This story owes a great deal to an article George’s Fish Rock neighbor Steve Alden wrote for the Mendocino Grapevine in July, 1984. Steve’s recollections highlight much about the immigrant Zeni family’s roots and his Army career in Italy during World War II, a grim story. Thank you, Steve.
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I have a list of seventeen Valley Oldtimers whom I toast every New Year’s eve midnight. These are the people who have either taught me skills important to my vineyard farming practices or are role models for living in a small rural community. If I were to rank these men and women (2), George Zeni would be near the top of the list.
George was the second generation offspring of an immigrant homesteading family living way out Fish Rock Road — considerably closer to Anchor Bay than to the Highway 128 turn off at Maple Creek. About 45 minutes of driving time, mostly on gravel, if I remember right. Why the road was paved for a mile on either side of the Zeni ranch entrance drive I never did learn. (Paved, yes, but so bumpy and pot-holed it was slower driving on than the graveled sections.) George’s father, Edwino, was the first settler the ranch, arriving from what Steve Alden calls Austria around 1892. Steve’s article in the Grapevine, written 37 years ago, suggests that Edwino migrated from the part of the Austro-Hungarian empire that is now part of Italy east and north of Venice and Trieste. George told Steve that his ancestors and neighbors from there came to California not to farm but to harvest the tan oak bark, a considerably more lucrative source of income than farming, even in the Russian River Valley flatlands.
If I remember right, the Zeni Ranch I knew was about 500 acres of mixed terrain. The front part north of Fish Rock Road was very gently rolling open land, three acres of Zinfandel vines, another 8-10 of carefully cultivated Douglas fir dedicated to the Christmas tree business George had created, all dry farmed, no irrigation. The majority of the ranch though was timber land, initially on flat ground, then falling off to the north and down into the Garcia River canyon west of the recently shut down Hollow Tree Lumber Company sawmill. Some of the steepest forestland I had ever explored around Mendocino County.
It was in the late 1970s that I first met George Zeni and his family. I was a partner in the now deceased Edmeades winery. Winemaker Jed Steele had made from the ancient Du Pratt vineyard on Greenwood Road a wine that had gotten national attention as a high quality, I could say iconic cool climate Zin whose commercial success had provoked me to look around Anderson Valley for other ridge top old vine dry farmed vineyards. I had found further out Fish Rock Road the Ciapusci Vineyard, another second generation Swiss Italian immigrant establishment, at elevation 1600 feet and three miles from the ocean at Point Arena and gotten a purchase agreement with Charlie with the assistance of his previous buyer, the Pedroncelli brothers in Geyserville. Charlie told me about George Zeni’s vineyard.
So Jed Steele and I went to meet George one spring day around 1980. The minute we drove into the front yard I knew I was about to meet an archetype living in a time warp. The house was two stories with a front porch providing space for summer dining. The yard, under oak and walnut trees was filled with farm equipment, operating and “under repair.” Also a wooden two story guest house dating from his father’s era for city guest hunting and fishing parties, a work shop and a circle of social gathering chairs underneath a live oak tree. The whole ensemble of buildings and equipment was in a dry streambed, out of the wind, cool in summer, warm in winter. The vineyard and tree farm were on a raised bench west of the house area. The grape vines were all head pruned, about three feet tall, the tree farm surrounded the grapes on the north and west, the trees in height from harvestable in the next year or two, six to ten feet high, to seedlings a foot tall, and all sizes in between. Beginning at the three footers each tree was pruned to the shape of a tight cone revealing only needles and tips, my favorite tree shape for decorating.
Beside his vineyard and logging activities, the latter on both his own property and for the local neighbors, George’s tree farming operation was probably his major source of annual income. And his business plan for it was ambitious. A week before Thanksgiving George and one or two other members of the family migrated down to San Francisco and rented a quarter acre lot on suburban Nineteenth Avenue just south of Ocean Avenue. His retail outlet, running until about Winter Solstice, probably sold four times as many trees as he would have from the ranch way out Fish Rock Road, and the income per tree was likely three times what he would have received at home. He and his family ran that Nineteenth Avenue stand until the end of his life.
