Larry Bettinelli

Interviewer: Mari Martinez
Interview Date: March 23, 2014

Marsha and Larry Bettinelli

MARI: Ok. So, you’re here to tell me a story, right?

LARRY:  Yes.  My family came to Oakville in 1959.  We moved from just over in Sonoma area.  We had a dairy over there, and my brother reminded me of something that not very many people in the world can say. And that is that we never missed a milking. What is meant by that is, when we moved our cows, (we had a dairy in Oakville), when we moved our cows from Sonoma, it meant that we had to milk at night, and as soon as the milking was done, we would load the cows onto the trucks, which came from all our neighbors, and you can only haul maybe six cows at a time and be set up to be able to milk those cows the next morning.

So, in terms of moving, you had to have all your equipment in place, and everything logistically had to be in place, because you can’t miss a milking. And I thought that it was interesting that my brother mentioned that to me yesterday.  He just got through with a move that required the same level of organization. So, he said, “Larry, I didn’t miss a milking!” So, it’s kind of a… I don’t think there’s three people in Napa Valley who could say that. Same sort of thing that you never missed a milking.

One of the reasons that we came to Napa  Valley was because the ranch  we had  before didn’t have any water, or very, very  low  water.  It was  up in the  hills  and  we would run out of water periodically. We had a well with a windmill on it, and that was the pumping device for the delivery of the water both into our house and  into  the…  for the  cows  for drinking water.  Consequently, one of the things we had to do, as  a young child, was…  obviously, water was very, very precious to us, very precious, to the point that we would  all (there were seven of us, five children and my mom and dad), we would generally take a bath all in the same water on Saturday nights so that we could be clean for church on Sunday morning. So, that’s just the way it was at that time. And when we, when Dad first announced that he was purchasing this ranch over in Oakville, the very first question we asked him was, “Is there plenty of water?” And he said, “Larry, you can leave the hose on all day long if you want to.”  And that was unimaginable to us. So, we were very, very pleased about doing that.

We had a dairy in Oakville, and we had about 150 cows that we milked every single day and night. Of course, dairies have no days off whatsoever. It was hard work, all the time, so one of the reasons I don’t dairy today, is because it required so much.

Stories… When we were in high school, down at the river, ’cause our ranch bordered the river, we had a party spot, which became pretty well known throughout the classes from, oh basically, 1962 to 1972. There would be plenty of parties that would be going on down at the river in the days of high school.  There are many fond memories of people in high school during that time who remember parties down at the Bettinelli’s.

At Halloween time, it was a tradition at that time to have either egg fights or something of that sort in the gravel pits. And we added a different twist… the new dairy family that came into the valley. We would put cow manure in plastic bags and use that as part of our bombing mechanism. We kinda added a whole different element to what used to be referred to as “Egg Wars”. And after that it became known just simply as “Wars”, unless you wanted to be more descriptive.

Let’s see, what else? Now, the interview is basically for the purpose of personal stories? Or from high school? Lessons learned along the way?

MARI: Um. I think we can go on to the personal stories. Is this in St. Helena High School?

LARRY: Yes, this is in St. Helena High School. Our dairy was just about half a mile south of Oakville, and the line which delineated whether you would go to school in Napa, or to St. Helena, was south of our area by about another mile. We could have chosen, and we actually chose to go to school in St. Helena.  It was about six miles from where we lived.

MARI: Was there a particular reason why St. Helena instead of Napa?  The school?

LARRY: Just closer.

MARI: And how do you get from the house in Oakville… how did you get from the house in Oakville to the school in St. Helena?

LARRY: We would catch the bus. Our dairy, which is presently where Cardinale Winery is. We would walk down to the end of the lane and catch the bus, which we would catch at about 8:00 in the morning. And of course, for us being in the dairy, we would milk the cows in the morning. A typical day, particularly in the springtime and fall time… a typical day, we would be up, or I would be up about 3:30 or 4:00, round the cows up to be ready for milking, then I would feed the calves, and then feed the cows. The feeding racks were up on top of the hill, where the winery is presently located, or one of the wineries. I would finish up around 7:00, come in and clean up, to the best of our ability. We didn’t have time to take a shower, so we would go to school, and sometimes there were a few comments made about how we smelled when we came to school. So, that’s just the way it was.

