Sitting amidst faux French chateaux and imported Italian castles, the Rossi ranch is a vestige of old Napa: A tiny, white, pitched-roof house, a barn and a tank house that held the water supply for a working farm.
Now, thanks, to a new conservation easement signed by John Williams, owner of Frog’s Leap Winery, with The Land Trust of Napa County, the 52-acre site will be permanently preserved.
The Rutherford appellation ranch, which can be seen today by travelers on Highway 29, sits between Zinfandel and Whitehall lanes, just south of St. Helena.
According to historical records, the property was originally part of the 1846 Vallejo Land Grant. In 1866, it was acquired by the Norton family who planted the first vineyards. The ranch gets its name, however, from the Rossi family who purchased the property in 1906 and completed construction of the buildings. The Rossi family continued to farm the land until the death of the last family member, Louise Rossi, in 2007.
A conservation easement means that the land cannot be developed, said Joel Tranmer, CEO of The Land Trust. Although the organization does not preserve buildings, he said, as part of the easement they cannot be removed or torn down, although if they were destroyed by fire or time, they could be rebuilt.
While there is a tax benefit to creating easements, Tranmer said, the main reason people enter into them is a love of the land and a wish to preserve it.
“Frog’s Leap Winery worked closely with The Land Trust in crafting an easement that ensures that the highly visible 52-acre parcel will retain its picturesque rural charm for generations to come,” he said.
“This is a classic example of the intersection of land protection and historic preservation,” Tranmer said. “When we talk about protecting the character of Napa County by permanently protecting land, it requires that we think about what defines that character. There is no better example than the Rossi Ranch, and we must all thank the Williams Family and Frog’s Leap Winery for this important legacy.”
Williams said his first dealings with Louise Rossi were in 1995 when his vineyard director, Frank Leeds, informed him that some grapes were available on the property that another winery did not want.
“I dealt mostly with her brother, Ray, until his death in 1997, and then Louise,” he said. Louise Rossi, who had never married, had no heirs.
“Upon her death in 2007 it was revealed that she had left an option for Frog’s Leap to buy the property,” Williams said. “At that point, we had been buying her grapes for over 12 years and had been helping Louise with her farming since her brother’s death.”
“Louise did not articulate why she left us an option,” he added. “Of course, we would like to think she knew that we would take care of her farm as her family had.”
Louise Rossi had also designated that most of the proceeds of the Rossi estate would go to the UC, Davis where Ray Rossi had been a student. The university reported receiving more than $12.5 million from the bequest.
Williams and his family now live in the little Rossi house. “Many of the vineyards were in need of replanting or were fallow,” he said. “Frog’s Leap has been replanting those vines and those grapes will be a very important part of Frog’s Leap’s future. We decided two years ago to put the property in a conservation easement to honor the Rossi Family, and we are finally able to announce the deed is done.”
“As my friendship with Louise evolved over the years, I was struck by her deep attachment to this land and her strong commitment to keeping the property intact as a working family ranch,” Williams said. “By placing the land into a conservation easement, my family and Frog’s Leap Winery are building on the farming heritage of the Rossi Family and those who came before us — protecting this land and preserving this landscape in perpetuity.”
The Land Trust of Napa County was established in 1976 by seven founding members. Today, it has 1,700 members and supporters and has completed more than 150 projects protecting more than 53,000 acres of land, about 10 percent of Napa County.