Once I got to know George, and even though I had plenty of Doug fir on the ranch here for holiday celebration purposes, the sheer pleasure of visiting him took me out to Zeni Ranch every year in mid-December to select and harvest the tree of my choice. Price: $25.00. Even after George died, his sons Raymond and John continued selling trees at the ranch, and until about ten years ago I made that trip out to Zeni Ranch for the sheer joy of walking again among the vines and trees and thinking about George. His son Raymond added a special feature to his retail activities at the farm. This skinny blond fellow, dressed as Santa Claus complete with white beard and black boots, would greet and escort customers around the vineyard helping them select the tree they wanted. Today, on a trellis in my Navarro kitchen garden I have a single George Zeni grapevine cultivated in his memory. It’s a white grape, folle Blanche, grown in southwest France for making cognac. But in California Italians planted it for the purpose of making a sweet white wine for consumption in the summer season. I simply eat the Zeni Grape fruit.
So what the Edmeades gang admired about George’s Zinfandel had to do with the site and climate at the ranch. First, the soil was not very deep, maybe two feet at most, not very rich, so the annual vineyard production was very small, about a ton/acre on three acres, or maybe 150 cases of wine. Then the climate, cool days like down in Philo north, but warmer nights because of the 1200 foot elevation above the nearby ocean. The warmer climate Zinfandel, happy in Hopland, would on Fish Rock have a long growing season with fully mature fruit at lower sugar levels- thus creating an aromatic, complexly fruity raspberries plus, rather than boring alcohol flavored wine. Harvest date: about October 10- just before it used to start raining in Anderson Valley. Of all the heroic Edmeades Zinfandels, Zeni’s was the most elegant. I wonder if I still have a few bottles hidden around the place here at home. Probably gone to vinegar by now.
And even after Edmeades went out of business and sold out to Jesse Jackson of Kendall/Jackson fame, Jackson kept the Edmeades purchase agreement with Zeni, Jed Steel worked for Jackson for a while and continued making the wine. And Jackson, ornery cuss that he was in his business relationships, also cared about George Zeni to the point that in the last year of the great man’s life, as he struggled with diabetes and congestive heart failure, Jess Jackson, son of a fruit farmer from western Colorado, paid all of George’s medical bills.
What attracted me to George and his whole family was the opportunity to experience in the late twentieth century and in real time what it was like to be born and live on the American frontier. For that’s what Edwino his Dad had done, he had migrated from Europe to our continent and found a home on the frontier twenty miles out Fish Rock Road west of the Cloverdale to The Coast wagon highway. And George still lived with comfort and grace in that frontier habitat. He was born and died in the same bed up on the second floor of the family home his Dad had built. The house was still heated by a wood stove, lit with kerosene. And George and his family supported themselves by what I call semi-subsistence diverse agriculture. The kitchen garden, orchard and hunting were all sources of sustenance, and a diverse program of agricultural activities including grapes, redwood logging, equipment repair and the Christmas tree provided cash income. And all done with such gracious enthusiasm he and his family shared with neighbors and friends.
I remember a typical visit with George one autumn afternoon after the harvest. He invited us up for lunch, us being Jed Steele, Earlene Merriman, Edmeades’ financial manager and I. We arrived a little after noon, sat together with George and his wife Alice at the outdoor dining table under the live oak, it was that warm. A little pasta/red sauce, cheese, apples and pears, all accompanied by the Zeni Zin from two years ago, just the right wine for the menu. Likely two hours went by as we probed George about family farm stories, the neighbors’ stories, the Gianolis, Ciapuscis, Pronsolinos, etc. Those queries would provoke him to vector off onto other recollections such as the rise and fall of the city people summer resort built by a San Francisco Doctor/entrepreneur in the 1920s around the hot springs deep in the Garcia River canyon a mile away from where we sat. Or stories about local winemaking and distillation during Prohibition, which would lead into reflection on the American character and why we never learned anything from Prohibition when the government made marijuana growing and consumption illegal.
