Frank Pesenti, the founder of the first winery that was bonded after Prohibition in 1934, Pesenti Winery. Courtesy of Frank Nerelli.
Frank Pesenti, the founder of the first winery that was bonded after Prohibition in 1934, Pesenti Winery. Courtesy of Frank Nerelli.

Frank Pesenti and his sister traveled to San Luis Obispo County from their small village of Brembilla in Northern Italy with Bob Busi’s brothers in 1914. At the age of eleven, Frank started training as a mason’s apprentice in France. He worked there for seven months each year, returning to Brembilla each winter. At the age of eighteen, Frank decided to follow his uncle to San Luis Obispo County.

Frank worked as a charcoal maker for Giovan Busi, saving his earnings to purchase the Ward Ranch in the Templeton area in 1919. He sent for his wife, Caterina, who arrived from Italy in 1922, and they planted Zinfandel vines on the steep hills the same year.

Frank was making wine within three years, crushing grapes and letting them ferment naturally in redwood barrels. Redwood was the most plentiful pliable wood available for barrel making in California. Traditional Italian winemaking did not include aging in oak barrels or focusing on quality. In fact, most wines were consumed within a year of production. During the Prohibition years (1920–1933), Frank sold grapes to the Basque population in central California. He also made two hundred gallons of wine per year, the legal limit per household.

Frank used his skills as a mason to manufacture his own bricks to build his winery. His son Victor laid out the molds for production. Pesenti Winery was the first to be bonded in San Luis Obispo County in 1934, following the repeal of Prohibition. It was located on Vineyard Drive in Templeton, next to the fields and vineyards of the Rotta family. Frank was the winery’s winemaker from 1934 to 1946.

Frank and Caterina raised five daughters and one son. Like many of his classmates, their son Victor Pesenti enlisted in the army in 1943, and he was assigned to the Mountain Infantry Division. Both Victor and his sister Silvia married their spouses in 1946. Victor joined his father in the wine business immediately afterward; Silvia and her husband, Aldo Nerelli, joined the winery staff in 1948. The second generation soon moved into winemaking and the management of Pesenti Winery. Aldo and Victor worked together as the winemakers from 1946 to 1969.
Pesenti Winery was famous for Zinfandel and generic red table wines sold in gallon jugs. The winery’s grapes were sourced from their estate vineyards. As the business expanded, additional Zinfandel grapes were purchased from Amedeo Martinelli and other local Italian growers in Templeton. Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon were added in the 1960s, and they were also available in jugs and bottles.

Partial Pesenti Family Tree