Testa Ranch: Preserving a Name and Legacy
Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson
A lovingly restored farmhouse and the first release of Testa Vineyards wines portray the five generations of the Testa family of Calpella as it segues into the future, Italian birthright firmly in place.
“We’re doing this to preserve our family heritage,” says Maria Testa Martinson, great-granddaughter of Gaetano and Maria Testa who established Testa Vineyards in 1912. Revitalizing the family ranch includes embracing the best of the old with the today’s amenities and an eye for timeless style ranching from upgrading the ranch to making wine. Their brand “Simply Black and White Wines” honors the old style of wine that blended a variety of red grapes or white grapes.
As Martinson shares her family history, she stands in one of the three beautifully renovated bedrooms in the family’s farmhouse that is now a vacation rental. It’s the afternoon of the first release of the wines she is making with her family. Family members and friends from the community take tours and share memories as we look at the black and white photos decorating the spring green and sky blue walls. The din of revelers and music drift from the barn where an Italian feast is laid out and imbibed throughout the day.
Gaetano Testa, a native of Gallarate, Italy, arrived in San Francisco in 1906. “It was the same day as the earthquake,” says his now 95-year old daughter Rose Marie Testa Indelicato, standing in the bedroom where she grew up. Also on hand to share memories were aunt Lee Testa (uncle Charlie’s wife) and Guido Venturi, “treasures from our eldest generation,” says Maria.
Gaetano, who came to San Francisco with two brothers, quickly got work clearing the rubble and helping to rebuild the city. After three years, during which he also worked as a ferry boat captain, Gaetano and his brothers took a train north to the country.
As the train chugged through Ukiah to the Calpella station Gaetano was struck by the similarities of the surrounding countryside to his homeland. He was hooked. He stayed and his brothers returned to the city. Gaetano stayed and sent for his wife Maria and their son Victor.
“They cleared the land with Belgian horses and dynamite,” relays Maria. “Whenever Nonno (Gaetano) got money he bought land.” Nonna (Maria) worked hard helping to burn the slash made bread to sell, cooking and take care of the children. In 1927 they built the farmhouse on a knoll surrounded by vineyards. Gaetano and Maria had two more children. In addition to Victor, who is Maria’s grandfather, they became parents of Rose Marie, who now lives in Sonoma, and the late Charles.
Maria’s Great Grandfather on her mother’s side, Battista Garzini owned land and planted vines in Coyote Valley, now covered by Lake Mendocino. “The Garzini family had what may have been the first bonded winery in Calpella,” says Maria. It was Battista Winery bonded winery registry # 3866 from 1910-1936. The stone remnants of his winery are still visible on what is known as Vinegar Point on the east side of the lake. The name came from the day the “revenuers” arrived and dumped all the wine onto the ground.
“Like all the Italians” the Testas continued to make wine in their basement, which has an eight-foot ceiling and is the same footprint as the house. “When my husband Rusty and I cleaned out the basement we found a museum of old wine making equipment,” says Maria. The old grape-stained crusher has been put back in use for the current harvest. The old redwood fermenting tank is in the barn. And a hutch from the old house was refurbished and replaced in the dining room. The family still owns the beautiful furniture sized radio Victor bought for Gaetano and Maria. It was the first radio in Calpella and was reported in the Ukiah newspaper.
The ranch is now 25 acres, having been reduced when the freeway went through Gaetano’s property, and later when he sold acreage to the nearby mill. Son Victor, known to the family as Papa married Mary Deghi. Mary was the baby of the Deghi Family of five children. Their son James married Kay Freeman whose mom was the eldest of the seven Garzini children. James and Kay had four daughters: Lisa, Gina, Maria and Kathryn.
Maria and her three sisters grew up in their home where their parents now live on the ranch. When she and Rusty got married they lived in the farmhouse for five years before building a home nearby.
