The Martinelli family has been growing grapes in the Russian River Valley since the 1880’s. At the ages of 19 and 16, Giuseppe Martinelli and Luisa Vellutini eloped from their small village in the Tuscany region of Italy, making their way to California looking for land to farm and start a winery. Giuseppe had been a winemaker in Italy and with his viticulture knowledge he was hired to plant a vineyard for a farmer in Forestville. Within two years he earned enough money, and borrowed some from a local wood cutter, to purchase land of his own. Working side by side on a 60 degree slope, Giuseppe and Luisa planted a small area of Zinfandel and Muscat Alexandria vines, which later became known as the Jackass Hill vineyard. Over 100 years later, this south easterly exposure remains the steepest non-terraced vineyard in Sonoma County.
In 1918 Giuseppe died, leaving Luisa with four children and the farm to care for. Their youngest son, Leno was twelve years old at the time and had wanted no other career in life than to be a farmer. Leno’s two older brothers wanted nothing to do with the impossibly steep hillside, so after completing the eighth grade, Leno finished school and took on the sole responsibility of farming the Zinfandel vineyard. His family told him that only a jackass would farm a hill that steep. Hence, he and his vineyard earned the name Jackass Hill. Leno received all of his farming knowledge from his parents and through his own lifelong experience of tending the vines the way his father had. He even continued using a horse and plow until 1950’s. At the age of 89, Leno decided to hang up the keys to his John Deere, and handed the vineyard over to his son, Lee Sr. Following the family tradition, Lee was introduced to vineyard work at the age of seven, performing all seasonal tasks necessary, and learning the old viticulture practices handed down through the generations.
In 1973 Lee Sr. took over management of his Uncle Tony Bondi’s estate, which was comprised mainly of apple orchards, and began planting vineyards in the rich soil of the Russian River Valley. Soon considered a premium grape grower, Lee’s fruit was in great demand from many wineries. Lee and his wife, Carolyn, realized the exceptional potential to create superb wines from these grapes, and decided to start their own winery.
Along River Road where two old hop barns are situated, the four young Martinelli children could be seen on the property hand-polishing and packing Gravenstein and Golden Delicious apples to sell, along with fresh pressed apple juice. The Martinelli’s realized this was the perfect place to also make and sell wine. These two historic hop barns were converted into a wine-making facility and tasting room, keeping with the original feel and structure of these centurion buildings. Inside the Tasting Room, you can still see the hop pickers’ writings on the walls and doors from the early 1900’s.
To this day, the Martinellis still sell more grapes then are used to make their own wines; about 90% of the grapes they farm are sold to other Sonoma County wineries. Lee Sr. and his two sons, Lee Jr. and George, continue the proud legacy of care-taking the land, and you may meet one of the Martinelli daughters, Julianna or Regina, on the road at various events or at the winery.