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Martinellis carry on family traditions

Friday, July 12th, 2013 | Posted by

Lee Martinelli smells the ripeness of apples on his family’s River Road farm. (Conner Jay / Press Democrat)

By JAMES LANARAS / Windsor Correspondent

Five generations of Lee Martinelli’s family have been farming in Sonoma County, and six generations of his wife Carolyn Charles’ family have been ranching in the west county.

This week they will be honored as the Sonoma County Farm Family of the Year at the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard in Windsor, chosen because of their stewardship of the land and their ability to persevere and adapt to changing times.

The Martinelli family’s history as farmers and stewards of the land began in the 1880s, when 19-year-old winemaker Giuseppe Martinelli and his 16-year-old bride Luisa Vellutini left the Tuscany area of Italy.

With money he earned planting a vineyard for a farmer in Forestville and a loan from a local woodcutter, he bought a steep hillside that later became known as Jackass Hill.

Giuseppe died in 1918, leaving responsibility for the the Zinfandel vineyard to his son Leno. Until he was 89, Leno worked the vineyard reputed to be so difficult that only a jackass would farm it. Then he turned it over to his son Lee, who had been apprenticing since he was 7 and had attended Chico State University and UC Davis.

When Lee took charge, he was teaching vocational agriculture at Santa Rosa High School. He remembers his father telling him, “You have to quit your job.”

“I wanted to teach and farm at the same time,” Lee Martinelli said. That’s what he did for two years until his uncle Tony Bondi.

In 1973, Martinelli became a full-time farmer, taking over the management of his uncle’s estate, which included apple orchards. He also planted vineyards in the Russian River Valley.

“The apples are from my mom’s side of the family and the grapes are on my dad’s side,” he said.

The Martinellis belonged to the Sebastopol Cooperative Cannery.

Lee Martinelli Jr. cultivates the ground. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

“We were getting $12.50 a ton for apples, and those outside the cooperative were getting $100-$120 a ton,” Martinelli said. “The cost of producing them was $70 a ton. That was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

“That was the demise of a lot of apple orchards in Sebastopol. You couldn’t afford to keep the farm or convert to grapes.”

Some farmers didn’t want the long days and questionable income, he said. Others sold parcels of their land to continue farming.

The Sebastopol Cooperative Cannery went out of business and sold its equipment to the Vacu-Dry Co. In 1999, Vacu-Dry sold its inventory and real estate to Tree Top Inc. of Selah, Wash., and closed the Sebastopol processing plant.

“In agriculture you have to be versatile,” Martinelli said. “We decided to reduce our apple acreage and put it in something stable. I couldn’t bring myself to push those apple trees out.

“It took me 10 years before I got a bulldozer and pushed them out. Once I pushed the first one out, it was easy, and I never looked back. A person driving by in a Mercedes stopped and said, ‘You shouldn’t ever have taken those trees out.’ We can’t change jobs, but we can change crops.”

Martinelli is a pragmatist.

“Some people don’t like to see all the vineyards,” he said. “The prunes are gone, and the apples are going away. Grapes are the only thing you can make money to pay your taxes. They’re economical and viable. It’s the only way to do it.

“We’re still farming 100-year-old vineyards.”

Carolyn Martinelli takes over the storytelling. “Luckily the vineyards were starting to catch on, and it meant we could stay in farming and keep our land,” she said. “As long as we can make a living with grapes, that’s what we’ll do.”

Lee and Carolyn, both 74, also decided to start their own winery, converting two old, historic hop barns into a tasting room. They now produce award winning wines with consulting winemaker Erin Green and winemaker Bryan Kvamme.

Their four children, Julianna, Lee Jr., George and Regina, contribute to the family business. Lee and his sons, Lee Jr. and George, tend the 450 acres of vineyards and 75 acres of organic apples on the Windsor farm. Carolyn and daughters Regina and Julianna work in administration and marketing.

Lee Martinelli defines being a good steward of the land as controlling erosion, reseeding land that has been tilled, growing grass to protect the land in winter and analyzing the soil yearly.

“I never use the word dirt. It’s soil,” he said. “We rely on that soil for our livelihood. You can’t run it into the ground.”

The Martinellis employ between 35 and 85 employees, providing at least 92 percent of them with free housing. Some supervisors have been there 18 to 22 years, working year round.

“The people who must be acknowledged are our ancestors,” Martinelli adds. “They left their homeland and came to a country where they could not speak the language. I’m really happy they landed in Sonoma County and not somewhere else.”

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land celebration this year also honors Saralee McClelland Kunde. The Windsor grape grower will be inducted into the Farm Bureau’s Hall of Fame for her lifetime contributions to agriculture, providing leadership for more than 30 years that has helped elevate Sonoma County to the world stage of food and wine.

Tish Ward, manager of Atwood Ranch in Glen Ellen, is the recipient of the Farm Bureau’s Luther Burbank Conservation Award.

“I have long believed that recognition of the Martinellis as Farm Family of the Year is both overdue and most deserved,” said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Martinelli said he doesn’t plan on retiring, he’ll just work less, maybe six rather than 10 hours a day. More of his duties are now administrative and involve paperwork and time-consuming regulations.

“I would very, very gladly give that up,” he said. “I don’t get outdoors a lot anymore, but now it’s nice to be able to sit down and have lunch.”



  • bill

    The old farms are viable because the cost of land was low enough back then. I grew grapes and vegetables in Healdsburg on 25 acres and could never make enough to pay the mortgage much less eat in the 1990’s. Farming is leaving for other countries because of land prices

  • KFB

    Congrats on a wonderful article! I worked part-time for the Martinelli’s, and considered them the most sincere, honest and down-to-earth family! The employees are looked upon as family, and are appreciated for the work they do.

  • Keith Donaldson

    The Martinelli’s symbolize the real sonoma county, love of land and respect for family. Thank you Martinelli’s; from a longtime sonoma county resident.

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James Lanaras is our Windsor correspondent.
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