Frank Nerelli – Founder of Zin Alley
Grandson of Lorenzo Nerelli and Frank Pesenti
Frank was born at the Pesenti Winery in the Templeton Gap in 1949. He was the only one of Frank Pesenti’s 20 grandchildren to become a grape grower and winemaker. He is the third generation of Italian farmers who planted the first Zinfandel vineyards and built two of the first four bonded wineries in Templeton.
Frank’s experience as a vineyardist ranges from growing multiple varieties of grapes during the California Wine Revolution in the Pesenti vineyards to researching new clones of Zinfandel and founding Zin Alley, where he works by himself today, making award-winning Zinfandel from the unique grapes he grows in his own vineyard. He now produces around 500 cases daily compared to an annual production of 140,000 cases as the winemaker at Pesenti from 1972 to 2001. Frank is the grandson that changed winemaking at Pesenti Winery and continues the family legacy with his own Zin Alley!
Impact on Wine History in San Luis Obispo County
- Third-generation Italian grower and winemaker at the famous Pesenti Winery and his own ZinAlley in Templeton. Frank is proud of his heritage and continues to strengthen the Legacy of both the Nerelli and Pesenti families.
- Frank has worked in his vineyards for 65 years, from the age of nine. He has grown multiple grape varieties and considers Zinfandel his grape of choice.
- Developed new winemaking techniques at Pesenti, anticipating the changes brought by the California Wine Revolution in the 1970s and 1980s.
- Produced new varietals in the Templeton Gap, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Muscat, White Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Grey Riesling, and Gewurztraminer.
- “The three-liter jug of Pesenti Zinfandel is the best value anywhere in the world,” according to wine writer Gerald Asher in Gourmet Magazine in 1994. Frank was the winemaker.
- Transitioned Pesenti Winery from “jug wines” to award-winning elegant wines. The production reached over 140,000 cases per year.
- Award-winning winemaker for over 50 years, most famous for his Zinfandel blends and dessert wines.
- Declares that winemaking is not a seasonal event but a year-round process in the vineyard and the winery. Frank works in his vineyard and crafts his wines by himself each day.
- Established ZinAlley in 1996 to make Zinfandel from new vines for the 21st Century.
- He is famous for his dessert wines.
An Introduction to the Templeton Gap
Frank worked in the Pesenti Vineyards from age 9 in 1958 until 2001, when Larry Turley purchased the winery. Frank grew up in Templeton, attending local schools and graduating from Templeton High School before entering military service. He returned home to work with his father Aldo Nerelli, Uncle Victor Pesenti, and Grandfather Frank Pesenti, at the Pesenti Vineyards and Winery. They all lived and worked together. Frank tells stories of working in the vineyards with his cousin Steve Pesenti as early as 4 AM before school. Their parents and grandparents worked all day. Frank and Steve joined them in the fields after school in the late afternoon.
Frank and Catterina Pesenti were among the first Italian families to purchase land and plant their vineyard in 1923 on the rolling hills. They were the first to be bonded as a winery in 1934 at the end of Prohibition. Zinfandel was their iconic wine, sold in glass jugs throughout the county. They expanded their production and were competitors of Gallo Wines and Old Swiss Colony, selling wine throughout California, particularly to the Basques and Swiss Italians, faithful Boda bag, and jug wine devotees. By 1981, the annual production of 140,000 cases included diverse varietal and generic table wines and fortified wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Green Hungarian, and Zinfandel Rose.
In 1923, Frank and Catterina Pesenti planted the first field blend on 18 acres above Vineyard Drive, which included four grape varieties: Zinfandel (AKA Black Prince), Tokay, Muscat, and Alicante Bouchet. The wine adventure followed.
Aldo Nerelli From Around 1950
Frank Nerelli Pouring Wine At The Paso Robles History Museum
Frank Nerelli’s Childhood in the Dirt
Frank Nerelli started working with his family by age nine when he was taught to clean the basket press. He learned about the method of dry farming and head pruning in the vineyard. He harvested grapes in the old traditional redwood lug boxes and helped with the bottling of wine by sticking labels on jugs and putting the sealant on bottles.
Frank lived at home with his parents and two sisters, overlooking the vineyard. His grandparents, Frank and Catterina Pesenti, lived across the same vineyard, so the work, meals, and knowledge were shared daily. Frank smiles when he says he got his education in the dirt. By age ten, he was working in the vineyard every day. But there were lots of happy times, too. Close friendships with the Dusi family and other Italian friends were celebrated on weekends with Bar-B-Ques, card games in the barn in Templeton, and great Italian meals cooked by their grandmothers, always served with Zinfandel wine.
