March 2, 2021
By Bruce Neyers
Barbara prepares dinner. The fruit clockwise from top left is Pink Lady Apple, Pippin Apple, Comice Pear, and Bartlett Pear. The top cheese is 18-month-old Reggiano Parmesan, and bottom cheese is French Roquefort. Missing is the Wagon Wheel cheese from Cowgirl Creamery (we ate it before dinner).
We planted two more fruit trees on our ranch last week, and it was an especially important moment as we remembered the recent loss of an important friend – Bob Cantisano, who we knew as Amigo Bob. Bob had a role in every aspect of our vineyard as our farming consultant, but viticulture work supported his first love of breeding heirloom fruit trees. All of our fruit trees came from Bob’s ranch in North San Juan. Many of our ideas came from him as well.
Bob started working with us 25 years ago when we began to farm our Conn Valley vineyards organically and sustainably. On the coldest day of winter, he arrived at 8:00am in shorts and sandals, wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt and a large-brimmed straw hat. He had a long, unruly pony tail, and a grizzled, unkempt look. We’d walk the vineyards together, looking for signs of crop damage, insect or invasive plant activity, or – his specialty – nutrient deficiency. He’d jot down an occasional note: “Add 3 tons per acre of gypsum to Block B to reduce the binding effect of the clay particles in the soil.” No detail was too small.
Bob was a farmer’s farmer, and I still enjoy going back now and re-reading his memos from the early days, when he was teaching us about personal vine care, organics, and sustainability. At the height of the Pierce’s Disease epidemic, we were advised to clear a buffer between the creek on our property and the vines. The barren area would be sprayed with enough pesticide to kill the bacteria-carrying vectors en-route to the vineyard. Bob nixed that, and planted a six-foot, mixed vegetation strip between the creek and the vineyard. The bacteria-carrying vectors stopped in the strip to feed, and preoccupied with the tastier vegetation, stayed until the vines were no longer tender enough to attack. He outsmarted the insects.
Bob’s first love was fruit trees, and in 2003 he founded the Felix Gillet Institute in Nevada City to honor the Frenchman responsible for much of the work advancing California’s orchards. For almost two decades, Bob provided the scientific knowledge and agricultural labor behind the identification and cultivation of hundreds of fruit tree varieties. We’ve planted several trees from Bob’s orchards on our ranch over the years, and we now enjoy Mission Figs, Fuyu and Hachiya Persimmons, Pippin Apples, Golden Delicious Apples, and Bartlet Pears. Last week we planted a bare-rooted King David Apple and a Kieffer Pear, both the result of Bob’s work. The Institute, according to their mission statement, is dedicated to the appreciation, preservation and propagation of edible and ornamental heirloom perennials from the Sierra.
Over the years working with French vignerons, I learned the inviting aspect of enjoying the simple pleasures of fine wine. Barbara will often serve wine with fresh fruit, accompanied by cheese and a crusty baguette. It’s a favorite meal that she calls ‘dinner with no cooking’. Thanks to Amigo Bob, we can sometimes just walk outside and pick the fruit for our evening meal. I like this meal most when it’s served with a bottle of our Sage Canyon Red. No recipe is needed.
If you’d like to learn more about Amigo Bob and his work, the Los Angeles Times had an especially moving obituary.
A five-year-old Bartlett Pear tree which produced its first crop in 2020.
A 15-year-old Fuyu Persimmon tree.
A 20-year-old Pippin Apple tree that has furnished apples for pies, tarts, dinners, snacks and school lunches.