There was Dago Red long before there was Two Buck Chuck.
More than 136,000 cases of Dago Red wine were sold in the mid-1980s. That’s miniscule compared to the more than 50 million cases of Charles (Two Buck Chuck) Shaw wine sold so far by the Franzias’ Bronco Winery.
Numbers aside, Dago Red is a far more compelling story than Bronco’s economic assault on bulging wine tanks during the miserable economic plight of the California wine industry in the early 2000s.
Dago Red was an admitted desperation idea two decades ago of crafty, veteran California wine grape grower Joe Carrari of Los Alamos, Calif., who refused to fall prey to measly winery grape prices.
When grape prices are low, there is always the debate among growers, vintners and wine merchants about the wisdom of custom crushing. Although wineries and wine merchants say it is a bad idea, many growers do it. However, what about times like now when prices are the highest they’ve been in a couple of decades? Does it make sense to custom crush to meet what seems to be a growing wine grape shortage for at least the next few seasons?
Carrari, the 78-year-old son of an Italian immigrant, has won the custom crush gamble more than once, and he would no doubt do it again, if he felt like it made economic sense. However, he’ll tell you it’s not for the timid.
Carrari is a gregarious, wily, calculating grape grower whom his wife Phyllis claims was born under a grapevine. Joe denies it, although he is not sure about conception. He will confess to picking his first wine grapes at age five.
He whet his wiles growing up in the sand hill vineyards of San Bernardino County, once the largest pre-Prohibition wine grape growing region in the U.S.
Carrari, christened Ferruccio when he was born in 1934 in Alta Loma, Calif., is easily likeable. He has a joke-a-minute and has a remarkable memory with one tale after another about his six decades in the wine grape business and one year of going broke growing corn in Argentina. He ends almost every narrative with a gravelly chuckle.
Although his grapes have become wine behind hundreds of wine labels from wineries big and botique, Carrari will never adorn the cover of a glossy wine aficionado magazine.
However, you will find his craggy mug in American Farmer, a pictorial depiction of hundreds of men and women who farm America. Joe doesn’t particularly care for his likeness there. It’s an artistically darkened black-and-white photo that makes his well-weathered face look like a Texas Farm to Market road map. Nevertheless, it’s definitely the portrait of proud farmer Joe Carrari, who is as adept in a machine shop as he is in a vineyard or on the phone marketing his grapes or bulk wine.
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.
Why Dago Red?
Why Dago Red? “I am Italian. My father immigrated to California from Italy during the Depression. What else would I call it,” roars Carrari.
Dago is from Diego, which was Christopher Columbus’s son’s name. Diego Columbus was the first viceroy to the West Indies, but the local natives could not pronounce his name. They called him Dago.
History aside, the name did not sit well with fellow Italians on the East Coast. He even got in trouble with the Italian Anti-Defamation League. “This fellow called me from Washington, D.C., to complain about the use of Dago on my wine. I responded to him in Italian. He did not understand a word I said. I told him to call me back when he learned to speak Italian and hung up,” howls Carrari.
He later altered the label, putting a photo of the gold medal over the word Dago on the label in deference to his fellow Italians.
Dago Red sold so well Carrari came up with spin-offs from that using white wine grapes from his vineyard.
“It took me 10 years to get rid of all that wine, but in the end I made a $1 million profit after all my expenses,” he said.
Dago Red was not the only time he turned a sour wine deal into a bouquet of money. A prominent North Coast winery contracted for grapes at 22 sugar. The weather turned hot, and the grapes started ripening quickly. He called the winery, but the winery was not ready to accept them. He was told to wait a few days to pick. He waited and when the grapes arrived at the winery, the loads were downgraded for being too high in sugar.
Carrari was angry and left the grapes on the truck and hauled them back to the coast for custom crushing. It was a 250-mile round trip.
“The trucker was really good about it and did not charge me for the back haul. I had worked with him over the years at other vineyards,” Carrari explains.
