Stewards of the Land and its History

Salvestrin family celebrates 81 years of grape growing in Napa Valley


Salvestrin Winery could be considered greater than the sum of its parts comprising, as it does, one winery, two vineyards (St. Helena Highway, Crystal Springs), two soil types (Cortina and Bale), five grape varieties, cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, zinfandel, merlot, petite sirah; a blended wine, Retaggio, and three generations of Salvestrins whose grape-growing knowledge has been passed from father to son and on again over a span of 81 years.

The ties to Napa Valley viticulture go back even farther. The family’s original 23 acres, whittled over the years to 12 acres and more recently expanded to 26, are part of the property that once belonged to upper valley pioneer, Dr. George Belden Crane.

Crane, a country doctor from New York lured to California in 1858 by a sense of adventure, wandered north from the Santa Clara Valley and purchased 335 acres in St. Helena. The following year he began planting a vineyard and within three years had built his first wine cellar. Despite admitting that he knew nothing about growing wine grapes (he had purchased the original cuttings at bargain prices) he and Charles Krug would later be heralded as St. Helena’s first vintners.

Seventy-four year later, John and Emma Salvestrin, immigrants from a small town in northern Italy, bought a portion of the original property, which also included the Crane farmhouse built in 1859 and attached to the larger Victorian-era home built 20 years later.

At the time the vineyard included old European varieties, among them zinfandel, petite sirah and carrignon. Some of the original headtrained Crane zinfandel remains on the piece that was sold, Salvestrin said. “The grapes are excellent, but you don’t get a lot.”

Like many newcomers to the Valley at the time, Ed Salvestrin’s parents started with very little but worked hard for what they had.

“My dad was 16 and a half when he came over in 1912,” Salvestrin said. “He wound up in Porterville because he had two brothers there who had come over. I don’t know what year he came to St. Helena but he took a job where the Heitz Wine Cellars is now on Taplin Road.”

As was the way, news of jobs came mostly by word of mouth. “Ernie Navone’s dad told my dad that he was leaving the place on Taplin and that they needed a caretaker,” Salvestrin said, “so my dad came and took the job.”

In 1920 John Salvestrin proposed to the girl he had left behind in Italy and was accepted.

Twelve years later, just before Prohibition’s end, they were able to buy the old farmstead and vineyard next to Vintage Hall and began selling their grapes the following year. The farm became a gathering spot for friends from the Bay Area, Ed Salvestrin recalled, drawn by his parents’ hospitality, his mother’s good food, his father’s lively songfests — and the wine.

The St. Helena of Ed Salvestrin’s childhood was quite different from the St. Helena his children know today.

“Across the street (St. Helena Highway) were all Italian farmers growing grapes — the Grassis, Beraldos, Robertos,” Ed Salvestrin recalled. “My dad would go with the horse and plow to the neighbors. He would pick prunes at Aspesis’ and they would come and help us with the grapes. They’d all help each other.”

Salvestrin’s father tended the grapes the way he learned as a youngster and passed his knowledge on to his son.

“When I was old enough to help I was out there in the vineyard,” his son recalled. But “he was very particular about pruning. Nobody else pruned his vineyard. I could trim and he would finish it but it took him a long time before he trusted me to prune. He’d do all the work, the pruning, suckering, everything, all himself. It was all dry farmed, the old, headpruned vines supported by grape stakes.”

In Italy oxen plowed the fields but in St. Helena John Salvestrin used a horse-drawn plow to work the vineyards. Later, when Toots Bommarito and his father, Dominic, brought their tractor in to disc the vineyard, Salvestrin’s father would nevertheless hitch their horse, Maude, to a plow for the finish work.

“He didn’t drive after his old Model T quit,” Ed Salvestrin said, “so when I was old enough to drive, we bought our first tractor and I’ve been driving tractors ever since.”

While her husband cared for the vines, Susanne Salvestrin, who fell in love with the Crane home even before she and Ed were married, (they met when she was working at Olney’s on Main Street and he was a St. Helena mail carrier) has taken its history and preservation to heart.

“When I first met Eddie and … we came down the driveway and it felt like we weren’t even in the same era.” she told a visitor recently. “I thought, ‘Oh wow, this would be a great place to fix up and have a bed and breakfast’ not even knowing we’d ever be able to do it. It’s the ambiance. It’s just so soothing.”

Years later in 1990 the couple did restore the house. It took a year to replace the porches that had been removed by Ed’s parents and turn the interior into a bed and breakfast where Susanne would showcase her culinary skills, especially desserts. In the course of the remodel, the couple came across a tin box of mementos — a time capsule dating to Dr. Crane’s time — tucked in a corner under the front porch. The box, its contents, Victorian-era furniture, photographs, Dr. Crane’s notebooks and letters, are a focal point of their home.

The vineyard, or at least part of it, has remained in the Salvestrin family for more than eight decades, tended first by John, then by his son, Ed, and now by Ed’s son, Rich.

It was Rich, encouraged by his grandmother, who wanted to keep the vineyard when it looked as if they might have to sell, his father said. The three Salvestrin children, Mark, Rich and Lynn, have all put in their time on the property.

“At one time we had a partnership with both boys,” their father said.

“All three were working full-time and then they would work together in the vineyard, planting,” Susanne Salvestrin joined in, and laughed as she added, “Can you imagine three Italian family members working together?”

Mark left the partnership to pursue photography and a career with the post office. He is currently the Oakville postmaster.

Rich earned a degree in viticulture from Fresno State in 1987, released the first vintage of Salvestrin Cabernet Sauvignon — a custom crush — in 1994 and he and his wife, Shannon, built the winery in 2001.

Lynn Salvestrin-Hosburgh worked for Sutter Home Winery for 19 years before leaving to assist her mother with the bed and breakfast. She is now in charge of the Salvestrin Winery wine club, working out of an office in the restored tank house.

The Salvestrins maintain a Crystal Springs Road vineyard on property leased from the LeBlanc family. Ed Salvestrin likes to add that the 17 acres replanted in sauvignon blanc are also a favorite haunt of mountain lions, bears and coyotes.

Now 76 and “pretty much retired,” Salvestrin still enjoys tractor work. “I’ve done it all my life,” he said. He collects tractors, or perhaps it’s more a case of not getting rid of the old ones. “I have an International, three Caterpillars and a Ford. We’ve got about eight — mine are all old, Richard’s are new.”

His wife, although she no longer runs a bed and breakfast, still opens the home to visiting wine club members and maintains a solid reputation as an exemplary cook and pastry chef.

Rich, his wife and three daughters live on the property a short jog from the new winery. As far as their parents are concerned, there’s no reason why the daughters couldn’t become fourth generation owners and winemakers.

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