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Most girls at the age of 16 are thinking about prom dresses, the latest hair styles, and boys. Not Janell Dusi. The granddaughter of legendary grape grower Dante Dusi was thinking about her barrel of fermenting zinfandel must.

For that was the first year Dusi started making wine at home with her grandfather, sparking a passion that drives her today.

At 29, she is the first in her family since great-grand-father Sylvester to actually make and sell wine from the grapes the family has long grown, and her label, J. Dusi Wines, acknowledges those generations with the statement, “A family tradition with a new perspective.”

The Tribune - Janell Dusi amongst her family's zinfandel vines planted in 1945. Photo by Joe Johnston 6-5-09
Sylvester Dusi came to San Luis Obispo County in the early 1920s.

Between 1923 and 1933, he had three sons with his wife, Caterina: Guido, Dante and Benito.

He also started planting grapes in 1923, and by 1945 was helping his sons Dante and Benito plant their own adjacent vineyards along Highway 101 in Paso Robles.

With their Italian heritage, the obvious grape of choice was zinfandel, and both vineyards became prized zinfandel suppliers to winemakers from Paso Robles to Napa Valley.

Today the 100-acre Dante Dusi vineyards supplies grapes to Turley Wine Cellars, Four Vines Winery, Tobin James Cellars, Stephen Ross Wine Cellars and Chumeia Vineyards.

It sits on the northwest corner of the 101 and the Templeton Main Street exit, and anyone who has driven to and from Paso Robles has no doubt noticed the scraggly-looking old vines that seem to grow wildly up the hill.

It is also from that vineyard that Janell Dusi decided to select grapes as she developed the plan for her own label.

“My whole idea in doing the J. Dusi Wines was to showcase the Dusi Vineyard as a whole,” she explained.

With six soil types and various blocks within the sprawling vineyard, grapes from each section can vary significantly.

“Turley Dusi and Stephen Ross Dusi wines are very different from each other,” she said. “So I wanted to take from every different section and blend them all together.”

After that first barrel of wine she made with her grandfather, Janell Dusi decided winemaking was in her blood.

“That’s been my passion, so I just set myself out to do it,” she said.

She considered going to UC Davis, but opted instead for UCSB for a more rounded education.

She eventually did complete mail courses in enology at UC Davis, but her most valued teachers are local winemakers who have helped her develop her skills over that dozen years.

“Being in this area, and knowing so many people, it was so easy for me when I was just 19 or 20 to say, ‘Hey Austin (that’s winemaker Austin Hope), what kind of barrels have you got?’ ” she recalled. “And he would say, ‘Hey, just go pick out whatever barrel you want.’ ”

She also credits many others in this “cool, close-knit community” with helping her along the way.

And she especially relies on her family and parents, Mike and Joni, for the support she’s needed in pursuing her dream.

In 2006, she made her first 450 cases with the J. Dusi label, and it was just released last year.

In 2008, she made 820 cases, and is now using her brother’s trucking warehouse as a temporary winemaking facility as she searches for a permanent home. But she doesn’t plan to grow too much too fast.

“I want to stay small, and stay focused on zinfandel, and showcase my family’s fruit, but I also want to find that magic number (so) that I can make it my livelihood,” she said.

Ideally, she said she hopes to make between 1,000 and 2,000 cases a year, and she is adding a zinfandel rose, zinfandel port and zinfandel grappa to complete her line.

As every winemaker knows, making wine and selling wine can be separate challenges.

Having the Dusi name certainly doesn’t hurt.

“It has definitely helped me get their attention; it’s sparked some interest,” she said of pitching her wine to distributors and other customers. “But the bottom line, no matter what, is that people have to like what’s in the bottle.”

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