Janell was born in 1980 and raised in the Dante Dusi Vineyard. Her earliest memories are of vines growing near her bedroom window, of spending hours with Grandpa Dante driving in his blue truck, and of working in his vineyards. By the age of 12, she had developed the entrepreneurial spirit too. Janell began to ask why her family was selling all the grapes in the vineyard rather than making their own wine. Her great-grandfather Sylvester and great-uncle Benito had been winemakers for almost a decade from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties. They sold the Dusi Zinfandel Wine in the tasting room located on the Dusi Ranch on California Highway 101. After her father, Zinfandel grower Mike Dusi, turned her down, Janell asked her grandfather Dante to teach her how to make wine. “I didn’t want to just prune and pick. I wanted to turn the fruit we worked so hard at growing into something to crush and ferment and age and put into a bottle for people to enjoy.”
In 1993 Janell entered an amateur winemakers contest at the Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles and received Honorable Mention. The pink ribbon she was awarded hangs in her tasting room today. She had done every step of the winemaking including picking, crushing, fermenting, and aging. She bottled and corked her wine by hand and created the label. Janell Dusi had found her passion in life and with great confidence started her journey to become one of the most respected winemakers in San Luis Obispo County. In 2006 she started her label J Dusi Wines and in 2013 opened her winery and tasting room in Paso Robles.
Janell was born into the fourth generation of a famous Italian family who settled in Paso Robles and Templeton in San Luis Obispo County in the 1920s. The first generation, Caterina and Sylvester, immigrants from small villages in the Lombardia area of Italy, bought land on the east side of California Highway 101. They planted their first 80-acre vineyard with Zinfandel vines in the old-world style field blend with small amounts of Alicante Bouche and Carignane in 1924. The vineyard was dry-farmed and head-pruned in the Italian style.
Janell tells the story, “My family always had wine on the table. My great-grandmother Caterina let us have a tiny bit of wine with our meal. It was part of the experience of sitting together to eat, talk, and debate about what was going on in the world. It felt right. My brothers and I grew up in the middle of it all, born and raised in the Dante Dusi Vineyard. My grandfather, his father, and his brothers planted vines generations before me. Wine was natural. My grandfather Dante taught me to leave it in its natural state. He said good grapes make good wine!”
The second generation, brothers Guido, Dante Silvestro Dusi (1925-2014), and Benito Dusi (1933-2019), worked in the second vineyard their parents purchased on the west side of California Highway 101, clearing the land and planting the same field blend in the old-world style. The first two generations worked together maintaining both vineyards, harvesting, and selling the grapes. Dante’s wife Dorothy worked in the vineyards when Dante was working his day-job for the Madonna Construction Company. Dorothy supervised workers and managed the annual harvests. Second-generation Benito became the first winemaker in the family. He made wine in the cellar under his parents’ home and opened the first tasting room on the Dusi Family Ranch, welcoming visitors from Europe and throughout the country.
The third generation, Rick and Mike Dusi, grew up on the Dante Dusi Vineyard and joined their father and uncles in planting, pruning, farming, harvesting, and selling Zinfandel grapes from the time they were young children. Joni, Mike’s wife, was welcomed into the family by Caterina and Dorothy over 40 years ago. Joni learned their family traditions, recipes, and passion for old vine Zinfandel. Joni worked in the vineyards with Dante, her father-in-law, until his death and continues to work the harvests and welcome guests in the tasting room at J Dusi’s Winery.
The fourth generation, Michael, Matthew, and Janell Dusi, grew up in the Dante Dusi Vineyard also. Their father, Mike Dusi, farmed wheat and barley in Bradley for over 30 years before transitioning into farming grapes full time in the Dusi Vineyards. Dante and Dorothy lived on the same property as Joni, Michael, and their children, within 300 yards of one another, working together, sharing meals, wine, and dreams of the future. Benito and his parents, Sylvester and Caterina, lived across the highway on the Dusi Ranch until their deaths. However, the extended family always worked together to maintain all the Dusi vineyards; the tradition continues today.
This fourth-generation brought their own unique contributions to the Dusi family. Michael, who grew up with a passion for trucks, farm equipment and “all things chrome” just as his grandfather Dante and great-uncle Benito did. Michael established the Dusi Trucking Company that transports grapes and wines throughout California. His company has developed specialized logistics solutions for the wine and beer industry including warehousing, refrigerated flatbed, and dry-van trucking.
