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Rockstar Winemakers

Rock Star Winemaker: Janell Dusi

Dusi Family Tradition — with a new perspective

Josh Petray, VINO

Farming is in her family, but it wasn’t until now that a Dusi showcased the quality of its grapes under a wine label.

After four generations during which the Dusi family has cultivated “Dusi Juice,” J. Dusi owner/proprietor Janell Dusi is equally at home working between the rows of old vine zinfandel on her family’s roughly 80-year-old, 100-acre Paso Robles property as she is in the garage and warehouse stomping down.

Dusi, a Templeton High School and University of California, Santa Barbara graduate and the granddaughter of the Italian proprietors who so aptly named their grapes for their families, stays true to her roots.

Dusi’s introduction into farming began at an early age, but it wasn’t until later in life that she discovered her passion for winemaking. The Paso Robles native was only in her late teens when she crafted her first vintage during a class at Templeton School. The fruits of her labor, she chuckles now, ended up as Christmas gifts to her teachers. She later entered her own wine in the home winemaking contest at the California Mid-State Fair.

Her early days of winemaking were influenced by her grandfather, Dante, and later Austin Hope of Hope Family Wines — who assisted her on the school project as her brother’s best friend and college roommate.

For nearly a decade, with no licensing or bonding, she worked out of the garage, a testament to a small start. No yeast inoculation — just the basics.

“It was all natural,” Dusi said. “We would be down there punching with a big mallet-type stick, squeezing down with cheesecloth.”

Now, Dusi is in charge of J. Dusi Wines, which sources its grapes from amongst the various plantings on the property, which abuts Main Street on the west side of Highway 101.

“Zinfandel was our whole lives,” Dusi said.

J. Dusi focuses on just that — zinfandel — with a portfolio that includes ports. Experimentation with varietals such as syrah and Carignan soon followed.

To this day, tending to the vines is a full-blown Dusi family operation that includes her brothers, one highly successful in the trucking industry and another in banking.

Dusi’s roots in farming date back to her father, a wheat and barley farmer for 30 years prior on about 20,000 acres in south Monterey County and north San Luis Obispo County. Growing up as kids, wheat and barley fields were their playgrounds. In Paso Robles, the family specialized in grape farming but never dabbled in winemaking too much.

Until Janell.

She remembers first introducing the idea. The family thought she was crazy, but in the end they ended up throwing their support behind her after she demonstrated her determination.

“We do vineyards, so when I said, ‘I want to make wine,’ they said, ‘you’re crazy. We do grape growing; we don’t make wine.’ And I said, ‘why not?’”

Currently, the Dusi vineyard sells 90 percent of its grapes to other wineries including Four Vines, Turley and Tobin James. Dusi strives to showcase the entire 100-acre vineyard with the remaining 10 percent. Dusi is proud to say that her zinfandel is from the Dusi Vineyard as a whole. She takes about three tons from all of the different sections, where varying soil types, elevations and sun exposure come into play.

“I want to show wine that showcases the vineyard as a whole and represents the soil types, the climate,” she said.

That means not creating an “overly ripe, over-extracted, over-oaked beastly wine,” Dusi said. “But more of a restrained, food-friendly zinfandel wine.”

Because her wines cannot be found in many retail stores and it can typically be difficult to attain, Dusi doesn’t typically enter into contests or seek high accolades. She’s more at home at places like the Paso Robles-based, inaugural Garagiste Festival, where she feels at ease having spent so much time in the garage making wine.

Now with her own label where Dusi’s biggest challenge is trying to do it all “and do it well,” she oftentimes feels most at home in Paso Robles farming at the family’s head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard.

“Half the time I feel more comfortable out the vineyard, than on a sales trip or a nice dinner,” she said.

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