Sylvester Dusi (1883-1964) settled in San Luis Obispo County in 1921, joining his three brothers as a woodcutter and charcoal maker on York Mountain in Templeton. Each of the four Dusi brothers was saving to purchase land or a business opportunity to establish his own livelihood after emigrating from Northern Italy in the early twentieth century. Sylvester became one of the most entrepreneurial men in San Luis Obispo County during his 44 years as a resident. He married Caterina Gazzaroli who traveled from northern Italy to work in his first business investment at the Hotel d’Italia in 1922. They formed a legendary business partnership; Sylvester identified the business opportunities and Caterina’s management made them profitable.
Sylvester was 38 years old, with an eye on the future, when he speculated about the future growth in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. He purchased the Brendan House in Paso Robles at 1122 Pine Street in 1921. Sylvester converted the second floor to a boarding house, renaming his new business the Hotel d’ Italia. On the street level, he opened an Italian restaurant and grocery store. Over the next seventy years, Caterina and Sylvester owned three hotels, three restaurants, three legendary vineyards, a gas station, a liquor store, a billiard parlor, two wineries, and a sausage company. Caterina was the cook at the restaurants as well as the manager of the hotels, billiard parlor, and liquor store. Their three sons, Guido, Dante, and Benito, worked with them in the businesses and the vineyards.
Sylvester planted the first legendary Dusi Vineyards with Zinfandel vines in 1926. His first vineyard, known as the Ranch and later the Benito Dusi Vineyard, is located on California Highway 101 which winds along the coast and through hills from Southern California to Northern California, passing right in front of this vineyard just before entering the town of Paso Robles.
In the 1950s when grape prices were falling, Sylvester had a surplus of his own grapes at harvest. He had made wine each fall for the family, but he had never planned to become a commercial winemaker. However, faced with the economic challenge of not being able to sell his entire harvest and not wanting to waste his high-quality grapes, he decided to convert them into jugs of wine to sell in the twelve months.
Sylvester applied and received the Certificate of Label Approval under the Federal Alcohol Administration Act on July 15, 1954, for the Sylvester Dusi Winery. Sylvester sent his youngest son, Benito, to San Francisco to purchase the equipment which they placed in a small building on the ranch. He made and bottled Dusi California Burgundy in jugs with white screw tops for commercial sale in this small winery. He ordered his label from a catalog.
Sylvester opened his own tasting room in a small outbuilding behind his home on the Dusi Ranch. The sign was hand-painted and word soon spread throughout the community that this tasting room was open to the public. Friends and local residents came to buy his wine by the jug, either in half gallons or full gallons. The tasting room became an important social center where friends could gather on Saturday afternoon.
The soldiers at Camp Roberts, the National Guard post near San Miguel, enjoyed his wine and came often to socialize and buy wine for their fellow soldiers at the base. This group became fans of the Dusi wines and enjoyed sitting, drinking, and talking with Sylvester and his sons.
The tasting room was the first of its kind on U.S. Highway 101, the major scenic highway in California between San Diego and San Francisco. The tasting room welcomed visitors from mid-1954 to 1964. Surprisingly, many of the visitors from out of the area were Europeans traveling through California. They were accustomed to tasting rooms as a place to gather and taste wines on the land where the grapes were grown. The Dusi Wine Tasting Room is the first one in San Luis Obispo County that the Wine History Project has documented.
Sylvester’s youngest son, Benito, just returning from serving in Korea, became the second Zinfandel winemaker. Benito applied for a new brand name, Dusi Wine California Zinfandel, on July 5, 1955, as the new winemaker. Benito chose the new label from a catalog showing a glass similar to a martini glass filled with liquid. Benito ran the tasting room and produced wine until his father’s death in 1964.
The Dusi family abandoned commercial winemaking in the mid-1960s to focus on premium grape production, which continues to the present with the third, fourth, and fifth generations working in the vineyards. Sylvester’s great-granddaughter Janell Dusi established her own winery, J Dusi, making premium wines labeled with family legends in 2006. She describes her business as “a family tradition with a new perspective.”