The Cassata Sonoma vineyard has a rich history and was once known as “Rancho El Nido.” The Cassata family is determined to restore the property to its original bountiful state. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens fill the open areas along the valley floor. A vineyard has been re-established along the gentle rolling hills. In the center of the property, a pond has been incorporated to act as a beautiful oasis for local wildlife. The pond also provides a much needed water resource. The entire property is managed biodynamically so that future generations can enjoy a pure and simple refuge in this isolated valley.
“Rancho El Nido” or “The Nest” is a special place of history, beauty, and serenity in Jack London’s romantic Valley of the Moon! Its history begins a long time ago.
By the time that large cities were established on the East Coast and social and business structures were well in place, California (referred to as “The Wild West”) was still “unripe and undiscovered”. The Spanish (and later the Mexican) clergy established a chain of missions planned by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra; the first, in 1769, was San Diego de Acala. Further up the coast of Alta (Upper) California, in 1823, the twenty-first mission, last and northernmost was built. This mission was called Mission San Francisco Solano and was located in the small pueblo of Sonoma, fifty miles north of San Francisco, in what was raw and untouched land where black bears roamed and grizzlies ruled. The Indians and the grizzly bear ate the same earth foods; if an Indian and a grizzly came upon each other, it was the grizzly that had dinner.
At this time, Governor Juan G. Alvarado, from the capital city of Monterey, headed this northern territory called Alta California and sent his uncle, Mariano Vallejo, to lead the frontier outpost. He was given the title, “Military Comandante and Director of Colonization on the Northern Frontier,” and on June 24, 1835, it was requested by Governor Jose Figueroa that he erect fortifications and map out the town in squares, seeing that the streets and plazas be regulated so as to make a beginning. Thus, the town of Sonoma was set up in the Spanish tradition; a large eight acre plaza in the center of town with streets reeling off of it.
In order to settle this wilderness land, the Mexican government gave land grants to any and all who would take the chance to come and establish themselves in the area. Some grants were 5,000 acres or more, and some even several hundred thousand acres of smaller grants put together. So the word went out and many immigrants from the East and Midwest rushed to California. Some traveled by well established sea routes. The new breed, who made the trip overland in covered wagons, deserved this gift of land more than most. This difficult journey took an average of six months out of one’s life.
One such land grant was a 30,000 acre section of land known by the name Rancho Los Guilicos in Alta California. It was granted to General Mariano Vallejo’s sister-in-law, Ramona Carillo de Wilson and her husband, Captain Juan (also known as John) Wilson, by Vallejo’s nephew, the above mentioned Juan G. Alvarado. It was a deed of grant dated November 13, 1837 in Monterey, California.
In June 1850, the Wilson’s sold Rancho Los Guilicos to William Petit and William Hood for $13,000. In July 1851, for the same amount of money, the two entrepreneurs turned a tidy profit by selling half of the Rancho to Amelia Wilson and her husband, Charles. The land was held in her own name, which was of little matter, inasmuch as they were divorced the following year. During the next 38 years, the land was split, divided and sold off in various size parcels with enough mortgaging, divorces, liens and disputes to keep several soap operas interesting.
Two years later, Amelia married Joseph McGregor and as co-owners sold their share of Rancho Guilicos back to William Hood for $5,000. This marriage, too, ended in divorce. In the 12th District Court in San Francisco, Amelia’s marriage to Joseph was dissolved, not only on the grounds of Joseph’s adulterous actions, but also the misuse of monies his wife had loaned him. A bounder he was, for although he admitted the adultery, she had to withdraw her petition for the return of the funds to obtain the divorce.
In June 1866, William Hood petitioned the Government of the United States of America under the provisions of an Act of Congress approved March 3, 1851 to ascertain and settle land claims in the State of California. In this petition, he claimed the confirmation of his title to a tract of land called “Guilicos” containing four square leagues situated in Sonoma County”. A square league is an old Spanish land measure equaling about 4,438 acres.
In the 1860’s many old land grants were being challenged. Hood, no doubt, was relieved to have his ownership verified by patent in October 1866, duly signed by President Andrew Johnson.
