.
The following year, World War II was raging. Both Guido and Dante enlisted in the military as soon as they graduated from high school, as did most of their young Italian friends. Benito continued to work the vineyards with his father and Steve, known to Benito as “the working man.”
In 1945, Sylvester and Caterina bought the land to the west of what is now Highway 101, across from the Templeton Cemetery. The seller was R. C. Heaton. The land was covered with oak trees. Sylvester’s plan was to clear land, producing charcoal as he progressed with the project. He would then plant vineyards and farm the land. Benito was the only child at home to help, but he had already climbed up on the iconic old Cat 10 and learned how to run it. He helped clear the land to prepare it for planting. Within a year both of his brothers had returned home from the war and were helping with the project.
The farming techniques were followed as they had been for centuries. The wines were planted with a 12-foot spacing. There was no irrigation; the vines were dry-farmed and head-pruned to allow the roots to grow deep beneath the soil in the search for water. This farming method produces a flavorful fruit. Vines were pruned and fruit was dropped to increase the quality and intensity of the grapes. At harvest, the family and their friends placed wooden boxes on the ground along the rows of vines. Grapes were handpicked and placed gently in the boxes. When loaded the 50-pound boxes were carried to a small flatbed truck which moved them out of the field to be loaded on a larger flatbed truck. The grapes were then transported to the building containing the crusher.
Benito graduated from Paso Robles High School in June of 1951. He was honored to be asked to drive the school bus in his senior year of high school, picking up children in the Willow Creek area.
Benito was immediately drafted into the United States Army to serve in Korea. He trained at Camp Carson in Colorado. Benito was assigned to be a military dog master. He was a sentry in charge of security for his unit. When he returned to Paso Robles, he had greyhounds as his pets.
When Benito returned home the economic trends in the 1950s showed the price of wine increasing while the price of grapes was decreasing. The cash flow from selling grapes trickled in over many months because the wineries did not pay for grape purchases until the wine was actually sold, which could be three to five years after purchasing grapes. Dante and Benito developed a routine to sell grapes as a cash crop. They planned two-day trips to sell grapes to home winemakers. They loaded five tons of grapes on their truck, along with their mobile grape crusher. The brothers would drive north to the Salinas Valley and southeast to Bakersfield to sell and crush grapes for home winemakers. They knew all the Italian Swiss operating dairies and the Basque farmers and sheepherders.
In the 1950s, Sylvester developed a new business strategy to use the grapes that were declining in value. When Benito returned home from Korea in 1953, Sylvester offered sixty tons of grapes to Benito to make his own wine. Sylvester selected a label with a yellow color scheme containing a glass that looks suspiciously like one made for martinis. The Dusi label was affixed onto the Zinfandel wine jug made by Benito. The tasting room, located on the Dusi Ranch property behind their home, was open for business with Dusi Wine selling for $1.10 a gallon for the next 13 years. Winemaker Benito made the wine in the cellar until the trends reversed and selling grapes became more profitable that selling wine. The tasting room was a novelty. Benito remembers that many of his customers were Europeans who were interested in learning about American wine.
In the 1960s, the price of grapes began to rise again. The reputation of the Dusi Zinfandel grapes on old vine rootstock became known beyond the boundaries of San Luis Obispo County. Dante and Benito began to shift from selling grapes to home winemakers to focusing on commercial wineries. In 1963 and 1964 they sold grapes in bulk for $500 per ton to the famous Paul Masson Winery in Monterey County. The Monterey Wine Company also bought grapes from the Dusi brothers.
Sylvester died on March 31, 1964, after a long bout with cancer. Dante Dusi acquired the vineyards on the west side of California Highway 101 and Benito, the Dusi Ranch on the east side of the 101.
Benito and Dante both held “day jobs.” Benito worked the Watkins Hot Plant located at the eastern edge of his vineyards. But grapes were their passion.
So it must be said that Benito was first and foremost a farmer and grape grower. He learned his farming techniques from his father, and his quality grapes changed the history of San Luis Obispo County. He sold his grapes to local winemakers as well as to winemakers throughout California. Benito also had a passion for growing fruit. He invited family and friends to pick cherries, persimmons, figs, and gather prickly chestnuts. He loved to share his bounty.
Maintaining the vineyards and harvesting the grapes was truly a family affair. Benito preferred to drive the tractor and manage the work crew during harvest; all members of the Dusi family participated in the harvest, supporting each other in each family vineyard. Benito spoke fluent Spanish and enjoyed working with his crew. He loved the Mexican culture.
His love of the land and his skills as a grower made the Dusi grapes famous for their quality and helped establish the Paso Robles Templeton area as one of the premier growing regions in California. He is remembered as a man who sealed all deals and contracts with a handshake, a smile, and his reputation. He saved his vintage tractors and enjoyed maintaining them.
Benito maintained a legendary relationship with one of the most famous wineries in California, Ridge Vineyards. Dave Bennion, founder of the winery, was searching for old Zinfandel vines when he spotted the Dusi Vineyard on Highway 101 in Paso Robles in 1967. Dave knocked on the door and introduced himself to Caterina Dusi and her son, Benito. Legend has it that Dave was invited to dinner and while enjoying Caterina’s famous polenta and stew a friendship blossomed. Dave and Benito shook hands on a contract to sell Dusi grapes to Ridge Vineyards. In 1968 Benito sold five tons of Zinfandel grapes to Ridge. Since that time, he has sold over 95% of his annual Zinfandel harvest to this award-winning winery. The impact of this relationship is that Zinfandel wine transitioned from the jug to the elite bottles of Ridge with a label designating the Dusi Vineyard as the source of the grapes. This was the first vineyard in San Luis Obispo County to receive that recognition on a wine label.
Benito was a legend for his integrity, his smile, his handshake, and his generous heart. He was a grower, a winemaker and a mentor to many in the wine industry. He had a soft spot in his heart for home winemakers, always saving some of his Zinfandel harvest to sell to them. Many of those home winemakers later established their own wineries in San Luis Obispo County. Benito mentored them and enjoyed sharing their stories and their wines.
His Zinfandel grapes were also Legendary, making California Zinfandel Wines famous and the Paso Robles region well known for quality grapes throughout California and the United States.
Caterina Dusi moved to the family home after Sylvester died. She provided emotional support and business savvy for Benito until her death in 1987. She maintained her flower and vegetable gardens, hosted family events, and visited her friends and family in Italy as often as possible.
Benito was proud of his Italian heritage and maintained relationships with his relatives in Italy with the help of his dear friend winemaker Meo Zuech who translated their many letters for Benito.
Benito worked closely with his brother Dante and Dante’s sons for the remainder of his life. The Dusi grapes are a family affair. He was thrilled to watch his niece Janell Dusi bring the art of winemaking to the fourth generation of the Dusi family.
We all remember those special moments we shared with Benito: the coffee and donuts, his favorite dessert, pineapple upside-down cake, his love of trains passing by twice a day and his waves to the engineers, working on his truck, harvesting fruit in the orchards, and playing with his greyhounds.
Benito spoke three languages and learned to read others. He was a keen historian and the ultimate gentleman. He loved his Italian heritage and shared it with many of us in Paso Robles.
Benito died on July 17, 2019. He will be remembered as a legend who shaped the history of Zinfandel in California and as the remarkable kind man who brought happiness and knowledge to so many. The Benito Dusi Vineyards have many more harvests ahead and will remain in the Dusi family.
A documentary celebrating Benito Dusi’s life will be released by the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County in the fall of 2019.