Matthew bought the special property on the west side of California Highway 101, now known as Ranch 7, Caterina’s Hill. Caterina had purchased those 22 acres in 1945 on the west side of California Highway 101. The property had been owned first by Louis Fortini and then sold to Mr. Brown who in turn sold it to Caterina. Almonds were originally grown on her property. Later, wheat and barley were farmed on her property by Mike Dusi until the year 2000 when his parents, Dante and Dorothy, planted their legendary Zinfandel vines on Caterina’s Hill. Caterina’s great-grandson, Matthew, bought the property from his father in 2002. Matthew and his wife Ali decided to plant a new variety, Syrah, in 2002. This was a dramatic change in variety and grape growing techniques for the Dusi family. Matthew traveled to France to learn the farming techniques and trellis styles for this new Rhone Variety.
Janell is the youngest of the three siblings. Like her brothers, she was born and raised in the Dante Dusi Vineyards. The Zinfandel vineyard was her playground, her backyard, and the family business. Grapevines grew around her bedroom window. She spent her early years working and harvesting in the vineyards with the family just as she does today. But Janell also had the opportunity to spend hours, days and years with her grandfather Dante, her best friend, working with him during his retirement years. They spent most days working in the vineyards together. Dante answered Janell’s many questions until, at 12 years old, she asked, “Why do we work so hard raising grapes and selling them to prestigious wineries instead of making our own wine?”
Janell had a vision. She wanted to make wine from Dusi grapes, completing the circle of Zinfandel from the vineyard to the bottle with the family name on the label. Janell had asked her father to teach her to make wine before she was a teenager but he refused, reminding her that the Dusi family were growers, not winemakers. Janell finally convinced her grandfather Dante to teach her the basics of winemaking. 1992 was her first vintage of Zinfandel. They started with simple tools, a clear plastic trash can, a mallet, and cheesecloth. Janell picked the grapes, placed them in a 15-gallon trash can, punched them down and pressed them in cheesecloth. The wine was placed the trash can to ferment and age. After aging her wine, Janell bottled and corked her wine by hand. In 1993, at age 13, she entered her 1992 Zinfandel wine in an Amateur Winemaking Competition at the Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles, California and received an Honorable Mention. The ribbon and the newspaper article hang in her tasting room today. This award not only built her confidence but convinced her that she could pursue winemaking with a passion. Dante was very excited and so proud of her.
Janell continued to make wine each year after harvest, using her savings to purchase more equipment and the grapes. She purchased a 30-gallon trash can for the 1993 vintage, and two years later, her first 15-gallon oak barrel for aging her wine. At age 18, in her last year of high school, she purchased a second oak barrel, 30 gallons in size. In her last year of high school, Janell was required to select a senior project to pursue for the academic year. She chose winemaking, focusing at least an hour a day on her project. She also joined the winemaking club which met monthly. It was an exciting adventure to work on her dream and share it with her friends.
When she graduated, however, Janell decided to focus on a broad education in college. She has a curious mind and was interested in learning about geography and cultures all over the world, including her own Italian heritage. She wanted to travel to wine regions in other parts of the world.
Janell attended the University of California at Santa Barbara, majoring in Global and International Studies. But she never missed a harvest! Each fall, she returned to Templeton to work in the family vineyards with family and friends. She returned to campus with Zinfandel grapes so that she could continue her personal winemaking tradition in the garage of a friend in Santa Barbara.
In 2002, just as Janell was graduating, her brother Matthew Dusi was planting Syrah, a Rhone variety, next to the Zinfandel growing on Caterina’s hill. A new Dusi variety would be coming to market in a few years. Janell knew nothing about making Syrah (Shiraz) and decided to look for an internship abroad. She applied by email to the intern program at Two Hands Wines in the Barossa Valley in Australia. She was one of twelve interns accepted into the program. She worked as a “cellar rat” during one vintage, learning about the local varietals and styles of winemaking. When she returned home, she knew she would become a winemaker but there was much to learn about business, marketing, and distribution.
Janell had grown up with Italian families in the area including the Pesentis, the Nerellis, and the Busis. The Pesenti Winery, established in 1934, had been acquired by Larry Turley of Turley Wine Cellars in 2001. Janell applied for a job at the Turley Winery, starting in the tasting room in 2003. The San Simeon Earthquake struck the Central California Coast on December 22, 2003, with a magnitude of 6.5. Janell experienced the quake in the tasting room and watched thousands of gallons of Turley wines flow from broken bottles and falling barrels down the hill to the street. All the employees were fortunate to have survived the disaster without personal injury.
The work at Turley was important in developing Janell’s business and marketing skills. She was able to observe winemaking, marketing, and distribution first-hand. Her days were filled with hard work and lots of questions. The knowledge she gained enabled her to develop business plans for her own winery and tasting room. She continued making wine each year but was ready to work for herself, build her own winery, to buy her own equipment, and to share her wines with the public. She wanted it to be a family affair.