In May 1868, the Rancho, which had been officially reorganized as a tract of land containing 18,833.86 acres, was sold for $78,878.13 to the Sonoma Valley Land Association and ranches of various sizes were sold off in the next twenty years. To demonstrate the escalation of land values during this time, a 2,400 acre parcel was sold in 1887 for $75,000 gold coin of the United States, to the Sonoma County Land and Improvement Company (SCLIC). This company consisted of a group of five Bay Area men who each put up $30,000 to incorporate and, for a period of fifty years, made a profit by selling, subdividing and mortgaging the land held by the corporation.
On March 14, 1888 they sold a small portion of the original Los Guilicos Rancho, to a widow, Marie Louis Ronconvieri and her son, Joseph L. Alfred Ronconvieri. Upon signing the deed, the Ronconvieris were to pay $15.00 per acre and agree that on or before the first of April, 1889, they would enclose said tract of land with a good substantial fence, clear at least one-half of said land for cultivation and set out the said land half in olive or other fruit trees, to be planted at the usual distances customary in planting trees of the kind planted.”
Not only did the Ronconvieris have to further agree to pay a $15.00 per acre non-performance penalty, but that they could be removed from the land and have the property reclaimed by SCLIC for any type of non-performance of the agreement.
Within six years, the widow Ronconvieri passed away and her only heir, son J.L. Alfred, became the sole owner of the ranch. When he married a year or so later, his wife Clara, was added to the deed as his gift to her. Whether his new wife brought savvy to the marriage, or whether the Ronconvieris together decided to make a profit-making venture out of their country land, in February of 1900 they leased the ranch out for a three year term. They maintained very strict reins on every facet of the terms of the agreement, parts of which were as follows: that Thomas Johnson and Mrs. Thomas Johnson, would not sublet, without written permission, any of the land. That they would personally occupy , till and cultivate the land in a good farmer-like manner, and that they would, during said term, keep all buildings, fences, corrals, and other improvements on the premises, or which might later be put on during the term, in good repair, damage by fire excepted.
After the general terms were set down, the Ronconvieris made several additions. The Johnsons had to harvest, properly dry, sack, and otherwise treat the entire fruit crop, in order to make said fruit a first class merchantable product, at their own cost, at the proper time. This applied to the olives, fruit and nuts of every description. The Ronconvieris were to receive one-quarter of the crop. The Johnsons also had to haul them to the railroad station in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, at their own expense. All hay had to be baled and divided the same. The annual land rental fee of $250 was to be secured by the crops.
The Johnsons were further admonished not to let cattle, sheep or other animals to pasture in the orchard and to keep all gates securely closed. They were also not to forget to keep all tools in good order. They were not allowed use of the two-bedroom, plus kitchen, house on the property. This was retained by the Ronconvieris when they visited from San Francisco. The Johnsons were also responsible to drive the Ronconvieris from the Glen Ellen station to the ranch and back, free of charge.
No doubt the olive crop made up a major part of the income from the ranch as the Johnsons had to agree to pay the cost of all cotton sacks used to hold their share of the crop, one cent for each and every pound of olives making up their share, and pay one quarter of the cost of all the sulfur and lye used in processing the fruit.
We don’t know what happened to the hard working Johnsons, for after just two years into their three-year agreement they received an unwelcome Christmas present. On December 26, 1901, the Ronconvieris, no doubt tiring of their country investment after two years, sold the ranch to Judge Carroll Cook, a Superior Court Judge of San Francisco. Judge Cook paid $ 10.00 up front for the property and on the same day as the sale, entered into a mortgage agreement with the former owners, presumably for the rest. The Ronconvieris had little to worry about for the Judge had several good years ahead of him and paid off the entire mortgage in six years. The contract was thereby secured; fully paid, and discharged on January 17, 1907.
Judge Cook was an outgoing, convivial man who enjoyed gathering his friends and family together at the small ranch house, which he called a cottage. The cottage was situated high on a knoll in the western hills of the ranch. It afforded a fine view across the Valley of the Moon to the Mayacama Mountains, two miles away, and allowed cool Glen Ellen breezes to moderate the summer heat that blanketed Sonoma Valley in the summer afternoons, after the coastal fog burned away. This valley has the ideal climate for growing wine grapes and this was the first crop the Judge planted. Starting with thirty acres and eliminating much of the hillside planting of olive trees, he extended the vineyard in spiral rows around the hillsides.