It is always interesting to reflect on the most critical influencers in your life. Frank recently shared that he was most influenced by his grandmother Catterina – her personality, her work ethic, her resilience, her cooking, and her love. We have been reviewing her recipes and will feature them in an exhibit at the Paso Robles History Museum in February 2023 with those of her friend Caterina Dusi.
The 1960s – Commercial Grape Growing Emerges in Northern San Luis Obispo County.
While Frank was working in the vineyard as a child, Robert (Bob) Young Clark, a former Olympic athlete, began growing barley and oats around 1958 on land he purchased with a partner near Shandon, east of Paso Robles. During the early 1960s, Bob developed friendships with Napa winemakers who were looking for commercial growers of premium grapes. They encouraged Bob to survey the vineyards in San Luis Obispo County and to consider growing grapes commercially. One of the people Bob spoke with, Frank Pesenti, shared his knowledge of dry farming and the intense flavors produced in his vineyards. Frank Pesenti’s methods required a lot of labor and produced a smaller yield than a commercial grower expected. Bob also consulted with a new resource, the Agricultural Adviser to the County, Jack Foott, who advised him on the best grape varieties to be grown on his property. After much study, Bob decided to plant a vineyard and opted for commercial irrigation, installing overhead sprinkler systems purchased from Rain Bird Sprinklers, which became a leading global manufacturer and provider of irrigation products.
In 1963, Bob and his partner John Young laid out the vineyard and planted their first grapevines, Zinfandel and Carignan. His vineyard was known as the first to be planted with commercial irrigation systems in the county. Bob sold his harvest primarily to wineries located outside San Luis Obispo County. As time passed, he added more varieties but focused on red grapes rather than white. He grew Cabernet Sauvignon which thrived in the soils and climate in Shandon.
The 1970s – The California Wine Scene
Bob Clark Young became the sole owner of his vineyard in the 1970s. He mentored other early commercial growers, including James Sinton, Gary Eberle, and Herman Schwartz. These men are now legendary and contributed a great deal to the county’s history, planting commercial vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay, establishing land trusts to protect the land from commercial development, developing the application of the Paso Robles AVA and founding the annual Paso Robles Wine Festival.
In the 1970s, consumer demand for California wine began increasing. Although grapes grown in San Luis Obispo County had been sold to winemakers all over California as far back as the 1870s, Paso Robles became known as “a grape growing area with potential” one hundred years later. At the same time, new federal tax incentives for investing in agriculture and cattle led to the formation of investment partnerships to purchase land and plant crops. Several of these partnerships were formed to plant large-scale commercial vineyards with irrigation methods to increase crop yields east of Paso Robles.
In 1976, a wine tasting in Paris, now known as the Judgment of Paris, rated the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay of California as the best white wine and California Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon as the best red wine. The California world of wine changed dramatically. The finest French wines, judged by French experts, competed with wines from the Napa Valley, an area unknown to most wine connoisseurs. California wines won this competition over the legendary chateaux and domaines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, which immediately attracted international attention. Wine writers from around the world were on their way to California. Many commercial growers in San Luis Obispo County now focused on growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes which were sold to Napa winemakers. The demand for premium grapes brought entrepreneurs to the Edna Valley to plant the first vineyards in 1973.
As Frank Nerelli watched the new wine scene develop, the contrast in winemaking styles became more apparent. Sunset Magazine stated in the 1971 edition of its wine touring guidebook that “all of San Luis Obispo County has only 400 acres of vines, centered on Templeton where three wineries crush much of the crop. They are neither large nor widely known these days, but they have a colorful history. Their specialty is always Zinfandel. The names of the wineries are Pesenti, Rotta, and York.” There were only two tasting rooms, one at Rotta made from a large old redwood 12,000-gallon barrel and one at Pesenti, a comfortable room with a wood-beamed ceiling. Frank would make history over the years by transforming the “jug wine” made famous by his grandparents into elegant award-winning wines.
Frank considered all the possibilities in winemaking and later produced many varietals. He toyed with the idea of making Cabernet Sauvignon which was relatively new to the area, touted by UC Davis viticulturists and planted by Stanley Hoffman and Gary Eberle. But after careful consideration, Frank realized that he loved just one variety – Zinfandel, the heritage grape of the county. Zinfandel presents a real challenge for the grower and the winemaker. Frank always says, “It is worth it if you like a challenge.”
Frank Nerelli Joins his family at Pesenti Winery as a vineyard manager and winemaker in 1970.