Then we would take a tour of the outbuildings, vineyard and tree farm, talk about this year’s weather, too much or too little sun or rain, and so on. About four o’clock or so we’d wander back to the house and George would invite us to come in and have a taste of his folle Blanche white wine and some roasted chestnuts. What a “tea-time” treat Italian style, lightly sweet wine, rich chestnut meat and sliced pears. And of course more reflection and stories about life in Anderson Valley and on The Coast.
That was the day we found out that these chestnuts weren’t from George’s trees but from a one acre grove one could see from your car on the north side of Fish Rock Road back east a mile or so. This grove had to be almost a hundred years old, planted by an old-time family and now owned by Steve Alden, who ran cows on it and also planted a number of acres of wine grapes. And George, probably the only person around for miles familiar with chestnut tree cultivation and pruning best practices knowledge, volunteered to take care of the grove, annual pruning on an orchard ladder, for Steve until the end of his life. And the both of them distributed the crop each year among themselves and neighbors and also invited anyone in Anderson Valley to come up on weekends in November and harvest for themselves the bounty of the year gone by. Steve still follows this distribution protocol today.
So as the afternoon wound down, the sun drifting west toward the redwood tree line, George offers another invitation, just stay over, we’re having lamb stew, corn and squash for dinner (and of course the renewed round of reminiscing and storytelling Our Gang loved). And so a couple of hours later, the day at Zeni Ranch ends, 8 hours of recreation and education on a last residual of the American frontier with one of its most gracious inhabitants. Facing us now, after all that food and wine, was the one hour long, careful in the darkest kind of Fish Rock Road dark ride back to the winery in Philo. No one dozed though, instead the animated discussion among the three of us about what a great day we had just experienced with George Zeni.
The last time I saw George was on another December odyssey to buy a holiday tree I believe just inside the early years of the current century. Van Williamson, then Kendall Jackson Edmeades winemaker, now founding owner with Anne Fashauer of Witching Stick vineyard on Greenwood Ridge Road, and I drove up Fish Rock right on the Winter Solstice, a crisp, windy, backside-of-a-storm day. Our mission was first to visit Steve Alden’s place to harvest, with Steve’s kind permission, matsutaki mushrooms, then go on to George’s for a ceremonial visit. Having harvested five garbage bags of mushrooms at Steve’s place, I wish I could remember exactly where, we were able to share some of our bounty with George and his new wife (Alice had passed) Shirley, a Point Arena native (another time). Because the late afternoon was so chilly breezy, we sat inside around the wood stove with George and Shirley and engaged in the ritual story-telling and rumination I knew so well.
Just at sundown Van said it was time for him to get back to town, which I fully supported, since he was the trip chauffer, we’d had at least a couple of glasses of wine, and Van was quite an aggressive driver who didn’t know Fish Rock the way I did. I believe the sun went “over the hill” about the time we left Zeni, turned east on Fish Rock and headed cautiously home. About five minutes down the road as twilight arrived I looked in the passenger sideview mirror and saw an astonishing vista. A pile of fluffy cumulus clouds was rapidly building above the trees behind us, back-lit by the set sun in an explosion of blues, greys, pinks, violets and reds that was catching up to us as we drove. Five minutes later, I commanded Van to stop the car, on open grassland, no trees, for the technicolor cloudbank had risen to almost vertical over our heads, while filling the whole western sky. We must have stood there for another five minutes in silent awe until the descending sun began to dim the cloudbank twilight of the gods opera scene. And even as the light show dimmed as we continued driving east, it continued until we left the ridge top and began the steep descent into Mailliard Ranch and complete darkness. In the silence that followed I closed my eyes and thought about George Zeni and our generation-long friendship. And sensed that winter afternoon with its dramatic conclusion would be the last time I would see him.
Next Episode: Lyle Luckert, another kind of Anderson Valley pioneer. More Fish Rock Road denizen stories another time.