Though many of the sparse population in the area lived on their ranches, some, like Judge Cook, came up from San Francisco regularly by railroad. Many people from the Bay Area bought simple, small bungalows in nearby towns like El Verano, Boyes Hot Springs, and Agua Caliente just to escape the city’s summer chill and to grow a yard full of figs or prunes. These houses were rarely used in the winter as they were wet and chilly “up in Sonoma”, so heating was rudimentary, just a fireplace. Some houses in the valley, even today, do not have central heat.
The cottage was entered through a rear door, which led into the kitchen where heavy wet clothing and boots could be removed. Strings of mushrooms gathered in the hills, from under Madrone trees after warm rains, hung across the room under the low ceiling. One of the two bedrooms had a sturdy floor-to-ceiling fireplace built of rocks cleared from the ranch at planting time. This fireplace, when stacked high with fierce burning Manzanita wood from the hills, was more than enough to heat the entire house. On one side of the room, during the first year of Judge Cook’s ownership, many of his friend’s names were burned into the pine wall panels, with a flourishing artistic script, complete with flowers and butterflies. “Rancho El Nido” someone added, “The Nest.” These wall panels are still visible today behind a glass pane that preserves them.
The Cooks had a permanent crew to tend to the fruit trees and vineyard. Discing the ground for planting was done by horse and plow. On the higher slopes, under a few inches of surface soil, hardpan was exposed. Hardpan is a form of heavy compacted clay, which made it necessary for the men to use dynamite to break it up, so that the deep rooted grape vines could become well established.
It was heaven. From the earliest blossoms of the almond and plum trees in the spring to the procession of cherries, prunes, apples, peaches, nectarines and walnuts that followed, there was steady bounty to lift a soul’s spirits. It also provided an income so one could get by. An acre of apricots produces ten tons of fruit, while a large mature Bing Cherry tree will give 1,000 pounds. The fresh and dried crops were hauled to the Glen Ellen station about two miles away.
After the grapes were picked and the walnuts gathered in the fall it was time to repair machinery and make redwood grape stakes until a few winter frosts allowed grapevine pruning to begin. Because the trees and vines go dormant in the winter, there’s not much to do in regards to agriculture, but there were always horses, livestock and chickens to care for. The Judge’s winter visits were planned around the weather because heavy rains could wash out roads and flood southern Sonoma Valley areas close to the Bay.
The Judge purchased other ranches surrounding the initial acreage, and sold 20 acres nearby to his friend, the Mayor of San Francisco. Many neighbors rented from him and worked at various jobs on his ranch as well. One woman tended the kennel for the Cooks; like all ranchers they had many hounds to scare off the deer and coyote living in the hills. One of the neighbor boys, about eight years old at the time, helped with errands around the Judge’s ranch. He would think back, years later, at how delighted he was to watch a team of horse and wagon circle up and around the dusty road to the cottage, guided by Jack London, coming from his nearby Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen to join his friend, Judge Cook, for “cocktails” in front of the warm fireplace. The two men had much to talk about, both deeply loved their land and shared a mutual friendship for the next and last, six years of their lives.
There were only three owners of the ranch in the 20th century. Ted Clark, being the third owner, purchased it in the Spring of 1945. “It was April,” he said, “and the ranch was so beautiful back in the hills with all the fruit trees in bloom, I bought it on the spot”. Over time, the land was allowed to return to it’s natural state, leaving in place many of the fruit, nut and olive trees.
This ranch land, still intact, situated in what is now Sonoma Valley’s premium wine country, and once a part of the Mexican Land Grant known as Rancho Los Guilicos was purchased in 2002 by the Cassata family and is once again the beautiful, little bit of heaven it was always destined to be.
The vineyard has been replanted with premium root stock and the highest quality bud wood (scion) were used for the grafting of the following varietals:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Cabernet Franc
- Petit Sarah
Complimenting the olive, apple and pear trees originally on the property, numerous additional fruit trees from apricots to quinces have been planted, and are now bearing fruit. A biodynamic garden supplies fresh vegetables to the Cassata family and the myriad of workers that tend the property.
The Cassata family is very grateful to have the honor of becoming the steward of this very special place.