The days of informal handshake deals, modest homes and mom-and-pop wineries are ending in the Napa Valley, and come the end of the year, so will one of the family businesses that thrived in those simpler times.
St. Helena-based Montelli Construction is liquidating its remaining assets through the end of December, ending a story that began in 1946 when John Montelli started hauling materials from St. Helena to Calistoga in a 1931 Model A pickup.
Two years later he bought a brand-new Ford F-700 dump truck. C&S Trucking, founded by him and his wife Sera, grew into Montelli Construction, providing sewer construction, septic pumping, underground construction, vineyard drain lines, paving and demolition for winery, commercial, agricultural and residential customers.
Their son Dan and his wife Jan recently recalled the company’s history while at the Montelli Construction yard south of St. Helena, where backhoes, excavators, dump trucks, rollers and other equipment are up for sale.
The Montellis have witnessed the rise of corporate-owned wineries, regulatory red tape and McMansions.
“Back when I started digging footings in the late ‘60s, a big house was about 2,000 square feet,” Dan said. “Now if you don’t have a 5,000- or a 10,000-square-foot house you have nothing.”
Dan grew up working for the family business. He remembers his dad delivering rock to the old Keller’s slaughterhouse on Silverado Trail in the winter to prevent the cattle from slipping and breaking their legs in their paddock.
When the summer came around, Dan and his brother Johnny would go back and pick the rocks out of the manure so their dad could sell it for fertilizer.
“We were so little that he had to pick us up and put us back in the dump truck because we couldn’t climb it,” he said. “We were probably 6 or 7.”
John used to scrawl estimates on Montelli Construction matchboxes and seal deals with handshakes.
“Back then a handshake was it,” his grandson Dan Jr. said. “Now you’ve got to have everything written down and copied twice and memoed.”
Growing up working for family was hard, and having the last name of Montelli didn’t earn you any breaks. One time when Dan Jr. was 12 or 13, John – whom Dan Jr. recalled as a fair man but a tough boss – threatened to dock his pay from $3 an hour to $2 for “standing around.”
“My dad always told me that whenever grandpa comes around you’d better look like you were busy,” Dan Jr. said. “But it was fun growing up in construction and seeing your last name on trucks and tractors. We only worked between Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford – everybody knew your name.”
Montelli Construction did jobs for wineries like Dominus, Robert Mondavi, Sutter Home and Christian Brothers, and did all the underground work for the Boys & Girls Club in St. Helena. Its last job is Joe McGrath’s apartment building on McCorkle Avenue.
The company employed 15 or 20 people at its height, including future congressman Mike Thompson, who had a summer job there. Dan remembers Thompson hauling shale in the old F-700 when he accidentally kicked it out of gear.
“He was so afraid to talk to Dad – he thought he’d blown up the motor,” Dan said.
John died in 2007, Sera in 2009, and Johnny in 2010. Dan Jr. and his brother Pete still do some work for the company, but they have their own careers: Dan Jr. is a DC-10 pilot for Calfire and Pete has a tractor business. The longest-tenured worker outside the family is now foreman George Tagliaferri, who’s been there for 15 years.
In his retirement, Dan will travel to spend time with his 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and continue to rebuild antique cars and trucks as a hobby.