The Pesenti vineyards were old vines, dry farmed and head pruned. The quality of the grapes was excellent, but no one in the family had actually thought of producing anything other than jug wines which were very popular and sold in many areas of California. Many early heavy-bodied sweet Zinfandel wines were popular with Basque, Italian, and Swiss Italians.
Frank gradually shifted the winemaking style from jug wine to premium winemaking. He also made changes in the vineyard, focusing on growing grapes that bear maximum flavor rather than high-yield crops. He gradually added new grape varieties but continued to source Zinfandel from local growers when needed. He explained while cradling a long loose cluster of deep purple Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, “This is what I pride myself on – long, loose bunches.”
Frank became adamant about the quality of winemaking. By 1991 he was quoted as saying, “our premium wines will hold their own with anything made in California – they’re excellent.” Frank earned national and international awards for Pesenti Cabernet Sauvignon, White Zinfandel, Grey Riesling, Johannisberg Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and dry Zinfandel wines. Pesenti Winery was producing around 100,000 cases per year by 1991. Frank had planted new varieties in the vineyards and sourced 90 percent of the grapes from their own stock.
Frank’s winemaking style concentrated on the process of winemaking that requires attention every day, both in the vineyard and the winery. It is important to remember that many winemakers at the time focused on the harvest and winemaking during the fall months.
Frank hired one assistant, Kevin Healey, to work with him. During harvest season, he hired contract labor to harvest his vines by hand. By the 1990s, he acknowledged the challenges for the small winemaker: increasing government regulations, the cost of contract labor, and the legacy of prohibition laws that affect the sale, distribution, and shipping of wines across the United States. He stated, “I like the challenge, but I think for the hours you put into it, the return is not there.”
1996 – The origins of Zin Alley
Frank Nerelli purchased his first land in the heart of the Templeton Gap from his Uncle Vic Pesenti in 1972. Originally Uncle Vic purchased 33 acres from his own father to grow barley and run cattle in 1947. In 1968, seven of the 33 acres were taken by the state for the construction of California Highway 46 West. Four and a half acres were isolated on the north side of this new highway. Vic sold the land to his nephew. It was a patch of bare dirt. Frank started dreaming of a new farming future. Frank first planted safflower and barley. He later added walnut trees. In 1996, he changed his plans when his father and uncle were near retirement and planning to sell the Pesenti Vineyard and Winery.
Frank decided to open his winery, plant new Zinfandel vines, and name his winery Zin Alley. He never finds the Zinfandel grape boring. He often describes it as an orphan child, the grape is tough to grow and challenging to make into wine.
He knew he would be successful because Frank has three important characteristics – a strong work ethic, fire in his belly, and the time to do his own research on the best Zinfandel to grow in the 21st century.
Frank Nerelli’s Adventure Begins
Frank decided to try a new technique for making a new 21st-century Zinfandel at Zin Alley, which continues to strengthen the Zinfandel legacy of the Nerelli and Pesenti families. Frank describes his path as “following in the steps of his father Aldo and his grandfather Frank who planted dry-farmed, head-pruned vines, grown with old world tradition and the finesse of modern technology to produce a soft and complex Zinfandel.”
Frank Nerelli is sharing in their heritage of award-winning Zinfandels by making wines that are easier to drink in the 21st century in his unique style. Years of experience in the vineyard changed Frank’s vision of managing a vineyard. He became aware of how climate changes and terroir impact the flavors and aromas of wine; each vintage can be very different. Frank does not fine or filter his wines because the process removes the depth and complexity that are vital in his Zinfandel. Frank has done extensive research, traveling throughout California, and tasting all types and styles of Zinfandel wines. His research introduced him to new profiles in various areas of California.
He searched for a new clone of Zinfandel to plant in the Templeton Gap after tasting Zins throughout California. Frank purchased grape cuttings grown in Amador County. He had the cuttings grafted onto St. George rootstock, which is resistant to phylloxera and drought; these grapes growing in the Templeton Gap. The vines require a lot of fieldwork to prune them. It has taken 20 years to remove the “goblet” and form the “crucible” in the center of the vine. Frank drops the first half of the fruit on the ground. When the second crop comes in, the maturity slows down. Frank works in his vineyard on the hill below the winery in the mornings. His vineyard has three different soils and two different climates. The lower part of the vineyard grows more slowly, approximately two and a half weeks slower than the vines at a higher elevation.
The terroir of the Willow Creek sub-appellation and the growing season impact the profile of each vintage. In 2013, the Zinfandel was spicier due to the cooler season. In 2014, the warmer season produced a softer wine.
Frank sums it up on his website: “with a sense of tradition, a passion for the Zinfandel grape, and a style that is all his own, Frank is producing no more than 500 cases a year of some of the best Zinfandels California has to offer.”