By 2006 Janell had discussed building her own winery with her family. They offered their support as she developed her business plan and her own J Dusi label. The most important business decision she made was “to be brave enough to commit my small savings to buy grapes, bottles, corks, eat, hopefully, make wine good enough for people to want to buy, and then reinvest in order to do it again!” In 2006 Janell purchased her grapes from the Dante Dusi Vineyard and made 400 cases of wine. She was in business but had no winery of her own. The following year, her production increased to between 650 to 800 cases.
In 2013 she was able to lease property on Highway 46 West and build the J Dusi Winery. She produced 5,000 cases with her own equipment for the first time. She now produces 10,000 cases. Her signature white wine is Pinot Grigio, and she produces 5,000 cases. Zinfandel is still her largest red wine production, 1,600 cases of Zinfandel out of 5,000 cases of nine red varietals.
Janell Dusi has hand-crafted her wine and a brand that reflects her family heritage with her own perspective. The influence of her family can be found in every aspect of her business. She started by labeling her wines J Dusi. She formed her motto, “A family tradition with a new perspective.” She hired Laurie Smith to design her label, honoring her mentor and grandfather, Dante Dusi. Dante had a favorite color, now known as Dusi Blue. He painted his trucks and his tools from the 1940s and 1950s Dusi blue, often using a spray can to identify them as his favorites. His blue trucks still rest in the vineyards. Janell wanted to use the Dusi Blue as her signature color, forming a J and a thick brushstroke on her labels.
Zinfandel is the signature grape in her winemaking, but Janell has lost her heart to another variety that was originally planted as part of the field blend, Carignane. The Carignane fruit comes from the oldest section of the Dante Dusi Vineyard, grown on huge vines which tower over Janell and are almost six feet in width. The berries are large and grow in tight clusters. It produces a very low yield, so the Carignane wine with its own label is only produced occasionally.
Each of her wines is named to honor a relative or moment in history that expresses the character of the varietal.
- Janell produces the Dante Dusi Zinfandel in honor of her mentor.
- Guido Dusi, her uncle, reminded her of the Godfather of Zinfandel, bold and strong. She named her Italian field blend of 60% Zinfandel, 30% Syrah, and 10% Carignane to honor Guido using his middle name, Fiorento.
- Her father, Mike Dusi, is the tall, strong and silent type. She blended 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37 % Sangiovese, and 13% Petite Sirah, to produce The Don in his honor as the patriarch of the family. Don just happens to be his legal first name, in case you didn’t know.
- In honor of her grandmother Caterina, Janell produces Caterina’s Syrah, now planted on Ranch 7, Caterina’s Hill.
- Her brother Michael grew up in the days when Sylvester Stallone was a popular actor in the movie Rocky. Michael’s middle name is Sylvester after his great-grandfather, and he even tried to change his name to Sly as a child. He was always known as Michael to family and friends, but he has introduced himself as Sly to customers and strangers. Janell named the vineyard-designated Tempranillo, Sly, in honor of Michael and her great-grandfather.
- The Two Hens and a Rooster label is found on Janell’s Grappa which she has distilled in the Bay Area. Her great uncle Benito confided to her that the Dusi family made and sold Grappa during Prohibition. It was distributed through the local hardware store. When the phone call came from the hardware store asking for two hens and a rooster, Sylvester Dusi would fill the three-gallon order from barrels hidden under his chicken coop and deliver it to the store the next day.
The fruit that Janell sources comes primarily from Dusi Vineyards. Dante Dusi died on December 5, 2014. Mike Dusi now farms all the vineyards with the help of his family and a small labor force. Since there is an increasing demand for their grapes, the family has acquired several new vineyards in the past ten years and expanded the variety of grapes grown.
The Dusi family acquired the Fossil Creek Vineyard around 2007. It was planted with both Zinfandel and Pinot Grigio, which was an unusual combination of varieties. Janell immediately decided to buy the Pinot Grigio grapes for her first white wine. Pinot Grigio is not heavily planted in Paso Robles. The climate, sun exposure, and terroir in the Fossil Creek Vineyard produce a Pinot Grigio grape with a unique fruit flavor which in turn produces a crisp, fresh flavorful wine that is a favorite in Paso Robles. The vineyard is trellised and this method produces more ripe flavors, body, and structure than most Pinot Grigio grown in California.
