Donald Louis Carano, a pioneer of California’s rich, plush style of Chardonnay at his majestic Ferrari-Carano Winery and Vineyards in Sonoma County, died Tuesday at his home in Reno, Nev., after a long illness. He was 85.
From casinos and resorts to restaurants and wine, Don found success in multiple pursuits. He brought a keen sense of hospitality and grandeur to Sonoma when he established Ferrari-Carano in Dry Creek Valley in 1981. At a time when most Sonoma wineries were simple affairs, he built an opulent Mediterranean-style palace with gardens and an underground cellar.
“I think everybody here really admired him,” said Kim Stare Wallace of Dry Creek Vineyards, whose family built the first new winery in Dry Creek following prohibition. “[Carano] was one of the visionaries of Dry Creek Valley.”
Born in Reno in 1931, Carano studied at the University of San Francisco before serving as an officer in the U.S. Army. After graduating from law school, he became a founding partner of the McDonald, Carano & Wilson law firm in Reno. Carano’s expertise in corporate business and gaming laws led him to establish Reno’s El Dorado Hotel and Casino in 1973. It was there that he met his wife, Rhonda Bevilacqua, who worked in marketing. Considered a risky venture when founded, El Dorado quickly became one of Reno's most successful casinos. Today, El Dorado Resorts owns 19 properties in 10 states.
The couple fell in love with Sonoma while visiting the area to source wines for El Dorado. They purchased a home in Alexander Valley. After buying additional land, they launched Ferrari-Carano, naming it for Don’s grandmother, Amelia Ferrari.
Success came quickly for the Caranos. The winery gained notice in the late 1980s with its seductive Chardonnays from estate-owned vineyards in Alexander Valley and a reserve made from Sonoma and Napa grapes. They also built a strong reputation for their Fumé Blanc and their red wines, including a Sangiovese blend, an ode to Carano’s Italian roots.
The couple expanded their vision for wine, food and hospitality when they built a grand Italian villa on the property they named Villa Fiore, in 1994, which quickly became a popular spot for visitors. They bought Vintners Inn and its adjoining restaurant, John Ash & Co., in the Russian River Valley in 2000. “[The Caranos] were on the forefront of elevating the hospitality experience for consumers,” said Wallace. “They had grand plans and they saw them through.”
Carano continued to buy more land too, eventually owning more than 1,000 planted acres in Sonoma and another 900 in other North Coast counties. In 2008, he purchased Lazy Creek Vineyards in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, adding Pinot Noir to their lineup.
Carano was active in his communities in both Nevada and Sonoma. He received the American Lung Association Distinguished Community Service Award, among many other achievements. He is survived by his wife, five children, 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.