Caterina Gazzaroli as a young woman in Italy
Caterina and Sylvester Dusi in the garden overlooking their vineyard at the Dusi Ranch
Sylvester and Caterina Dusi holding Dante Dusi
Caterina Dusi knitting on the front porch
Caterina Dusi in her garden on the Dusi Ranch
Sylvester and Caterina Dusi vacationing in Italy
Grandson Mike Dusi with Caterina Dusi
Caterina’s Italian Dishes
Statue of Liberty
Abalone Shell Placed In Her Garden
The first family vacation to Yosemite National Park Guido, Dante, Sylvester, Caterina and Benito Wawona in the the Mariposa Grove
Caterina had a strong work ethic which inspired her three sons and her grandchildren to pursue the demanding work in their careers no matter what the obstacles.The Dusi family always has had a commitment to Zinfandel and to dry farming. The earliest family vineyards were planted in just one grape variety which was very unusual in the 1920s. The extended Dusi family has harvested the grapes together each fall beginning with 1928; this family tradition continues today.
Caterina and Sylvester Dusi founded a number of successful businesses in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo. Following her husband’s death, Caterina became her youngest son Benito’s business partner. They lived together on the Dusi Ranch in the old farmhouse until her death in 1985. Benito managed the Benito Dusi Vineyard and mentored many local winemakers over the years. He enjoyed selling his grapes to local Italian winemakers after delivering the majority of his Zinfandel harvest to Ridge Winery. Benito passed away on July 17, 2019.
Caterina’s Childhood in Northern Italy
The young Caterina Gazzaroli is remembered as a strong young woman who worked hard to survive in Casto, her small village in the mountainous Brescia Province of Northern Italy. Her father’s family had lived there for generations; one of her cousins owned the Gazzaroli Polenta Factory, one of the most traditional businesses in the area. Caterina was born on October 5, 1894 during a time when thousands of Italians began emigrating to other countries due to the poverty, wars, and the lack of economic opportunity to build financial security and support their families.
Caterina’s childhood was difficult. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother suffered from poor health. As a small child, Caterina found ways to earn money to help her mother. Although she had no shoes, she walked long distances to find work in other villages including stacking large bags of polenta in her cousin’s factory. She also found work cleaning houses and caring for small children. All too often, her father took her earnings when she returned home in the evening, thwarting her attempts to support her mother.
In spite of the challenges, Caterina thrived. As a young woman, she became self reliant and self supporting. She fell in love and considered marriage to her sweetheart but rejected it. Caterina wanted independence and control over her own life; in the early 1900s the traditional role of an Italian wife was to care for all the family members including her husband’s aging parents. Caterina chose to be single and continued working, always looking for new business opportunities.
A Business Opportunity in California
At 28 years old, Caterina learned from a friend, Martha Dusi, that her brother Sylvester had invested in a hotel in a small town in Central California. Sylvester had emigrated to America in 1907 and traveled to California to join his brother Lorenzo in the logging town of Eureka. Sylvester worked a number of jobs over the next 13 years as a woodsman, a laborer in a rice mill, and a waterman on the Southern Pacific Railway. He eventually moved to San Francisco. In 1920, Sylvester visited his brother Lorenzo in San Luis Obispo County. He decided to move there and worked briefly in the charcoal industry with his three brothers. He soon found a business opportunity in the town of Paso Robles.
Sylvester purchased an old boarding house with his savings and renamed it Hotel d’Italia. He opened an Italian grocery and a restaurant on the ground floor. He needed someone to cook and clean in the Hotel d’Italia so he contacted his sister, Martha Dusi, in Italy to find someone willing to travel to America and work in his hotel. Caterina accepted the job and arranged passage to America on the SS Arabic. She arrived in Boston, and traveled by train to California, arriving in San Francisco. She had never met Sylvester although he was from Ono Degno, a small village not far from Casto.
When Caterina arrived in San Francisco in October 1922, Sylvester met her at the train station. Immigration officials soon threatened Caterina’s legal status, offering her a choice of marriage or deportation. Although he was charming and well dressed, Sylvester had not yet married. Sylvester and Caterina’s relationship began with a challenge and a crucial business decision – should she marry a man she did not know? She decided to take the risk. The couple chose to be married in the Catholic Church in San Francisco on October 28, 1922. She was 28 and he was 39.
Caterina’s Marriage and Business Partnership
Caterina and Sylvester’s marriage and business partnership established a loving multi-generational family that farms the land Sylvester and Caterina purchased. The Dusi family continues to acquire additional land for grape growing; they are now welcoming the fifth generation to the vineyards.
Caterina and Sylvester had three sons: Guido who founded an electric shop in Paso Robles, Dante who worked for Madonna Construction and Benito who worked in the charcoal industry. Dante and Benito continued to work in the family vineyards growing premium grapes while working in their “day” jobs. However, everyone in the extended family – Guido, aunts and uncles, children, grandchildren and cousins always worked the fall harvest together.
Caterina and Sylvester founded multiple successful businesses in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, planted three legendary Zinfandel vineyards, and built a home on the Dusi Ranch that became the social center for Italian friends, soldiers stationed at nearby army and naval bases, and for the Dusi family.
Caterina’s story is about her strength and wisdom as a wife and working business partner. She was a role model for everyone who knew her – her focus on hard work and ethical behavior, thoughtful organization and structure, meticulous recordkeeping and housekeeping. She was a loving mother to three sons and daughters-in-law, an inspiring grandmother to five grandchildren and many more great- grandchildren.
Caterina the Business Woman
Sylvester found investment opportunities ranging from clearing and planting three Zinfandel vineyards, producing charcoal, operating Stag’s Billiard Parlor and Restaurant, opening the LePergola Liquor Store, founding the Obispo Sausage Factory, setting up the San Luis Winery in downtown SLO and the Dusi Winery on the Dusi Ranch to purchasing a gas station, the Hi-Way Hotel, and the Dusi Ranch.
Caterina managed most of those businesses. She improved the hotels, cooked food in the restaurants, kept meticulous financial records, managed one of the first liquor stores to open after Prohibition and promoted the local York Bros and Pesenti wines. After her husband’s death, Caterina partnered with her youngest son, Benito, to manage the Dusi Ranch. She and Benito negotiated a contract in 1967 with David Bennion of Ridge Winery to purchase over 98 % of the old vine Zinfandel grown on the Dusi Ranch. The partnership between the Dusi family and the Ridge Winery made a major impact on the wine history of San Luis Obispo County.
Legend has it that Caterina invited David Bennion for Sunday dinner after David discovered the 40 year-old-vines growing in Benito’s vineyard. Caterina was known for her polenta recipe so she served her homemade polenta with two kinds of stew, chicken and beef, accompanied by Zinfandel wine, of course. Benito and Caterina negotiated the contract to sell their grapes exclusively to Ridge Winery; the contract was sealed by their handshakes with David. This contract continues in effect today. It is the longest running contract in Central California wine history, spanning 56 years.
This negotiation changed our local wine culture and history. Ridge Zinfandel wines made from Dusi old vine Zinfandel changed the perception of the quality of grapes grown and sold in San Luis Obispo County. Ridge’s Old Vine Zinfandel not only began winning awards but the presentation of the wine changed dramatically. Zinfandel wines were no longer sold in jugs; they were sold in elegant bottles with labels designating the Dusi vineyard as the source of the grapes. San Luis Obispo County became known for quality grapes and wines just as the California Wine revolution began in the early 1970s.
The Dusi Ranch
The Dusi vineyards are filled with local wine history. Barrels of Zinfandel were buried in the vineyard during Prohibition. Their farm house, located in the Benito Dusi vineyard, is surrounded by Caterina’s gardens lined with abalone shells from Morro Bay, and the first tasting room on California Highway 101. The famous chicken coop still stands where Zinfandel wine was hidden during the Prohibition years near several garages filled with iconic old cars, including Caterina’s blue cadillac and farm tractors.
Caterina’s kitchen is located in the basement of the farm house. The wood burning stove where she cooked meals daily for vineyard workers and her family dominates the room. The long table was set for meals and shelves around the room were lined with jars of fruit and vegetable preserves, all made by Caterina.
Caterina cooked for the vineyard workers daily and became well known for her enchiladas and tacos in addition to her Italian cuisine. There were memorable desserts and cookies that she loved to bake with her granddaughter Gina.
The family remembers the Italian Sunday dinners served on her favorite china in the dining room with Caterina adding additional servings to each plate with the Italian words – Mange (eat), Mange (eat), Mange (eat.) She would not be seated during the meal. She stood watching her guests, filling wine glasses and plates with more of her delicious food. She was the ultimate chef and hostess during the winter months. In the summer, Sunday afternoons were spent visiting friends or beautiful landscapes near creeks at the beach or in the oak forests enjoying picnics and wine.
Entertaining her Guests
Caterina loved entertaining her guests at the ranch. There were tours of her garden, long conversations on the front porch and the living room followed by delicious meals to share. Her dining table was formally set for Sunday dinners with a linen tablecloth and napkins, her favorite china, wine glasses, salt and pepper shakers. Flowers from the garden were placed in vases.
No matter what the occasion, lively conversations filled the house. Brothers and sons debated and discussed politics, local news, farming, highway construction, music and the latest letters from friends and family.
Caterina is most famous for her checker games. She loved to engage her family and friends in playing a very competitive game of checkers with her. She was a champion and no one can remember her going down to defeat! Some of her friends and grandchildren have confessed they were actually afraid to play with her.
Caterina the Italian
She valued her Italian culture, cuisine and traditions; she brought them to life by sharing the cuisine and customs of her native Italy. She kept in close touch with her family and visited them often in her older years. During each visit she purchased Italian items including beautiful Italian serving dishes and vases to fill her home with beauty.
Caterina loved to travel. In the 1950s Caterina and Sylvester returned to Italy to visit family and friends and enjoy a more prosperous Italy than she knew in her childhood. Caterina returned again and again, visiting resorts and enjoying sunbathing on the beach. She shared her love of Italy with her granddaughters and was proud to take them to visit her native village.
Caterina the American
Caterina spoke fluent Italian when she arrived in Paso Robles. However, she loved America and the Central Coast and soon wanted to learn English. Over the years, she studied English with her son Dante as her tutor. Once she learned English, she wanted to apply for citizenship. Dante helped Caterina study American history and apply for citizenship in the United States. Caterina was very proud to be an American. One of the small sculptures in her home was the Statue of Liberty in this exhibit.
Caterina loved to travel in the United States too. The first family trip was to visit the famous giant sequoia that stood in the Mariposa Grove in the Yosemite National Park. The Wawona Trees, also known as the Wawona Tunnel Tree, was large enough to drive through the tunnel carved in its base. The ancient tree was 227 feet tall and 26 feet in diameter at the base. The family photo shows them standing by Sylvester’s car just after driving through the tree. This photo is a treasure; the tree was felled in February 1969.
You will notice that Caterina is dressed in a stylish two piece suit and hat. She is wearing her signature black leather shoes and carrying the large black leather purse. She was always wearing a suit or dress. She did not make her own clothes; she probably purchased them in San Francisco.
Caterina loved to knit and often made blankets as shown in a photo in this exhibit. She is often seen wearing knitted sweaters in her photographs. Caterina often sat on her front porch knitting and enjoying the nature around her.
Caterina learned to drive in the 1950s. She drove a blue Cadillac which is still owned by the family. She loved to visit her friends and drive to town.
She knew how to enjoy life and she loved nature. Her passion was gardening. She grew vegetables and beautiful red geraniums. Caterina loved to hunt for wild mushrooms in Cambria and Parkfield. She would make soup and highlight other dishes with the fresh mushrooms she collected herself. She loved to fish and visited Morro Bay as often as possible. She collected abalone shells there that she lovingly placed in her garden at the Dusi Ranch.They are still there near the front door of the farm house to welcome visitors, friends and family.
Exhibit at Paso Robles History Museum – August 1 to November 1
Please join us at the Paso Robles History Museum to see the complete exhibit on three Italian Women that changed the cultural landscape of San Luis Obipso County in the early 20th century: Caterina Dusi, Caterina Nerelli and Sylvia Pesenti Nerelli.