He eventually sold the wine bulk to Beringer for $3 per gallon. “I made more money that way than had I had them crushed at the winery where they were going to dock me,” he laughs.
These are just two of the tales Carrari likes to spin from more than 60 years of growing grapes and marketing wine not only in California, but throughout the U.S. “I shipped a lot of bulk wine to wineries in other states to get started,” he said.
He learned his viticultural prowess from his father, who was adept at nudging 4 to 5 tons per acre from head-pruned, dryland farm Zinfandel vines. The average rainfall at Rancho Cucamonga is 17 inches per year, just 6 inches more than in Fresno, Calif. Dryland farming wine grapes on less than 2 acre feet of water will make you resourceful for life.
From the 1890s into the mid-1950s, the Cucamonga-Guasti-Ontario Wine District was considered California's largest wine-growing and wine-producing district. Much of the valley's grape and wine property was owned by Secundo Guasti, who founded the Italian Vineyard Company in 1883 and built it into a gigantic wine enterprise prior to Prohibition. Guasti farmed the largest contiguous block of wine grapes at the time, 6,000 acres, and Carrari’s father managed some of those vineyards.
Failure brings opportunity
Joe and his father later farmed on their own. Eventually, their vineyards reached 1,400 acres. One of their vineyards was planted in 1906 and was farmed continuously until 1984.
“We shipped grapes all over the U.S.” One year the Carrari family shipped 4,500 tons of grapes to home vintners.
Joe made spending money in high school delivering grapes to Southern Californians for homemade wine. He once rented a stall at the Los Angeles produce market where he sold 145 tons of grapes one season, all hand-picked in lug boxes.
His father was born in Argentina, and Joe tried his hands at farming there after leaving the Cucamonga area in the mid 1960s. That was a disaster. He came back to the U.S. broke with a wife and four children. Fortunately, his viticultural skills quickly landed him jobs with some of the 1970s pioneers, as the state’s grape industry was evolving into a new era.
He was working for Masson when the Central Coast wine grape planting boom of the 1970s began. He was involved in both the successful and the failed. It was a failure that opened the door for him to start his own vineyard management and consulting business and plant his own coastal vineyard.
He became involved in a proposed 2,200-acre vineyard development/bulk wine marketing project that went bankrupt. Carrari stayed with the project for another year afterward to work with creditors. “We eventually paid off unsecured creditors 90 cents on the dollar. That’s unheard of in a bankruptcy.” That established Carrari’s credibility and helped him obtain credit to plant his own vineyard in Los Alamos and bolster his fledgling Videco farm management business.
His company was one of the first to mechanically harvest grapes on the coast. He also owned a nursery that supplied rootstock for new plantings.
Carrari loves to tell stories about the people and projects from his six decades in the business, but at heart Carrari is a grape grower. He beams when he talks about his vineyard adventures.
It put him in good stead with many grape growers.
Like the time he interviewed with Paul Masson at Soledad, and he was asked what he thought about grafting over 75 acres of Pinot Noir to Chenin Blanc because the Pinot Noir was not producing.
“I never did like Pinot Noir. It is hard to set a crop, and it ripens very quickly. Birds love it,” explains Carrari.
Nevertheless, he did not necessarily agree with the decision to graft over the Pinot as Masson’s management was considering.
“I did not think I had all the facts. I asked Vince Petrucci (California State University, Fresno viticulture professor) to come over to take at a look it,” he says.
The duo recommended it be spur pruned rather than caned pruned. It was pruned to two spurs and 15 tons of manure was spread. The result was two canes per vine and 6 tons per acre.
“It went from nothing to 6 tons per acre in 13 months,” he says. “You cannot be expected to have all the answers in this business, but you should be expected to know where to get the answers.”
He found himself farming a block of Muscat that was faltering for no clear reason.
“The spurs looked like toothpicks. The vines were ready to die,” Carrari. He had various clues as to what might be the problem, but nothing was obvious.
“I suspected salt build-up. Muscats are very sensitive to salts, and we were irrigating with a well with 8.2 pH water,” he said.