Janell buys her Syrah from Ranch 7, Caterina’s Hill, owned and farmed by her brother Matthew. The Syrah vineyard was planted in 2001/ 2002 with cuttings of the Estrella clone, originally planted in 1973 at Estrella River Winery by Gary Eberle. Matthew and his wife Ali, have built their own home on the property. Their wine cellar contains a special tile in the center of the floor with the words, “Casa Sulla collina per Caterina,” honoring Great Grandmother Caterina Dusi who purchased the 22 acres in 1945.
Mike Dusi continues to search for new vineyards and land to acquire. The newest vineyard acquisition is known as Paper Street and located in the Willow Creek AVA of Paso Robles. While he was looking at a vineyard listed for sale in Templeton, he noticed a large open space on a steep hillside across the way. When he learned the acreage was for sale and that some of the land had been farmed with barley for years by a local farmer, Mike and his wife Joni with their son Matthew, decided to drive over to see the property. The road was treacherous and the terrain rugged but upon arrival, they found 35 acres of stressed almond trees and the barley fields on the steep mountain. There were a variety of other trees with no irrigation which indicated that the soil had good water retention. They found excellent soil containing limestone on steep slopes facing south. As Mike walked the property, picking up soil and touching rocks, he had a good feeling about the potential. He made an offer and the property was purchased in 2012. The name Paper Street seemed appropriate because local maps showed the county road on paper but it was never built because of the steepness of the terrain which is equivalent to 140 flights of stairs. Before laying out the vineyards, Mike surveyed local customers and winemakers to determine what varieties they wanted to see him grow. Mike and Matthew planted Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Syrah at a 1600 to 2200 foot elevation.
In 2016 Janell created a new label, Paper Street, on white elegant paper with multiple views of the vineyard in black and white. She has produced three wines. The first is a Rhone blend of all three grapes which can age over a long period of time. She purchased the four tons of these grapes four years after the original planting. The second Paper Street wine is Zinfandel which was also planted and harvested on the property. It is the terroir which produces the unique and rich flavor. It is big, dark and inky with more structure that Zins produced from fruit in the Dante Dusi Vineyards. The clone, the farming techniques, and winemaking methods are the same as for those Zinfandel grapes planted in the Dante Dusi Vineyard but the wines produced are much different. The third wine, Cornflower Blue, is 100% Mourvèdre.
Janell is in her thirties so there will much more history to add to her legend. The Wine History Project recognizes that Janell’s legend is built on the foundation of four pillars in the Dusi family, her mother Joni Dusi, her aunt Kathy Dusi, her grandmother Dorothy Dusi, and great grandmother Caterina Dusi. These women are strong and important figures in the Dusi family history. Janell has acquired much wisdom, courage, self-confidence, and passion from these role models.
Joni Dusi provides the model of love and support for all family members, giving extra-special support and health care for Benito and Dorothy, traveling with her grandchildren and providing sustenance for daily living at the family table. She also has driven trucks and farm equipment, maintained the vineyards and worked the harvests. Joni participates actively in the business decisions. She graciously meets the guests in the J Dusi Tasting Room and is attentive to making their tastings most memorable. Joni chronicles the history of her family and has been a partner to the Wine History Project in archiving and preserving it. She is solid, unwavering and optimistic. She is the secret ingredient to the family’s success.
The late Kathy Dusi, Janell’s aunt, lived life with laughter as she explored her passions for the arts, people and their cultures. Kathy attended to Cal Poly for two years, but quit to go to work for PG&E. She was the first female installer in San Luis Obispo County. She was trained to climb the poles to install equipment for telephones. She wore the boots, hardhat, tool belt and she would climb right to the top to the telephone poles. She could also do the repairs when a phone line went down. Joni Dusi recalls, “She was harassed at first, men thinking she could not do the work needed to be done as an installer. She was called ‘Dusi’ and she gained their respect by doing whatever the men could do, and she did it faster. Being raised with two brothers makes a girl tough. That girl had hands the were fast, and she was smart, she could tell a joke like no other and she was brave.” Kathy traveled the world during her lifetime. She was a stained-glass artist and a musician, playing the flute and the accordion. She imparted a sense of adventure and curiosity to Janell, by learning languages, making new friends in foreign lands, living in ancient cities, and installing stained glass windows in foreign churches. Kathy believed you can achieve almost anything with enthusiasm, drive and hard work. She trained in Wengen Switzerland to work in a Michelin Restaurant in the Alps, imported teak furniture from Bali to sell in California but was home for harvest in the Dante Dusi Vineyards where she grew up. Her brother, Mike, misses her jokes and her help every time he picks a bin of grapes. Kathy died from breast cancer but her spirit, her laughter and sense of adventure are to be found in Janell.