Interesting changes that have occurred in the valley since that time: When we would catch the bus, the traffic was so much so that we could play baseball on the highway, on Highway 29. You could play catch, and occasionally, some early morning delivery trucks would come by and you’d ask them to blow their horn at the time.

So, things have changed a little bit since… this was the early ’60s… to where they are presently. So, that’s the way we got to school.

MARI: Until when did the dairy operate?

LARRY: There was a dairy there before we purchased it, and our dairy operated from 1959. Dad ended up selling the cows in 1963, and then we planted vineyard in the back fields. Initially there was about 12 acres we planted in Cabernet Sauvignon. And I remember the discussion that centered around what variety to plant, because in those days, there was a discussion between varietals and commons, commons being either black or white, very generic blacks or whites. I remember lengthy conversations about whether you go with something conventional or you go with this “new stuff”, called, like “Cabernet Sauvignon”.  Should we go there? It could be really risky. The market might not be, you know, what you’d hope it would be. So, my dad did decide to plant Cabernet Sauvignon.

MARI: So, he took the risk.

LARRY: He took the risk. So that was in 1963. My father ended up selling the property in 1966. I think we paid $1,000 an acre for it in 1959. He sold it in 1966 for around $3,000 an acre. You need to understand, given the level of how difficult farming was then. People look at the way established farmers are and they perceive that there’s an element of wealth around that. In those days, there was no wealth. There was no wealth. There was just hard work. It was long and uncertain, you know, we didn’t have any extra money, and the whole time I was in the dairy business, I remember our family going on vacation one time. So, in 16 years basically, we went on vacation one time, for about four days to Yosemite. Other than that, it was making sure the cows were milked every single day. So, he ended up selling the place for $3,000 an acre, which was more money than God had, in my father’s eyes, because it allowed us to get out of debt. You know, debt was a slave master and my parents, being the products of the Depression, it was just very, very, very hard. That’s one of the reasons we sold the cows, because in those days it was just an awful lot of work and no money.

MARI: Do you remember the conversations of selling, of changing from the dairy industry to the wine industry. Do you remember that?

LARRY: We knew that the longer we stayed in the dairy business, the more money we would be losing. There were some environmental rules that were coming along that changed… that would require a lot more capital inputs, you know I think that figure was around $12,000 which virtually had to do with a holding pond for the manure that would be generated off the dairy, and also there were some upgrades that were required, all for logical and reasonable purposes. So, we took a look at the amount of money that would be required.

We sold our milk to the Petaluma Cooperative Creamery, which is now Clover Stornetta over in Petaluma. So, there was a shipping cost that was involved with taking our milk from Oakville over to Petaluma, and that was just added to the expense. The hay cost, the grain costs were very high. So, the input cost was very high relative to return, so we just… there didn’t seem to be any end in sight, where the market is going to go up and you’re going to make more money, you can pay off debt. That just didn’t seem to be there at the time.

So, my father felt that he had to sell the cows in order to stay on the land. And he stayed on the land for three years, but he was a man who grew up with animals, and your heart is different when you grow up being in the animal world.  He could never make the transition from animals to land. You know, the animals were too much in his heart, and he never made it to the growing of the grapes, or any other crop, for that matter, that could make him a living.  He loved the animals. So that’s the conversation. He gave it his best shot in trying to work with the land, but it just wasn’t with him. And we were still in debt, so I witnessed my mom and dad go through some conversations with banks and bankers, that was not pleasant. Like I said, today, people see things in a very different light about the lifestyle, living on grapes, or growing grapes, and making money and having nice houses and cars and things of that sort. It wasn’t like that then.

MARI: What happened when they tried the Cabernet Sauvignon? Did it work?

