Published in the November 14 – 27, 2018 issue of Gilroy Life

The holiday season is just around the corner. Mother Nature was kind to us this year with fair skies and mild temperatures throughout the autumn harvest. The grapes are all crushed and safely stored in their tanks awaiting the winemaker to work their magic. The Valley of Hearts Delight once again lived up to its history of fertility and beauty as we gaze across the open fields and relaxing vineyards awaiting the rest of winter.

In the past two months, I have been writing about the early farmers who cleared and worked the raw land of the Solis Rancho. I learned of the many challenges these early pioneers encountered, plus I gained a host of new friends who shared their memories that will further nourish my South Valley roots. My hope is to continue to capture more of the stories of those families, who although they no longer farm, will rightfully always be associated with the landscape.

Some names like Conrotto or Scagliotti are still relatively well known. Others like Pappani or Roffinella are fading quickly. And there are host of names such as Mary Carter or Dominic Ortalda that popped up in my research but very little is known about their lives. We really do have quite a heritage to honor and remember.

After World War I and even into the years of Prohibition, the Solis was home to more than 20 vineyard owners. Yet before 1970, there were only six viable winery operations remaining along Hecker Pass and Watsonville Road. The Great Depression, generational changes, and the passing of the small family orchard of prunes, apricots and pears resulted in dramatic lifestyle shifts. That’s why a trip out to Andy’s Orchard is not only fun, but the visit is actually an important cultural experience.

Many of the old timers recall when the Valley of Heart’s Delight was an “ocean of pink and white blossoms in the springtime.” In the early 1950s, there were nearly eight million fruit trees growing on 600,000 acres of rich soil — apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, plums, prunes and walnuts — it’s difficult to imagine today the sheer size and scope of the scene. Andy’s Orchard is a remnant of our Santa Clara Valley past.

Image result for Andy's OrchardAndy Mariani has been very generous. My questions are not astute or original, yet he willingly offers his time, patience and knowledge and thoughtfully supplies an answer — probably for the one hundredth time. The Mariani family would seem to hail from Italy, but his heritage comes from an island off the coast of Croatia, not far from Italy. And Croatia is the homeland of the Zinfandel grape varietal which was often thought to have been one of the first California grape plantings. Close to the front door of Andy’s retail store is a sole survivor — an old vine Zinfandel growing since the days when a nursery of orchard trees and vines occupied the land.

There have been numerous stories written about Andy over the years. His heirloom stone fruit trees are famous just as is his tenacity for staying with the land as suburbia continues to slowly encompass his orchards. I would recommend two KQED reports, one in 2014 and another this year, which are so well written that you can almost share in the flavor of the fruit as you read the page.

Each holiday season, Andy and his staff host an open house offering a buffet of fruit and nut samplings. When my two sons were home for Christmas last year, I suggested to Andy that he send me an invoice for their enthusiastic participation.

After our walk around the farm with frequent return stops at the buffet tables to refuel, my wife and I will probably take a short drive to Guglielmo Winery at 1480 E. Main Avenue in Morgan Hill. The “Christmas at the Winery” event is very popular with a wide selection of craft vendors. If the weather is agreeable, we may sit outside with a glass of wine paired with a delicacy from Andy’s Orchard and enjoy the view of Guglielmo vineyard. There is a $10 admission fee for the Christmas Faire.

Keep on sauntering! One of these days I will explain this slogan which I borrowed from Henry David Thoreau. It relates directly to our relationship with the land and has more relevance today than ever.

Mike Monroe coordinates local discovery outings to great places like wineries, parks, museums in The Valley of Heart’s Delight. Visit thevalleyofheartsdelight.org.

Mike Monroe

Mike Monroe

Mike Monroe and his Valley of Heart's Delight, Inc. are based in
Gilroy.He is amateur historian and naturalist focusing on South
County in coordination with Santa Clara County Parks, California
Passport Tours, Friends of the Winemaker, the Wineries of Santa
Clara Valley and the Historical Societies of Gilroy and Morgan Hill.
Mike Monroe