A Sonoma Grape Legend Is Gone
Posted: Jan 4, 2007 12:25pm ET
Sure, Gene Cuneo was old.
But for 94 he was spry, alert and talkative.
He didn't need a walker or a cane, had a healthy appetite and his handshake felt like a vice grip, tight and strong.
He didn't miss a beat, or a glass of Zinfandel, as he and I sat around the dining room table for lunch with the Seghesio family a few days before Christmas.
When he talked about the good old days, when Zinfandel was known as the "boss grape," he could remember when it sold for $12 a ton.
No wonder he thinks winemakers have it easy these days.
|Gene Cuneo was a longtime grape grower.
Cuneo died earlier this week, on Jan. 2, and was remembered as one of those rare characters in Sonoma County grapegrowing history who helped keep the industry alive during tough times.
Cuneo's family moved to Dry Creek Valley when he was four, when prunes were the main crop. His family owned a vineyard that was a classic field blend of mostly Zinfandel, but also Petite Sirah, Carignane and Grenache.
Cuneo didn't make a commercial wine, but sold the grapes to many Sonoma wineries. One year, the late Rodney Strong
watched Cuneo's grapes arrive at Strong's winery crush pad and he proclaimed it "the best damn Zinfandel in Sonoma," according to Pete Seghesio, CEO of Seghesio Family Vineyards in Healdsburg.
"We've been buying [Cuneo's grapes] off and on for 80 years," said Seghesio. About half of Seghesio's Old Vine Zinfandel comes from Cuneo's property.
For years Pete's father, Eugene Seghesio, who died last year, negotiated with Cuneo over the price and quantity of grapes he could buy from Cuneo.
For the past few years, since Pete has taken over, it's been up to him to sit down each year and talk about the next year's contract.
"That's the beauty of Gene, he was the master of the dance between the grower and the winery, dickering back and forth over the price," said Seghesio.
The best part of the vineyard, Seghesio said, may have been the part known as Gene's Hill.
It's right on the edge of Dry Creek Road and is one of those old-vine Zinfandel vineyards that can amazingly enough actually outlive its owner.
Gene's Hill is a kindly reminder of a genuine steward of the land, a man tied to his grapes, which these days is increasingly rare.
Rarer, in fact, than the vineyard that survives him.