What was your first impression when you purchased your property?
In 1971, a couple of friends and I were looking to purchase property. I came across an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for an interesting-sounding property listed for $550 an acre. The developer was looking to sell off larger pieces of 160-or-more acres so as to avoid having to draw up a subdivision map. We decided to meet with the seller and took a drive through the valley. The parcels he originally showed us weren’t what I was looking for but as we began to drive back we came across my dream property with a barn and out-buildings. I kept repeating “Stop! This is what I want!”. This parcel wasn’t really for sale and my friends and I couldn’t put a deal together until we finally met an agent who assisted in the purchase of 200 acres. At that time we needed to put down $1000 to secure the mortgage. We were able to scrape together $960 and escrow began. Once my dad realized I was serious about purchasing this property he helped out and things began to run smoother. The land had so much potential and beauty and we all recognized it.
What are your favorite features of property?
Definitely the serenity found here. The first time I stepped out of the car and touched the soil I knew I had never experienced that type of silence before. I now realize how lucky I was that the property is a North/South facing valley. It gets the most sun in the area and avoids the harsh East/West winds. There are unbelievable areas of cascading water in heavy rain. The old barn was originally built in approximately 1866 out of incredible old growth Redwood. I have rebuilt it twice since 1971. I started construction on the house in 1974 and am almost finished. There are over 1000 pieces in the living room Oak herringbone floor. I laid each piece by hand myself over the course of six months. Once finished the floor became quite stunning.
Will you share some favorite memories at Devil’s Gulch?
This is an absolutely romantic property… I’ll leave that there! Over the years there have been so many memories made here. We have delivered 3 children here including one of my daughters who I delivered on our back deck 30 minutes before the midwife arrived! Many weddings have taken place here, including my own and those of family and friends. In fact, some friends who were married on the ranch had their daughter return to be married here years later. Several years ago, we had a wonderful Anniversary party to celebrate every couple married here. Everyone could invite whomever they liked. It was a potluck and the only requirement was that you had to bring your best dish!
What do you know about the history of the property before you took ownership?
William James Miller owned about 8,000 acres of Nicasio in the 1860’s. He eventually sold half to another party and the parcels were split into 75 1,000-acre ranches. In 1864, Devil's Gulch ranch (873 acres) split off from a larger parcel and was purchased by two Martinelli Brothers—Pietro and Lorenzo. They were Union Army Civil War officers using their wages to start fresh in California. Eventually, they brought their wives out. A Swiss-Italian heritage brought a strong dairy culture so this area was the perfect home to continue their traditions. The brothers sold cream and fed the skimmed milk to their hogs. After 10 years, one brother bought the other out. It was sold in 1900 and from then on it was kept within a family. In 1940, the owner at the time, Tony Estacio, died and the property was passed on to John Moreda, his nephew. There are some sketchy records of folks living at the ranch in the 1950's, but it was no longer being used as a dairy, only for grazing replacement dairy heifers. In 1969 it was purchased by a real estate developer named John Van Tress. He focused on doing road work and advertising the property for sale. In Fall of 1971 I entered the story.
What are your feelings about the area?
I love the Bay Area. Everything is amazing about it aside from the traffic! The climate is perfect and the beauty is astounding. I enjoy living where it is the ideal weather for Pinot Noir grapes, which this is.
This is such a special property, how did you use the land?
Living off this land was always my goal. We have a highly regarded vineyard raising Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewertztraminer. My daughters raised rabbits for 4-H when they were young. My wife, Myriam, is a veterinarian and helped tend the rabbits and other animals. Myriam's mother served some of our rabbits to a French chef she knew from San Francisco, and that chef spread the word. Soon everyone wanted our rabbits! At one point we were tending approximately 12,000 rabbits and selling to Bay Area restaurants like Chez Panisse, French Laundry, Jardiniere, and so many more. We also raise pigeons for squab and Bresse chickens—which the French believe to be the best quality chicken in the world. Additionally we raise lamb, pork and quail. Currently, and for many years, we have had Agriculture & Nature Summer Camps at Devils Gulch Ranch for children run by the YMCA.. The ranch has been an excellent host to our dynamic lifestyle.
What improvements have you made to the property?
We remodeled every inch of the old barn twice and many of the other old structures. We’ve created covered arenas, a reservoir, vineyards, several other barns, shops, and corrals. We installed an electric-generating windmill which brought electricity to the ranch for many years until PG&E was brought in. We did all the grading for the property and built the house. It has truly been my life's work.