Carrari decided to create 18-inch wide French drain 6 feet deep down every other row and apply 5 tons of gypsum per acre. “The vines developed luscious growth the next year, and we got 1 ton per acre. I called it my chemotherapy treatment,” he laughs.
Over the years, Carrari developed a two-row hydraulic stake driver as well as propane burners for leaf thinning and weed control.
Birds are a perennial problems and Carrari’s mechnical prowess tackled that issue with a unique solution. He bought several large mobile, mechanical air compressors. He positioned in them in the vineyard to cycle compressed air through overhead sprinklers used for frost protection to scare the birds away.
Hawk kits, cannons and foil streamers never work, according to Carrari. The air spitting intermittently from the sprinklers did. “We went from 20 percent bird damage down to 4 percent. The only damage was on the edge of the vineyard.”
The 78-year-old Carrari has slowed down. He sold his vineyard a few years back. He still consults and his 1973 Chisholm Ryder grape harvester still harvests a few grapes. He also keeps busy making sure the irrigation systems are working properly on the 400 acres of vegetable ground he leases on the 3,600-acre ranch he bought when he sold his vineyard.
The rest of the ranch is foothills where cattle are grazed.
He sits often on the porch of his remodeled 1918 ranch house with his dog Angel overlooking the vineyards below. He doesn’t miss the backbreaking labor of farming, but still has that entrepreneurial spirit that has been part of his almost eight decades.
“Wine grape prices are on the upswing. There was a short crop last year and big demand for grapes this year. If someone wants to plant a vineyard, now is the time to do it,” he says.
Not only is the coast doing well, but “they are doing a great job with the wines from the valley and getting good prices for their grapes.”
However, he does not expect to see large coastal vineyard plantings like there were in the in past decades. It’s too expensive and water availability has become an issue. New plantings likely will come from the pullout of older, less desirable varietals. Or from vineyards that have been grafted over a couple of times and need to come out.
And, the industry has matured and learned from past experiences when too many grapes were planted for the demand.
Joe believes the newer Rhone style varieties recently planted or grafted will be the next big California varietal story. Whether the likes of Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Pinot Grigrio will make it as big as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon remains to be seen, but they are gaining in popularity. He planted them in his vineyard and coastal winemakers are embracing them.
Gallo down the drain
Everything seems positive for California wine grape growers today and Dago Red would likely not be necessary in today’s market, but no doubt Carrari would like to do a sequel.
The wine with the ancestral insult is his legacy. He can talk about it all day and bellow at every story of the decade-long Dago Red saga. It resulted in one of his favorite stories he tells often about dealing with a fellow Italian by the name of Julio Gallo.
E and J Gallo Winery is the California wine behemoth. The family is noted for holding on to pennies hard enough to make Lincoln weep.
Joe tells first-hand about one of his dealings with Julio. Dago Red was already a hit, and Gallo knew Joe still had bulk wine in storage.
“Julio called me and said he had heard I had some good red wines in storage. ‘I do’ I said,” Joe recalls.
Gallo asked for some samples, and Carrari happily sent them to Modesto, Calif., Gallo’s headquarters.
Gallo called back and said he was willing to pay “top dollar.”
“I told Julio I like the sound of that,” Carrari says. Gallo offered Carrari 92 cents per gallon.
“When he said that I started calling him Mr. Gallo. I said ‘Mr. Gallo, why don’t we meet at the winery.’ He responded that it was not necessary to meet to make a deal. We could make the deal on the phone.
“I told him, ‘Who said anything about making a deal? Mr. Gallo I want you to come to the winery and watch me open the valves on the tanks and let the wine go down the sewer before I sell it to you for 92 cents a gallon, and I hung up. He knew I had a lot more in the wine than that.” Not many people have hung up on Gallo.
And of course, when Carrari gets through telling that story, he roars with laughter.
Regrets from six decades of wine grape growing?
“Only regret I have is that it took me so long to learn anything” with another trademark Joe Carrari howl.