Maria feels her interest in winemaking is inherent. “I am surrounded in my family by winemaking traditions,” she says. Her parents always sold grapes to local wineries in Mendocino and Sonoma counties. In 2004 she decided to make a barrel of wine from some of the Charbono grapes on the ranch. This old Italian varietal was once the backbone of Italian blends in California.
She bottled the Charbono for her great aunt Rose’s 90th birthday and everyone loved it so much and wanted more that she was inspired to continue. Then she made 50 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon. “To call myself a winemaker is not accurate, I’m the wine coordinator,” she says modestly. She appreciates the incredible support and assistance from local winemakers like Bob Swain and Mark Beaman at Parducci and Greg Graziano, local maestros of winemaking.
Maria credits her family and friends with their symbiotic transition from a grape growing family to their new winemaking and innkeeping status. “We are very excited to be celebrating the changes for the future with our parents, friends and family,” says Maria. “Rusty is the reason we started the winery,” she says. “He has the skills to do the work and he always does so much for our family. He loves our heritage and being part of making it continue.”
They are doing it with style. While maintaining the original wainscoting and architectural details, the transformation of the farmhouse the result of the meticulous reconstruction by Rusty and the talent of Maria’s friend Tia Pallini Satterwhite of Inspired Design in Ukiah. Satterwhite chose the paint colors, the bed linens and window coverings and she advised on placement of the furnishings, all of which came from the family and friends. Chairs, tables, pictures, and family herilooms were contributed by her mother-in-law Peggy Martinson, cousins Charlene and Virginia Testa and the Sullivan, Myers and Morgan families. “I really have been blessed with all of the kindness of friends and family, it is overwhelming,” Maria sighs.
“Having this vacation rental is an invitation to people to come from the city and find out what it’s like to experience a real working place in this beautiful valley,” she says. There is so much here, adds Maria-- the vineyards and the pond for fishing, the proximity to Lake Mendocino, and only an hour to the redwoods and the coast.
The farmhouse is surrounded by twenty five acres of grapes including Carignane, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Grenache, Charbono and Barbera. Maria and Rusty raise Cabernet Sauvignon on their fifteen acre Gusto Ranch they purchased from neighbors John and Joyce Myers. She and Rusty have four children, Kassandra, 21, Kortney, 18, Charlie, 17 and Chad 15. In addition to winemaker and promoter of the rental and the wines, Maria is the gardener. A charming flower and vegetable garden surround the farmhouse. Her 542 pound pumpkin took seventh place in the recent Ukiah pumpkin festival.
The Testas’ “Simply Black and White wines” are blends “just like my Nono made from the grapes he grew,” says Maria. Each year she will combine a blend of the ranche’s red grapes for the Black wine. “I want it to be fruity and not overbearing and it will taste good with everything—food, friends and family.” Testa’s Simply White is a blend from locally raised white grapes. Graphic artist Karen Adair in Ukiah designed the tasteful understated black and white label.
Black and white is a theme at Testa Vineyards. The wine name honors the old Italian style winemaking. Black and white is a theme in the ranch house from the family photos that decorate the walls of the home to the black and white linoleum squares on the kitchen and dining room floors. “Our focus harkens back to simpler times when people got together, sat around the table and visited and listened to the radio,” says Marian, adding, “we honor good times spent together-- kind of like how they are captured in black and white photos.”
Besides, she adds with only daughters in this generation, the family name wouldn’t have carried on. “I’m still glowing from our release party,” says Maria. As someone who has spent her life living within a mile of where she was born, Maria and her family continue the legacy of the Testa name and the best Italian familial traditions.
Tasting notes: Testa Vineyards 2007 Simply Black fills the glass with dark wine that is aromatic with spicy overtones. Its earthy and tangy fruit overtones complimented an elk and venison roulade topped with a red wine enriched demi-glace sauce laden with porcini mushrooms.
For more information on Testa Vineyards wines and the vacation rental call 485-7051 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Testa and other Mendocino Wines and previous Wine Notes columns visit www.truemendocinowine.com.« Column Index