Coming Full Circle
By Jennifer Moulaison | Photos by Manny Espinoza & Paulina R
The Santa Lucia Highlands bordering the Salinas Valley has a history rich with Swiss influence. Specializing largely in dairy production, Swiss families settled in the valley generations ago, only to discover that the premium California soil was better suited to vegetable farming. The Manzoni family provides a perfect snapshot of the region’s history, as they, too, made the transition from dairy to vegetable and now wine production, thanks to the passion and vision of the Manzoni’s third stateside generation.
Mark Manzoni grew up driving tractors on his father’s vegetable farm in the Salinas Valley. When it came time, he headed off to college, but he soon grew wayward in his studies. “I would have stayed in my father’s business, but we didn’t see eye-toeye, and I felt the need to step away to find myself,” Manzoni explains. He never wandered far from vegetables, however, leaving college to pursue broccoli production with his brother.
Before long, Manzoni found himself branching out once again, working as a dispatcher for a vegetable company. During this time, his father began struggling with disastrous flooding in the valley. After the largest flood on record in nearly a century, Manzoni’s father called and offered the business to him. “He was facing starting over entirely for the fourth time that decade and was ready to wash his hands of the whole thing,” says Manzoni. Accepting the offer to take the reins, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work, running dump trucks nonstop, seven days a week, rebuilding levies. Manzoni’s brother joined him, and the family acquired 150 more acres from a neighboring property. Notwithstanding growing in size, the business still wasn’t earning adequate profit to support two generations and three families. They decided to retire the Manzoni vegetable business, and their father began renting out the acreage.
Between 1999 and 2001, the family planted grapes, planning to just sell the fruit. But inspiration struck the Manzoni family, and they decided to try their hand at producing wine. “My father suggested Chardonnay, which does well in the region, but ultimately we wanted to grow something we loved and would want on our dinner table every night,” says Manzoni.
They allocated a small portion of their acreage and began growing Pinot Noir grapes. Enthused and invigorated by the industry, they soon endeavored to up the production. “Breaking into the distribution game was when things got off track,” says Manzoni. “We were throwing everything we had into it, and I was still working a day job, managing vegetables for another company, then working on the winery until eleven o’clock at night. We were burning ourselves out and losing our love for it.”
Now, their smaller boutique label keeps production modest—just enough wine for their wine club and two tasting rooms, in Carmel-by-the-Sea and on the vineyard property in the Salinas Valley. Manzoni describes the experience as fraught with ups and downs, but the overwhelming support of the community and the passion that inspired the Manzoni label has allowed it to thrive. “I am happy that we made full circle and came back to where we are now,” says Manzoni. “Our wine simply wouldn’t exist if we didn’t absolutely love it. And that’s really what it’s all about.”