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Deep roots: Some Napa Valley farm families go back over 100 years

Deep roots: Some Napa Valley farm families go back over 100 years

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Nov. 18, 2019 series

In the late 1940s, Betty Pocai Ballentine set out for a job interview at an insurance agency in San Francisco. She was four flights up the stairs of the office building when she stopped.

“I looked out the window at the city, looked down at the street, and I thought – what am I doing here?” she said. “I said, ‘Sorry, I’m not going to stay for the interview. Thank you very much.’ And I walked out, and I’ve been here since.”

‘Here’ was Calistoga, where Ballentine returned to work at L. Pocai and Sons, her family’s winery. In doing so, she preserved a century-long family tradition.

Ballentine’s grandfather arrived in Napa Valley in 1906, and purchased the vineyard land and winery property soon after. She closed L. Pocai and Sons in 1995, but owns Ballentine Vineyards along with her husband, Van. They continue to farm her family’s original vineyards; their son, Frank, is the winery’s general manager. Another son, William, owns William Cole Winery, just down the road. A grandson – fifth generation – is studying viticulture in college.

The Ballentine family is one of Napa’s multi-generational grape-growing families. In 2013, its own centennial anniversary, the Napa County Farm Bureau collected interviews from 36 of Napa’s ‘centennial farm families.’ The Bureau says its collection isn’t exhaustive, but of those interviewed, about half are grape-growing families; a slightly smaller percentage still rely on farming and wine-making as a livelihood.

Jack Varozza acknowledges the potential for difficulty in passing a family business on to a younger generation. His family has lived in St. Helena for five generations; his grandfather purchased their land making up Varozza Vineyards and their winery, which the family recently restored, in 1913. Varozza’s father, Harold, was the youngest of eight children, and managing the property sort of “fell” to him, Varozza said.

“It wasn’t glamorous Napa Valley at that time. It was a lot of work back then,” Varozza said of maintaining the vineyards. “(My dad) probably felt obligated in some way, because he never would have sold this property. It’s something that was deeply heartfelt for him.”

For many of Napa’s long-standing grower families, it’s about anything but the glamour. (“If you’ve lived here for five generations, you’re usually land rich, and cash poor,” Dianna Varozza, Jack’s wife, said.)

Tofanelli Family Vineyards winemaker Vince Tofanelli, whose family has lived in St. Helena since the early 1900s, said his grandparents and mother worked in the vineyards his family purchased in 1929, while his father worked offsite because the vineyard could not easily support two families.

“On his days off, he worked,” Tofanelli said of watching his father help in the vineyards. “He took his ‘vacations’ (from his regular job) during harvest. It was a different life than the hobby farmers who are around now.”

Tofanelli described a childhood in which he wasn’t groomed to take over the family business, but spent time helping farm, and then fell into it naturally as an adult. Work on their vineyards has always been a family affair, he said, adding that his sister, Norma, does the winery’s bookkeeping.

Members of long-standing grower families will often return to their family businesses of their own accord, according to Aimée Sunseri, who is the seventh member of the Nichelini family to serve as Nichelini Family Winery’s winemaker.

“I honestly didn’t think about (joining) until I was closer to 21. I have a bunch of cousins and aunts and uncles in the business, and I never sought a position myself, because I knew it was in good hands,” she said of her family’s winery.

Sunseri eventually realized her passion for working in the vineyards. Today, the property is owned by “the family at large,” according to Sunseri, who notes that there are also 17 shareholders in the winery itself – all Nichelinis or their spouses.

“It can get a little confusing sometimes, because there are quite a few of us,” Sunseri said.

The founding Nichelinis, Anton and Caterina, had 12 children. Six or so generations later, at a recent reunion, the family took a 200-person Christmas card, according to Sunseri, who knows that there are family members (all of whom she simply refers to as “cousins”) whom she has yet to meet. Occasionally, winery guests will inform Sunseri, point blank, that they are distant relatives.

“We always ask if they want to help out with a bottling day,” Sunseri added. “Some I don’t see again, others end up being great friendships. It’s a great sense that we can all come to a place, get our hands dirty and feel like we’re continuing the tradition.”

Sunseri herself has two young children. It’s too early to know whether they’ll want to work at the winery, she said, though she’s not worried – there are plenty of cousins who will likely step in otherwise.

The Varozzas have one son, Jason, the fifth generation of their family to live in St. Helena. He currently works in vineyard management, and takes interest in the family property, according to Jack Varozza. But he and Dianna do their best not to force anything.

“I would love to see him be a part of it, and I could definitely use the help here,” Varozza said. “But you see other family businesses trying to hand it off to the kids, and it doesn’t always work well. He’s still in the business part of (vineyards) right now, and hopefully someday he wants to come back.”

Tofanelli, who has one daughter and two grandchildren, acknowledges that farming is not for everyone. Regardless, he said he’s proud to grow the grapes he does, and of the history of the property.

“Multi-generational farms, be it corn or grapes, get rare after a certain generation,” he said. “I’m aware of that, and I just hope for the best.”

You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or

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Wine Industry Reporter

Wine industry reporter at the Napa Valley Register.

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