Dorothy Dusi provides the model of a woman who worked very hard in the family business but also developed her own career as an artist in stained glass. She is a woman who pursued her career and her world travels, after raising her children, with her husband’s support in an era when that was unusual. She is an independent woman who balanced family responsibilities and her own passions. She learned to care for the vineyards and manage the harvests on her own, directing the labor crews and transportation to customers – a study in resourcefulness and capability.
Caterina Dusi was the first of four generations of Dusi family and showed what a woman could do. She was tall and strong, with large hands that worked hard to make the many family businesses, including the Hotel d’ Italia, the restaurants in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, the Grocery Store, the Billiard Parlor, the Liquor Store, the Dusi Winery, and the Dusi Vineyards successful. She had a strong work ethic and was a successful businesswoman who shared decision making and management with her husband. Sylvester was the entrepreneur and Caterina was the workhorse according to legend. She purchased property in her own name, harvested and sold the almonds she grew on her property. She taught her grandchildren to make their own business decisions. “Business is business” was her favorite quote. Caterina was very practical and frugal. She loved to plant and garden, growing flowers and vegetables for the family table. She loved her Italian heritage and kept close contact with friends and relatives in Italy, visiting them many times throughout her life. Her stories were emotionally charged, and she relived them vividly. Caterina’s cooking was legendary and she inspired her youngest granddaughter, Gina Dusi, to develop her own business, Ginamarie: Italian Confections. Gina’s Panforte di Paso and Salame di Cioccolato are available at the J Dusi Tasting Room. The recipe dates back to the 12th century from Siena, Italy and is a tribute to her grandmother. Caterina’s polenta and stew were served at the Sunday dinners and are a favorite to this day. Caterina was also very accepting of people. She welcomed her non-Italian daughters-in-law into the family and taught them everything she knew. She worked and appreciated people with various ethnicities and taught her children and grandchildren to treat everyone with respect.
Family History – First Generation – Caterina and Sylvester Dusi
Sylvester, Janell’s great-grandfather, arrived in the United States in 1910. He migrated to Northern California and worked in a variety of trades – logging, dairy, construction, and charcoal production. He eventually visited his brothers who were working in the York Mountain area, nestled in the Santa Lucia Mountains west of Paso Robles. He worked with them for less than a year and then struck out on his own.
Sylvester had an entrepreneurial spirit and in 1922 purchased a hotel in Paso Robles with his friend partner, Peter. He named it Hotel d’ Italia and decided that he needed help to upgrade and develop the property. Sylvester wrote to his sister in Italy to describe his dilemma and the need for a cook and housekeeper for his hotel. His sister lived in their village, Ono Degno, in the province of Brescia located in region of Lombardia in Northern Italy. She recommended a young woman, Caterina Gazzaroli, from a neighboring village who was interested in immigrating to the United States in search of a more prosperous future.
Caterina grew up in a farming family who also made cheese which they bartered for products they needed. Caterina left Italy and arrived in Boston by ship then traveled to San Francisco by train to meet Sylvester. They were married shortly after she arrived and moved into Hotel d’ Italia. Within a year the hotel had bedrooms to rent on the second floor, an Italian Deli, and a French Italian Restaurant on the first floor. Caterina worked hard with Sylvester to create profitable businesses on the property and gave birth to two sons, Guido and Dante, within the first three years of their marriage.
Caterina and Sylvester pursued the “American Dream” of owning their own farm, and by December 1925 they had purchased 80 acres near the Salinas River. The property became known as the Dusi Ranch. It was located at 2110 Ramada Drive, which is now the frontage road on the east side of Highway 101. The first Dusi vineyard was planted in 1926 with an Italian field blend of primarily Zinfandel with Alicante Bouchet for color and Carignane. It was planted and dry-farmed in the old-world style. Tractors and a disc were used to prepare the soil; shovels and wooden stakes were used to plant the vines. Some of these tools can be found on the property today.
Sylvester purchased an additional 100 acres to the west of the Dusi Ranch in 1945. World War II was ending and both of his older sons, Guido and Dante, were returning home from active duty. Sylvester, his older sons and 12-year-old Benito, cleared the land, producing charcoal in the Italian style as a by-product. By 1946 the old-world field blend was being planted. This property became known as the Dante Dusi Vineyard in 1949. The first vineyard on Ramada Drive became known as the Benito Dusi Vineyard in 1967 when Benito negotiated his contract to sell more than 95% of his crop to Ridge Vineyard for their Paso Robles Zinfandel with the Dusi Vineyard designation. This relationship continues to the present day.