Editor’s note: This is the second in a series about winemaker Joe Carrari, his family’s attempts to have him found incompetent, battles over a $50 million estate, accusations of murder and a home invasion that left two people in the hospital. Read the first in the series here.
Joe Carrari distinguished himself as one of the most innovative winemakers on the Central Coast, following in the foot steps of his immigrant father, he was able to successfully navigate the ever changing wine industry.
Carrari, a gregarious man with a remarkable memory, sat down with Cal Coast Times in a rare opportunity for a series of interviews about his life and the tremendous personal and legal hardships he is currently facing.
The son of an Italian immigrant, Carrari, now 84, was only five years old when he first worked beside his father in the vineyards.
In the 50s, Carrari and his father farmed more than 1,400 acres of vineyards, with the grapes shipped to home vintners throughout the United States.
In 1975, Carrari traveled to Italy to bring back cuttings of a handful of varietals he wanted to grow, including Pinot Grigio, Dolcetto and Freisa.
“I wrote the names on each stick and put them in my Samsonite,” Carrari said. “If I got caught, I would have said it was for a Christmas wreath, and the names were my relatives in Italy.”
Before making his own wine, Carrari farmed for and consulted with some of California’s best known wine makers, including J. Lohr and Paul Masson.
In the early 70s, Carrari played a major role in developing the Harris Ranch vineyards in Santa Ynez. After the owner, Sec Guasti, placed the property in Chapter 11, Guasti’s wife reported he had forged her name on banking documents. The day Santa Barbara County Sheriff deputies planned to arrest Gausti, he killed himself.
Carrari stayed with Harris Ranch for a year after the bankruptcy filing and fought in court to raise the value of the vineyard. In the end, Carrari was able to get creditors 90 cents on the dollar.
“It gave me credibility with bankers,” Carrari said.
He eventually elected to make his own wine, and with funding from bankers he had befriended during the Harris Ranch bankruptcy, he planted a vineyard of red varietals.
During the late 70s through the early 80s, Carrari custom crushed the Zinfandel, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes he grew. But his rise to the top was short lived.
With a floundering grape economy and a craving for White Zinfandel, Carrari found he couldn’t sell his red wines even at cost. And he was paying $7,000 a month to store the 326,000 gallons of red wine he had produced.
Desperate to recoup his investment, Carrari blended the four red wines together, called it Dego Red, and priced it at $1.99 a fifth.
The reaction was extraordinary. Dego Red became a best seller, with cases being shipped throughout the nation, including several cases ordered by the House of Representatives and President Ronald Reagan, Carrari said.
“It was a best seller until the Italians got offended,” Carrari chuckled.
Shortly after Carrari won a gold medal at the Orange County Fair, members of the Italian community began picketing the event over the name Dego Red.
“I don’t know why they were offended, a dego has papers a wop does not,” Carrari said.
Even so, Carrari attempted to remedy the situation by placing stickers over the name Dego Red, but while that helped stop the protesters, it caused Carrari a few headaches with officials from alcohol and beverage control because the “new label” wasn’t approved.
At that time, Carrari was friends with Julio Gallo. With the gold medal win, Gallo approached Carrari and offered him 90 cents a gallon for several of the wines he had not yet blended, Carrari said.
“I told him I would drain it down the sink before I would sell it for 90 cents a gallon, and then I hung up on him” Carrari said. “Hell, I’m a legend in my own mind.”
In the 10 years that Carrari bottled and sold Dego Red, he made over a million dollars in profit on the brand.
But his contributions to California’s wine industry and his success with Dego Red have recently been overshadowed by legal battles with his children and grandchildren over his estate and competency. After several of his family members attempted to have the 84-year-old deemed incompetent, Carrari hired an assistant, several attorneys and a new doctor. He then barred most of his relatives from his ranch.
“They want the money, that is all they are after,” Carrari said.
Carrari’s children and grandchildren have also hired lawyers who have accused Carrari’s personal assistant Angelina Dettamanti of using sex and threats to isolate Carrari for her own financial gain. There are several cases currently winding through the court and criminal justice systems.
Video from Joe Carrari’s 84 birthday: