Dante, Guido, Benito, Caterina, and Sylvester

Dorothy and Dante

Dorothy and Dante

Making Charcoal

Janell and Dante

Janell and Dante

Janell and Dante

Dante Dusi was born in July 1925 in San Luis Obispo.  This is Dante’s story but as you know, an Italian comes with and is always a part of his family. The family is the heart and soul of Dante Dusi. So, Dante’s story begins with his parents, Sylvester and Caterina Dusi, who emigrated to the United States from their villages, Ono Degno and Casto, in northern Italy in the early 20th Century.

Sylvester arrived in the United States in 1907 to join his younger brother, Joe, working in the coal mines of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Sylvester did not enjoy working underground and so set out for the West Coast. In 1910 he worked in Eureka, California in the lumber industry, and then in 1917 moved to San Francisco. Finally in 1920, Sylvester and his youngest brother Dan moved to San Luis Obispo. They worked for Lorenzo Nerelli near York Mountain cutting wood. Sylvester was known for his work ethic and his intelligence. His talents ranged from skills with his hands, farming, planting vineyards and growing grapes, to operating businesses, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, liquor stores and a wine production facility over the years.

Sylvester was an entrepreneur, saving his earnings and buying 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 wife Caterina Gazzaroli by advertising for help through his sister who still resided in Italy. Caterina took the boat across the Atlantic Ocean and then the train across the United States to San Francisco. She met Sylvester there and traveled to Paso Robles to take on her new job. 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 in San Francisco in 1922. Their first son, Guido, was born at the hotel on September 10, 1923.

Dante was the middle child of their three sons. Dante was born on July 15, in 1925 at Atascadero General Hospital. He grew up in both San Luis Obispo and in Paso Robles. He attended elementary school in San Luis Obispo where his father traded wine for his tuition at the Mission Catholic School. The family lived in downtown San Luis Obispo on the second floor of one of several businesses that the Sylvester and Caterina launched. They opened a liquor store soon after Prohibition ended and Dante worked there, making deliveries to customers around town. Dante later told wonderful stories of the gracious ladies in the red-light district who were loyal customers and showered him with hugs.

In 1925, Sylvester and Caterina had purchased their first agricultural land, 87.90 acres, from Harry Pellanda on December 4th, 1925. The land had history; it was originally laid out on a survey map in 1886 by R. R. Harris and George Story. The property was originally known as Lot 5 of the subdivisions of the Rancho Paso de Robles.

Sylvester hired a worker, Estaban Medrano (Steve) from Mexico, to help clear the land and plant their vineyard in Zinfandel grapes; these vines would be known as among the best in California and define the Dusi family forever for growing world-class Zinfandel. Prohibition was well underway but there was a demand for grapes from the Swiss Italian farmers who lived along the Central Coast. The local Basque farmers in the Salinas Valley also loved to make their own wine and were partial to Zinfandel grapes. Joni Dusi captures the feelings of Sylvester and Caterina by explaining, “the vineyard presented the ‘American Dream’ for Sylvester and Caterina. It was an opportunity to farm their own soil, bring in a harvest and make a living. They believed that America was the land of opportunity; if you worked hard enough you could make it. On this property they built their home, planted their vineyards and raised their three sons, Guido, Dante, and Benito.”

The planting of the vineyard began in 1926 and was completed in 1927. This is the vineyard now known as the Benito Dusi Vineyard. There were three existing buildings on the land dating from the 1880s.

In 1926, the Hotel di Italia was sold to Giorgio Padda and Ferdinando Bitta on August 9. Sylvester was focused on growing Zinfandel grapes in his vineyards.

On August 14, 1928, Dante traveled to Italy for the first time with his parents and older brother Guido. He was only three years old, but he had the opportunity to visit Italy and meet his relatives there. His parents and particularly, Caterina, would return to Italy to visit family and friends many times over the years.

The Dusi family was part of the local Italian culture that was expanding in Templeton and Paso Robles in the 1920s. They helped one another clear their lands, plant and harvest. They socialized and enjoyed one another’s company sharing meals, conversation and card games. Family names, Pesenti, Rotta, Martinelli, Nerelli, and Casteel are fondly remembered.

Clearing the land presented another business opportunity. The charcoal production business was active for many years in Templeton and Paso Robles, flourishing as the land was cleared for homes and vineyards. There were two predominant styles of charcoal making: the Italian and the Japanese. The fuel was used for heating, cooking and for running the trains. Sylvester was known for his charcoal business, teaching his sons the techniques. Benito continued the business on what would become the Benito Dusi Vineyards for many years.

During Prohibition the local families developed other businesses and strategies to survive. Sylvester’s vineyard had a yield of over 100 tons of grapes to harvest and to sell. He sold grapes to many local home winemakers, a fad that was spreading across the country. Each household was allowed to make no more than 200 gallons of wine per year for personal use. There was an active ‘underground economy’ of wine trading with other individuals. Wine was made in stills locally and in Bradley, California and hidden locally underground in barrels to ferment. IRS agents were continually conducting searches of homes and barns to catch and jail the guilty parties. In the years ahead, Dante and his younger brother, Benito, would often travel to the dairy farmers located in the Salinas Valley with grapes and a small portable crusher. The brothers would sell and crush the grapes right on the spot, during the two-day trip.

In the 1930s, Sylvester purchased the famous and iconic CAT 10, the last gray model produced by Caterpillar. Dante was five but must have been fascinated with this equipment. Dante and his brothers developed a lifelong passion for their old trucks and many pieces of equipment. They worked on them and delighted in talking “shop” with anyone who would listen. Dante later would be famous for his iconic blue truck that he used to drive through the vineyards.

Grandsons, Michael and Matt, his wife Ali, and granddaughter Janell remember the wonderful conversations they shared with Dante while he drove the truck with them through the vineyards over all the years. Dante had a very curious mind and loved to learn throughout his life. He loved asking questions and discussing history, politics, science, and farming. Dante’s truck rests in the Dusi Vineyards to this day. You will recognize it by its pale blue color which granddaughter Janell has reproduced on her wine label. Dante’s father, Sylvester, loved cars and enjoyed supporting the local Cadillac dealer with his purchases during the darkest days of the Depression.

While the grapes were growing, Sylvester and Caterina continued to buy, develop, and sell a number of businesses in the county. They owned several hotels including Hotel di Italia and the Highway Hotel on 13th Street in Paso Robles. They owned restaurants, the French-Italian Restaurant in Hotel di Italia, and the Rio Grande Restaurant which was very popular with servicemen. They invested in a sausage making business on York Mountain. In San Luis Obispo, they owned several buildings and businesses on Morro Street including Stag’s Liquor and Pool Hall. Sylvester is listed as a merchant living at 917 Morro Street in San Luis Obispo in the 1938 Census.

In 1936, Sylvester and Caterina opened the La Pergola Liquor Store in San Luis Obispo and sold wines from York Mountain and the Pesenti Wineries. In the same year, 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. Dante grew up working in these business and learning farming and vineyard management from both his father and Steve, “the working man,” as he was always known by family and friends.

The 1940 Census shows Sylvester and family living on a farm and owning their own home. The family moved to Paso Robles to live on land near the vineyards where Dante learned to tend grapevines and farm while working in the grain fields of Bradley, California, on a harvester in the summers.

Dante attended Paso Robles High School and graduated. He played football during those four years, but his favorite memories were of the Victory Garden that he tended, planting fruits, vegetables and herbs at the high school.  The purpose was to reduce pressure on the public food supply which indirectly aided the war effort. The Victory Garden is featured in his high school yearbook. It is interesting to note that one third of the vegetables produced in the United States came from Victory Gardens. By May 1943, there were 18 million Victory Gardens in the United States – 12 million in cities and 6 million on farms. Dante must have felt great pride in his project.

World War II was declared in December of 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Many of the sons of local Italian families were enlisting. Dante enlisted in the Coast Guard. He was inducted on October 13, 1943, and entered active service on October 20, a week later. He spent 18 months on a carrier responsible for moving cargo and transporting troops in the South Pacific. These carriers were known as Liberty Ships. They were a class of cargo ship, built in the United States during World War II. The 2,710 ships were mass-produced at 18 shipyards by using a design of low- cost construction. The Liberty Ship was seen as a symbol of U.S. wartime construction.

In 1945, Sylvester and Caterina bought the land to the west, across from the Templeton Cemetery, from R.C. Heaton. The plan was to plant crops and farm the land.

Dante received an Honorable Discharge from the U.S. Coast Guard on April 27th, 1946. His ship was USS MITAKA AK 94 PSC #12 in San Francisco.

When Dante returned home, he worked with his brothers, Guido and Benito, along with Sylvester to plant additional vineyards on the land which Sylvester had acquired. The land was covered with trees and low vegetation. The trees had to be removed with dynamite. The wood from the trees was then cut into small pieces and slowly burned to create charcoal in charcoal pits built by the Dusi brothers. This method of creating charcoal from dead wood has been used extensively in the county since the early 20th Century, especially in the York Mountain area.

This vineyard was planted with the same field blend as was planted at the first vineyard. The majority of vines are Zinfandel. Small amounts of Carignane, Mission, Alicante Bouche, Petite Sirah, and Grenache were planted.

The farming techniques were followed as they had been for centuries. The vines 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 redwood boxes on the ground along the rows of vines. Grapes were hand picked and placed gently into 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 which transported them to the building containing the crusher. The boxes were carried to the crusher and emptied into the machine. Each 50-pound box was moved by hand at least five times. Dante was working in every phase of the vineyard development, learning the skills of generations of Italians who dry-farmed in the old-world style.

In 1945 Caterina purchased the third ranch property, first known as Caterina’s Hill and later as Ranch 7, from Mr. Brown. It was an almond ranch, formerly owned by Louis Fortini and located above what is now TARGET. Today it is planted in Zinfandel and Syrah vines and owned by Dante’s grandson Matt and his wife, Ali Dusi.

In 1948, Sylvester and Caterina exchanged their San Luis Obispo properties for Steve Zegar’s Hi-Way Hotel in Paso Robles located at 1244 Pine Street. Dante worked in the evening at the restaurant and noticed a lovely young woman passing by on her way to her job at the Telephone Company. They fell in love, Dorothy from Chicago, and Dante, born in the rural landscape of San Luis Obispo County.

Dorothy Stepple and Dante were married in 1949 at the San Antonio Mission. They soon joined the tradition of the Dusi family, building a home and living on the land that would one day be known as the Dante Dusi Vineyard. Dante and his wife Dorothy built their home just right of a beautiful oak tree.

Dante originally worked in the oil fields and then decided to work construction with Alex Madonna for the next 25 years. Farming grapes alone could not support a family. Dorothy, “Dottie,” as her friends call her, continued working the evening shift at the phone company. They became parents in the early 1950s with three children: Rick born on July 16, 1950, followed by Michael on December 17, 1952, and daughter Kathy on December 31, 1953. Dante’s hours at Madonna Construction were long, often 12-hour days. The children waited up eagerly to talk with him when he finally arrived home, following him into the bathroom to chat while he soaked his aching muscles in the bathtub.

On the weekends, the family worked together in the vineyards, and founding the tradition that still continues today. Then and now, during each harvest, the entire Dusi family worked with the vineyard crew to bring in the grape crop over the six to eight weeks of harvest. During the years when Dante was working construction, Dottie would take charge of the harvest, hiring crews, monitoring the workers and negotiating when necessary. Maintaining the vineyards and harvesting the grapes is truly a family affair.

The price of grapes began falling in the 1950s so Sylvester decided that making wine and selling it might be a good business move. Sylvester offered 60 tons of Zinfandel grapes to his youngest son, Benito, to start making wine. Benito learned the art from his family and his father. For the next 11 years, Benito sold the Dusi Zinfandel wine in gallon jugs for $1.10. They opened a tasting room on the property and operated it for over a decade. Large numbers of visitors were Europeans rather than locals. They were more accustomed to drinking wines than Americans were at the time.

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 years after purchasing grapes. Dante and Benito often loaded five tons of grapes on their truck, followed by their mobile grape crusher. They would drive to the Salinas Valley to the north and to Bakersfield in the southeast to sell and crush grapes for home winemakers. During this decade, Sylvester and Caterina made at least two trips to Italy in 1951 and 1956. They were living in Paso Robles at the Hi-Way Hotel. Sylvester was in his 70s and his health was presenting challenges. He died on March 31, 1964.

In the 1960s, the price of grapes began to rise again. The reputation of the Dusi Zinfandel grapes on old vines became known beyond the boundaries of San Luis Obispo County. Grapes were sold to Paul Masson and the Monterey Wine Company. York Mountain Winery was the largest local winery who purchased Dusi Grapes.

The local demand grew gradually in the 1970s. Locals, Dave Caparone and the Donati Family Vineyard purchased grapes. However, the Zinfandel grape was falling from favor and the public was buying other types of wine. Dante began pulling out some of the vines in 1975. But he soon began replanting in 1977. He was able to retire and focus his attention on the vineyard and his family.

Joni and Michael Dusi were married and soon had three children of their own: Michael born on February 6, 1973, Matt on August 2, 1975, and daughter Janell on January 13, 1980.

Dante was first and foremost a farmer and grape grower. He learned his farming techniques from his father and his quality of grapes changed the history of San Luis Obispo County. Dante and Benito sold grapes to local winemakers as well as to winemakers throughout California.

Dante sold to Tobin James Cellars, Nadeau Family Vintners, and Four Vines Wines; Benito sold to Dover Canyon and Peachy Canyon Winery. All of these wineries are located in San Luis Obispo County.

Dante’s 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, an important tribute to the past.

Dante was a teacher and mentor to his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, teaching them how to plant vineyards, to dry farm and head prune, and grow grapes of exceptional quality. He taught them about the pride one feels in growing an exceptional product and working together to get the job done.

When Dante retired, he and Dottie lived within a few hundred yards of his children and grandchildren. He was a warm and thoughtful man. He loved learning and sharing his curiosity about the world. His conversations were stimulating; he was an excellent listener, the kind of person that makes you feel like you are his best friend and the center of his attention.

His daughter-in-law, Joni, fondly remember the morning trips together in Dante’s trucks, traveling through the vineyards and sharing their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. Those precious mornings together represent the strengthening of family bonds that are one of the enduring contributions of the Dusi Legacy to the wine history of San Luis Obispo County.

His granddaughter, Janell, loved to spend her days as a child exploring the property and learning from Dante. He was always there to play with her. He taught her to question and perhaps her most important one was, “We grow the grapes and we sell them to winemakers, why don’t we make wine?”

Janell was persistent, and around the age of 12 finally convinced Dante to teach her how to make wine. She entered her wine in the Mid-State Fair, won honorable mention, and started her journey toward becoming the first winemaker in the family, founding her own winery, J Dusi Wines, and creating labels that tell the history of Dante and her family in subtle ways.

Dante supported his wife Dottie and daughter Kathy in their careers as stained-glass artists. Although Dante was interested in the world, the history and politics, he wasn’t eager to travel. He encouraged Dottie to make trips and to share her stories with him when she returned.
Dante loved the Sunday family gatherings around the dinner table and the conversations with his family and friends. His sense of humor was always appreciated.

Dante was a mentor to other growers and vineyard managers. Zinfandel grower Richard and vineyard manager Gene Sauret told stories of working with Dante after the war and learning to plant and head prune in the old country style. Richard became famous as a Zinfandel grower who dry-farmed in the Italian style. Gene became known for his skills as a vineyard manager.

Dante continued to sell his fruit to a variety of winemakers during his lifetime. Pat Mastan, winemaker and owner of the legendary Mastantuono Winery, started purchasing Zinfandel grapes from Dante Dusi when winemaking was just his hobby in Los Angeles during the 1970s. Pat and family founded their winery in Templeton in 1977. Pat’s 1978 Dusi Zinfandel won a gold medal at the Orange County Fair in 1980 and later a silver medal at the prestigious San Jose Mercury News Competition. His wines made with Dusi grapes became legendary. The Dusi fruit has enabled many other winemakers to produce award-winning Zinfandel wines in California. His family, led by son Michael, has continued this legacy.

Dante Dusi vineyards are designated on wines made by Tobin James, Turley Cellars, J Dusi Wines, Four Vines Winery, Chumeia, Stephen Ross and Meridian.

The Dusi vineyards founded by Sylvester were transferred to sons, Dante and Benito. Benito owns the original Dusi Vineyards just east of Highway 101, south of Highway 46 West where he grew up. Dante acquired the vineyards west of 101, where he lived with his wife Dorothy, his children and grandchildren. He farmed the vineyards just west of Highway 101, north of Main Street, in Templeton for the next 69 years of his life.

Dante transferred his vineyards to sons Mike and Rick. His grandchildren are also farming acreage, and the family invested together to support J Dusi Wines and acquire additional parcels, expanding varietals, soils, and locations. Dante loved his family and enjoyed the work, meals, and conversations shared. He was interested in history, politics, and languages. He was known for his sense of humor and his smile. He is remembered for his hospitality. He often said, “Take your time going but hurry back!”

Dante Dusi died in 2014. Carrying on his legacy, the family continues to buy more property, plant more varieties of grapes as the market changes, but the mainstay in every Dusi Vineyard is Zinfandel. Farming is the family’s pride and passion.