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Calistoga's historic Wolleson Vineyards defies the test of time

There was a time when business deals in Napa Valley were sealed with a handshake and good intentions.

So says 91-year-old Charlie Wolleson, and he should know. His family has been farming the same property in Calistoga since the late 1800s.

The nearly 20-acre ranch is located at the junction of Larkmead Lane and Highway 29, across from the Tucker Farm Center.

Until recently, Wolleson still farmed the roughly 16-acre vineyard using the same tractor his father was using when he retired 50 years ago. This past year, he drove the forklift during Harvest, and during the Glass Fire he ran a bulldozer for a few days (he owns three) creating fire breaks.

Throughout the years, Wolleson says he’s done it all. Along with running the ranch, he’s driven and rebuilt tractors, trucks, race cars, made furniture, sheds — and that’s just on the ranch. Wolleson is also a licensed welder, and has the oldest pyrotechnic license in the state.

He jokes that he is jack of all trades and master of none. The only thing he says he can’t do “Is make money and keep it,” he said laughing.

But all that is about to change, as the historic property is now for sale. Wolleson owns the property with his sister, who recently passed away.

Vineyards and tractors

Wolleson’s grandfather, Martin Wolleson, initially leased the property, which was then planted with prune trees and walnuts. In 1903 he purchased the land and started to plant Zinfandel grapevines. A few rows of the old vines can still be seen along the highway across from the Tucker Farm Center. The new ones are supported with wire.

After World War II, the county wanted to widen the road, so it purchased about three acres through eminent domain.

Grandma and grandpa Wolleson’s children, including Charlie’s father, Milton, grew up on the property and attended school next door at the Tucker Schoolhouse, which was Calistoga’s school from the late 1800s to the early 1920s. When the new school was built in town, the building and the 1-acre schoolhouse parcel went up for auction and Milton, newly married, purchased it for around $660, intending to convert it into a home.

“His mother said he was out of his mind. There was no house on an acre that’s ever going to be worth that kind of money,” Charlie Wolleson said.

The entire 16 acres is now listed at $9.5 million.

Over the years, the vineyard’s grapes have been sold to Orin Swift, Markham Vineyards Gallo, and Chateau Montelena to name a few. Before the war, Wolleson’s father was getting $39 per ton. After WWII, he was offered $100 per ton.

“My dad couldn’t ever figure out how they could afford to pay $100 for a ton of grapes,” he said.

Over the years, the biggest changes Wolleson said he’s seen involve technology, like computers and cell phones, and peoples’ attitudes.

“You don’t have long-term contracts anymore, you have to renegotiate every year,” he said. "I used to go into a winery, shake hands and sit with the owners and you make the contract. People don’t talk to you anymore. Now it’s all done through computers, and the contract is this thick,” he said holding his thumb and forefinger several inches apart.  

Trucks and tractors

Wolleson started helping in the fields before he was a teenager. While his grandfather worked the land with horses, Charlie later took to tractors in a big way. At age 16, he got a commercial license to drive truck.

“I was a very poor student, because all I could see were trucks and tractors,” he said.

He started driving his father’s Ford Model A. Later, his father purchased a 1941 International, which Wolleson fully restored and still has in his collection of more than 40 restored and semi-restored tractors. Among them is one “Caterpillar would love to have. Of that particular model I have number three, and they have no idea where one and two are,” he said.

Wolleson’s father disapproved of his interest in trucks.

“Trucks weren’t built like they are today,” he said, explaining how dangerous they could be. Wolleson drove the prunes to Healdsburg for dehydration. Then a new hydrator was built in St. Helena, but “My dad wouldn’t let me drive through St. Helena because there was too much traffic.”

Then, during the war, trucks were built with no chrome, one window wiper, and one sun visor, “Nothing you didn’t need.”

The first diesel truck he got to drive was a 1952 Peterbilt, which he still has. It has 1,490,000 miles on it, most of them put on by Wolleson.

His uncle also had an auto repair shop in Calistoga. Wolleson later bought the business and leased the building.

At the time, there was also a diesel truck shop where Silverado Ace Hardware sits now. The shop foreman was a family friend, so Wolleson was allowed to go where no other kid could.

At that time, pine trees were logged in Middletown and taken to Sacramento to be made into boxes. “Every chance I got I would ride with one of those guys and watch, watch like a hawk what to do.”

With his commercial license, Wolleson started driving for other farmers. He also got certified as a welder, and could have gotten a job welding at Mare Island, but he didn’t want to be stuck working a regular day job.

“My wife always said I wasn’t happy unless I was watching that white line (of the roadways). She said I had white line fever.”

Wolleson took over the family business when his dad hit Social Security age. He also worked for Napa County, and at Kaiser Steel in Napa, working the graveyard shift, so he could come home and take care of the ranch and drive truck.

“I didn’t require much sleep,” he said. “I never ever wanted to retire because I enjoyed what I did.”        

Family business

Wolleson married his high school sweetheart, Barbara Blakely, when he was 20 years old. Because he was a year ahead of her in school, they rented an apartment for $16 a month across from the school in Calistoga so she could walk there to finish her senior year.

After their first daughter was born, they moved to the “high-rent district” on Foothill Boulevard and paid $25 a month. That’s the only time he has ever not lived on the ranch. After the next daughter, they bought a place next to the Tucker Farm Center.

After the war, Napa County Fairgrounds started rebuilding race cars at the Speedway.

Wolleson was close friends with local racing legend Louis Vermeil, but never raced himself.

“I warmed it up and thought I was going to run, but after we had kids I promised my wife I would own race cars, but I wouldn’t drive.”

Among the restored tractors and trucks in his collection is Vermeil’s tow truck.

“My wife turned down $50,000 for that truck,” Wolleson said, adding, “I’d have kicked her butt if she had sold it. That’s more important to me than money. As long as you can pay the bills, I’m not interested in having a big bank account.”

You can reach Cynthia Sweeney at 942-4035 or csweeney@weeklycalistogan.com.

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