What is in this article?:
- Six decades of grape growing for Los Alamos, Calif., farmer Joe Carrari produces compelling history.
- Carrari was awash in an acre foot of wine and going broke when he created Dago Red California coastal red wine.
- Dago Red was far ahead of Two Buck Chuck and has a gold medal to prove it.
- Bulking wine not for faint-of-heart growers.
Joe Carrari spends his time at Rancho Alamo, a 3,600-acre ranch at Los Alamos. He leases out 400 acres for vegetable production and the rest is foothills where cattle are grazed.
Carrari’s farming career has taken him from Southern California to Argentina to farm and back to the U.S. to work for some of the biggest names in the industry — Paul Masson and Rene DiRosa’s Winery Lake Vineyards to name two. He has consulted with Jekel, J. Lohr and several wineries/grape growers in the Paso Robles area. He has also been a consultant for grape growers in New Zealand and delivered grapes to Mexican wineries in the Guadalupe Valley. When he was farming in Cucamonga, he delivered grapes to the only winery in Santa Barbara County at the time. Today there is a winery on just about every corner in the county.
He has planted 6,000 acres of grapes and installed more than 400 Ford industrial engines on well pumps through his company, Videco. His stake driving count is in the hundreds of thousands.
You can read Winkler’s “General Viticulture” from cover to cover several times and consult with the viticultural elite and still go broke producing premium wine grapes.
That is where Carrari found himself about 30 years ago in Los Alamos, Calif., — losing money. He refused to sell his Santa Barbara County premium red wine grapes at prices lower than it cost him to produce them. His obstinate Italian nature left him awash in bulk wine. An acre foot — 326,000 gallons — to be fairly specific.
“I refused to take what wineries were offering and lose money. I worked too hard to do that. Production Credit was taking wine as collateral on loans back then, so I crushed the grapes myself,” said Carrari.
His stubbornness extended through four vintages of Zinfandel, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon from the late 1970s until the mid-80s. The grapes came from parts of his 250 acres of vineyards. They were crushed at San Martin Winery and later moved to the Paul Masson winery in Soledad, Calif., when San Martin sold.
The wine grape economy continued to flounder from an overplanting of grapes, and storage fees were eroding Carrari’s chances for turning a profit on his bulk wine gamble. “I was paying $7,000 per month in storage fees and had to do something, even if it was wrong,” laughs the indomitable Carrari.
He blended the varietals in the proportions he had in storage into a California red wine and then had an artist create an art deco black-and-white checkerboard label and called it Dago Red. It sold retail for $1.99 per bottle. “I was way ahead of Two Buck Chuck. It made a helluva wine. I liked it, and I had other people taste test it before we bottled it. Nine out of 10 who tasted it agreed with me. Everyone liked it. We even sold it by the case in Los Alamos for $1 per bottle,” he chuckles.
Dago Red became a wine phenomenon. It was very popular in California, particularly in the Central Valley. It even won a gold medal as a California Red at the Orange County Wine Festival. That led to the sale of 1,200 cases to a wholesaler in New York (“that put me in business”). He poured it at a California congressional wine reception to rave reviews.