When my grandfather emigrated from Italy to America in the early 1900s, he brought his hopes and dreams of a better life. And like many other Italian-Americans, he also brought his love of wine.
My dad, Peter Anzellotti, remembers growing up in New York City and helping my grandfather make wine in their basement from Zinfandel grapes grown in California. Grapes were piled into a wine press and hand-cranked until the juice came spilling out into a barrel. A couple weeks later, when the grapes had finished fermenting, my dad would help bottle up the wine in big jugs. White raisins were added to the previously pressed grape skins, stems and seeds and a “second wine” was made - lighter and fruitier. As a teenager, my dad was allowed a half glass of wine with dinner. My dad, still going strong at 88, attributes his good health to a Mediterranean diet, laughter and a daily dose of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Some Italians who came to America not only made their own wine, but also made a business out of it. Casa de Fruta, a California landmark and local treasure, located on Pacheco Pass Highway, is a great example.
Four Bisceglia brothers emigrated from southern Italy to the United States in 1885, saved enough money to purchase fertile land on Pacheco Pass and planted their first orchards in 1908. The Bisceglia’s willed a small portion of these orchards to their niece, Clara Cribari Zanger.
In 1943, Clara’s three teenage sons (George, Joseph and Eugene) built a cherry stand to make some money from their family’s orchards. Although their cherry sales were steady, Clara saw a greater opportunity. She urged the brothers to build a clean, indoor restroom. Not only would people have a chance to stretch their legs, she reasoned, but they would be more apt to purchase the sweet, juicy cherries.
Clara turned out to be right as droves of weary travelers stopped by to use the restroom and purchase cherries. By the 1950s, the brothers expanded their business to seven seasonal cherry stands. At this point, Clara and the boys set out to create a traveler’s haven, which would include a place to eat, play, sleep and buy gasoline.
In 1967, the family opened a 24-hour restaurant near the busiest cherry stand. Through the years they added gas stations, a children’s playground with a double-decker Venetian carousel and a narrow-gauge train that holds 60 passengers, a 300-space R.V. park and an inn (the only inn within southern Santa Clara Valley to receive a 3 Diamond rating), a gift shop, a wine tasting/deli and a much larger fruit stand. The fruit stand is a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, candy, specialty gourmet items and wine.
A California bonded winery since 1969, the 2012 wine list contains 17 different wines and includes a selection of varietals, sparkling and fruit wines. The whites include Gewurztraminer (a spicy wine perfect for hors d’oeuvres or dinner) and the red wines include a popular blend called Sole of the Boot (a nod to their Italian roots). Moscato fans love the Black Muscat Blush with its gorgeous color and sturdy tannins.
The top seller is their Pomegranate wine - made from 100 percent pomegranates from Madera. In fact, I’m sipping it while writing this column. It’s tart with just the right amount of sweetness and is perfect for the last days of summer warmth.
I met with Joe Zanger, one of the children of the brothers who started the original cherry stand. Joe explained that he is now one of six partners which include his sister and four cousins.
Casa de Fruta is meant to be safe, clean and fun - a central place for families to build memories.
“It’s a third generation stop and has become a tradition for many families to visit” Joe said. “Everyone has their own favorite memories - whether it’s our homemade pies, my uncle’s cup-flipping trick or the annual Renaissance Faire held every September.”
The partners work hard to keep things fresh by continually adding to their offerings. Their beloved grandmother would be delighted to know that a new and larger restroom is in the permit process.
Bev Stenehjem is a wine columnist for South Valley Newspapers. Reach her at email@example.com. "Like" the Gilroy Dispatch and Bev's Wine Buzz on Facebook.