The father of Napa Valley wine tourism was honored Wednesday with a neighborhood park in north Napa.
Some two dozen relatives of the late Fred Abruzzini showed up for the dedication of Abruzzini Park, a three-acre patch of green at the end of Haven Way off Solano Avenue.
The park sits on land once owned by Abruzzini, who entertained some of the biggest names in Hollywood during the 1930s, '40s and '50s as the general manager of Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena.
"He was the first to bring tourism to the wineries," said Bill Knox, chair of Napa's Parks and Recreation Commission and a retired Beringer public relations executive.
By inviting stars such as Clark Gable, Charles Laughton and Carole Lombard to visit Beringer, he gave birth to the wine-based tourism that shapes the economic life of the Napa Valley today, Knox said.
"Right after Prohibition, people weren't thinking about wine like we think about wine, much less visiting wineries," Knox said. "I don't think wineries were open at all."
Cynthia Abruzzini Brian recalled her grandfather as someone who came into the wine business with an eighth grade education but with a flair for promotion.
At the 1939 World's Fair at Treasure Island, Abruzzini distributed maps that said "all roads lead to Beringer," Brian said. "He had buses take them up to the Napa Valley and Beringer where he had big barbecues waiting for them."
"The movie stars would come up. He treated them like royalty and got their pictures in the St. Helena Star. They'd go back to Hollywood and tell what a great time they had in the Napa Valley with a man named Fred," Brian said.
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Abruzzini was killed in 1989 at age 84 while mowing his lawn near the site of the park. The limb from an elm tree fell on him, relatives recalled.
It was Knox who suggested naming Napa's newest park for Abruzzini. When it comes to wine tourism, "it all started with Fred," he said.
The park is surrounded by homes, some of which sell for more than $800,000, with a partially landscaped Salvador Drainage Channel bordering it on two sides.
The Hofmann Company contributed the land as part of its development agreement with the city. Improving the park with turf, a tot lot, a half basketball court and picnic tables cost almost $300,000, with $207,000 coming from state park bonds, said Mike McCarty, the city's Community Resources director.
"It will be used for a little bit of everything," McCarty predicted. The big grassy area will be ideal for soccer, a game of catch or throwing a Frisbee, he said.
The park is a needed addition to northwest Napa, where the nearest school playground is across Highway 29, he said.
This is Napa's 35th neighborhood park, McCarty said, and the first since the opening of Ester Deaver in east Napa two years ago, he said.
McCarty noted that five park maintenance positions have been frozen due to the city's budget problems. His crews couldn't handle many more new parks, he said.