LARRY: It worked. It worked. Yeah. You know, one of the things I remember, in planting that vineyard… there have been a lot of techniques developed since the time my father planted, with drain tiles and ripping techniques and fertilization and that sort of thing. Since my father was trying to do everything at a very low expense level, his children were his cheapest source of labor, and his children had time. So, if something could be done quicker and easier, but it required money, that’s not the way we went. So, we did things, generally, in a much harder way, driving all of our grape stakes by hand in very hard ground, day in and day out for weeks. It was not fun. Planting all our grapes and them, or budding the grapes, it was hard.

MARI: Did you have any other help besides your siblings in the vineyard?

LARRY: No, no.

MARI: So, it was just the family all the time.

LARRY: So, it was just the family. At the time we planted the grapes I had two brothers and one sister who had graduated from high school and they were gone. So, the majority of that work centered around my being present. My younger brother, who is six years younger, couldn’t really do a heck of a lot. I think part of the decision happened, when my dad sold our place, I went off to college, went down to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. And I called home to tell mom that I was going to be home for Christmas break; this was when I was a freshman, and my mom informed me, “Don’t come home to the ranch. We sold it,” and that they moved to St. Helena. So that was the first I heard that we had, in fact, sold the ranch.

MARI: When was this?

LARRY: 1966.

MARI: How did it feel, that call and that answer?

LARRY:  Well…  How did it feel?  It hurt.  It hurt. It hurts, but sometimes hurt is what  drives you to do greater things. Part of my success, or our family’s success today is because, in one fashion, I’ve been a driven person to get back what was lost. Because in farming families, if you sell the farm, it’s very, very difficult to get it back. People who come back to farming are usually people who have made it in other industries. You know, once their family has sold that, and this is… I bet it’s a common tale with at least a quarter of the people that live here in the Napa Valley. Somebody sold the ranch, somewhere along the line. And then a lot of the people that you now see that own property, own vineyard land, many of them, many, many of them are people that have been people that have been successful in other businesses, “doctor, lawyer, Indian chief” type person, tech people who somehow have a sense of wanting to tie back to the heritage that they have had in the past… Their grandfather they remember visiting on the farm… And you can talk to a lot of people that do own property today, and they’ll tell you about visiting their aunt or uncle or grandfather, somebody that’s either on a dairy or a corn ranch that they had or something that they want to get back to the land. Of course, living here in Napa Valley… And again, living in Napa Valley, unless you get away from it, you grow up here, you take it for granted, it’s no big deal. But it really requires you getting out and seeing the world. You know, I went into the military and I think that was an eye-opener for me in terms of what Napa Valley represents, you know, the beauty of the parts.

MARI: So, you come back from college, there’s no ranch, so what happened next?

LARRY: Well, my folks bought a house in St. Helena. My dad went to work in a winery, at BV winery in Rutherford. I went through… I graduated from college in 1971, and then I went into the Marine Corps, and was there in the Marine Corps for five years. But there was no chance, there was no opportunity, there was nothing that really looked like any possibilities for my getting back into farming, although I didn’t, I did not let that dream go. So, when I came back… I decided not to get married while I was in the Marine Corps. It was a challenging time for our nation and I didn’t want to leave a widow behind, so I decided not to get married.

But when I came back, it was interesting, I was a pilot, a helicopter pilot, and I had a number of flying opportunities. I was actually hitchhiking from Washington, D.C. to Idaho where I had a job flying with the forestry service. As I was  hitchhiking, I was inside of a van and this message came to me, which said, “Go home”. Now sometimes… I don’t know whoever’s listening to this, if they’ve had messages sent to them, they’ve either chosen to ignore, or it’s been so strong they have decided to pay attention to it… but there was nothing for me to come home to. I didn’t have a girlfriend. My family was here, but there was no attachment that really required that I come home. 

But I said  yes. I came home, and I started working in vineyards, as a vineyard, just a general laborer in vineyards. Some opportunities became available which allowed me to step up my knowledge and then I had an opportunity to lease some property, which eventually led to the opportunity to purchase  that property,  and to go into debt.  I didn’t have any money.

