Don Carano, who parlayed his investments in a Reno, Nevada hotel and casino into the creation of the Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg and later took ownership of the Vintners Inn, died Tuesday at his home in Reno after a long illness. He was 85.
Carano came to the North Coast in the late 1970s after establishing successful careers in both law and gaming. A Reno native, Carano served as an officer for two years in the U.S. Army and later received his law degree from the University of San Francisco.
He returned to his hometown and became a founding member of the McDonald, Carano & Wilson law firm, where he built expertise in corporate, business and gambling law. Carano used that knowledge to open up his Eldorado Hotel and Casino in Reno in 1973.
In 1976, he hired Rhonda Bevilacqua to work in marketing at the hotel and the two later married. As the couple focused more on the fine dining aspects of the hotel, they made numerous visits to the North Coast, particularly falling in love with Sonoma County wines and its culinary scene.
“The community itself was very inviting,” Rhonda Carano said Wednesday. “There were a lot of Italians in the area. We were made to feel at home.”
The two purchased a ranch in Alexander Valley and took classes in winemaking, producing their own small lots of wine. They started buying additional land in the area and opened Ferrari-Carano in 1981. The winery was named after his grandmother, Amelia Ferrari.
Much of the company’s success can be attributed to its land holdings, as Ferrari-Carano became one of the largest vineyard owners in Sonoma County, with more than 1,000 planted acres. Overall, it owns 1,900 acres in the North Coast, including its 2008 purchase of Lazy Creek Vineyards in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, well known for its cool-climate pinot noir, chardonnay and gewurztraminer.
“After we bought the initial parcel, the bug of wine bit us, so we constantly over the years acquired different properties,” Carano once said.
Carano was well regarded locally for his fair business dealings, said Matthew Welty, a Healdsburg lawyer who was involved in land transactions with Ferrari-Carano, including representing a family that sold their Alexander Valley property to the winery about six years ago.
“There are some sharp elbows out there (in the wine industry),” Welty said. “He was the most charming, reasonable, straightforward operator I have ever done a deal with.”
Carano wasn’t a pushover in the negotiations, but he also didn’t seek to litigate every single item and the deal was finalized with a handshake, Welty said.
“He was a gentleman farmer,” Welty said. “It wasn’t an asset to him. It was more than that to him. There was something deeper, a passion.”
The winery today continues to feed its vineyard workers lunch during the grape harvest, a tradition started under Carano, now bringing in a food truck to serve them.
In 1994, the winery completed a grand Italian villa on its property named Villa Fiore. It was created from marble imported from Italy, granite from Africa, mahogany from the Philippines and lacewood from Australia. Roman statues line the entrance as well as guarding its reflecting pool.
Some local residents criticized the villa as being too opulent for the Dry Creek Valley, but Rhonda Carano defended it by saying the structure celebrated their Italian heritage as well as the region’s wines.
This story originally appeared in the Press Democrat.