The Vintners on ‘Jackass Hill’

Vineyards come in all shapes and sizes. There are flat vineyards, rolling hill vineyards and steep, trellised vineyards, such as in the Mosel or Porto. But, there is only one untrellised vineyard that sits on a 60 degree slope and would require a jackass to manage. It is Jackass Hill owned by Martinelli Winery. Regina Martinelli, granddaughter of the “original jackass”, shared the story with me and I wrote about it in my column in the Napa Valley Register. Please enjoy it here.

On a recent trip to Sonoma, I was meeting with Regina Martinelli to interview her for my new podcast.

Martinelli is the fourth generation of the Martinelli family who began growing and selling grapes in the 1880s. In our initial correspondence, I could not help but notice her title, “The Great Granddaughter of the Original Jackass.” I could not help but chuckle at the title and was determined to find out what that meant.

The “Original Jackass” is Regina’s great grandfather Giuseppe Martinelli. At the age of 19, he and his 16-year-old bride, Luisa Vellutini, moved from Tuscany to California, looking for land to farm. With his viticulture knowledge, he planted a vineyard for a farmer and earned enough money to purchase his own land.

In 1900, he and Luisa bought a small two-and-a-half-acre piece of property that sits on a 60-degree slope. To give context, the scariest double black diamonds ski runs are at 60- to 75-degree slopes. But Giuseppe and Louisa worked side by side on this vineyard and planted Zinfandel and Muscat Alexandria vines.

Giuseppe passed away in 1918, leaving Luisa with three sons and a daughter to care for. The two older sons wanted nothing to do with the impossibly steep family vineyard, so they gave it to their younger brother Leno who was 12 years old. Leno wanted to be a farmer, and after finishing the eighth grade, took over. It was said that only a jackass would farm such a steep hill and the name stuck. Hence, the vineyard became the Jackass Hill vineyard. Jackass Hill is the steepest non-terraced hillside vineyard in Sonoma County. Leno, following in his father’s footsteps, became the second jackass to farm it.

Leno continued to manage the vineyard the way his parents had, using a horse and plow, until the 1950s. In the 1950s, a John Deere salesman tried to sell Leno a tractor. Leno said he would buy it if the salesman would drive it sideways across the steepest part of the hill. The salesman refused because he knew he was not a jackass. But the regional salesperson came to the property and volunteered to try. He succeeded, and Leno bought the John Deere Crawler that the family still uses today.

Leno was the only one allowed to manage the John Deere Crawler on Jackass Hill and did so until he reached the age of 89. At that point, he handed the vineyard over to his son, Lee, who is the current Jackass. Lee had been introduced to vineyard work as a child and had learned the traditional practices of his father and grandfather. He continues to manage 135-year-old Jackass Hill the way they did, without irrigation, pesticides or trellising.

Jackass Hill is a labor of love. For many years, the Martinelli family sold the grapes from Jackass Hill to Williams Selyem. But in the 1990s, they started to make Jackass Hill wine and today produce a total of 60 cases of Jackass Hill Zinfandel.

Still to this day, the only person who drives the tractor is the third generation, and likely the last generation, Jackass Lee Martinelli Sr., Leno’s son and Regina’s father. Aside from the steepness, the crawler slides because the vineyard consists of hard bedrock with a little dust on top. The Martinelli family is looking for a new, safer way to farm the hill, perhaps using a pulley system. They have to find a new system to farm the hill because Lee’s wife will not let Regina or her two brothers drive the tractor on that hill. After all, only a jackass would attempt to farm that hill.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.