Marsha and I, we got married in 1977 and we had no money between us. I think when we got married, we had maybe a total of $500 to $1,000 worth of worth… cash, anyway. It wasn’t a lot of money. But if you work long enough… Many, many of my relatives were either involved in cattle or sheep, or the dairy business, and they would all tell me the same thing. If you stick with things long enough, and work hard enough, generally, things will work out. And if they don’t, you’ll learn lessons along the way, and you’ll have an opportunity that will be in front of you somewhere. And that’s basically what we did.

We worked through some pretty hard times. When I say hard, I mean long, long hours. I purchased some hay baling equipment. So, in those days, ’76, ’77, there was a lot of land that was not planted into grapes the way it is today. So, I would go in and take that fallow land and I would plant it either into hay, oat hay or safflower, or wheat or barley, and I would harvest that and use the borrowed money that I could borrow from the bank because of the crops that would be coming in. So, we would borrow against future crops. That’s why, that’s what allowed us to make a living, and pay our bills as we went along.

During hay season, again it was long days. I had a baler that you could ride on. In the sequence of baling hay, you would cut when the hay was dry, you would roll the hay, and when it was cut sometimes, when it had a little moisture in it, you would bale the hay during the daytime, excuse me, you would bale the hay during the evening hours when there was moisture in the air. You wanted to bale the hay with a little bit of moisture, to make a better bale that could cure better. Then you would pick up the hay in the afternoon. So, 20-hour days were fairly normal, that’s seven days a week, which would sometimes take its toll, just in terms of deprivation of sleep and not being a very good husband from time to time. You know, Marsha, fortunately, was just kinda always there and very, very, very supportive, and allowing us to move forward.

MARI: How long do we have?

LARRY: Am I too long winded? So, it’s recording ok?

MARI: How much time do we have? Thirty more minutes? OK. So, you mentioned you leased and then you bought some properties?


MARI: So, the family was farming, then your father went to work with the wine and then they worked for another winery. Is there still wine in the family? Is the family still in the wine industry?

LARRY: Today, my family farms right around 350 acres that we’ve been able to either lease or own. We’ve purchased property, and we do some management for one other client. But mostly we farm for ourselves. And a lot of that started out with that business, because as I said, when I came back from the Marine Corps, there was no farming land that was in the family, that was available for me to farm. So really, it was just basically starting from scratch with whatever we can put together.

MARI: And what you learned from the past.

LARRY: And what I learned from the past.

MARI: Is still the family involved, all the family, as your family was involved in the farming, and everybody went separate places for college? Did they come back, some of your siblings?

LARRY: None of my siblings are farming now. My father passed away about 30 years ago. None of my siblings are involved in farming. My wife and my family, our family, our son is involved with our farming operation, and my son-in-law and my daughter are involved with our farming operation. We have one other son who’s in the Marine Corps presently.  He has two more years, and we’ll see if he comes back to farm with us also.

Part of the lessons learned along the way: the ability to communicate and have a place for your family to be able to be part of the farming operation. My father was a hard worker; he wasn’t a great communicator. It would have been challenging for me to work with my father. I don’t say this out-of-turn. He was just a wonderful, wonderful man and he did a great job in paying all his bills and just being a good honest person. But he was… Since we worked every day, he did not have a chance to rejuvenate himself. So, he died young; he was 67, and I think he died by working himself to death. You know he just didn’t have a chance to rejuvenate his mind and his soul. I believe that if my father had taken more vacations, more time out, more tranquil times, he probably would have made a different decision in terms of whether he would have sold the place or not, whether he would have continued on. But it was just too hard for him.

MARI: So, we have the family now working… Did your siblings come back to the Napa Valley? I know they’re not working in farming now, but did they come back in the Napa Valley?

LARRY: My youngest brother is still here and he’s a painter. I have another brother who is a carpenter… I have two brothers who are carpenters. My sister works in a convent, helping the elderly nuns. She’s got a tremendous heart, in helping the elderly and taking care of the sick.  Like I said, other than my youngest brother being around here, my mother’s still alive. She’ll be 91 this year, in a couple of days as a matter of fact, so we still have her with us.

MARI: And she’s still here in St. Helena.

LARRY: She’s still here in St. Helena. So, I’m gonna stop there for now. There’s all kinds of little tidbits stories. My wife has a lot to say also.

MARI: That’s wonderful.