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Meet the Maker

Janell Dusi: Small Town Farmer's Daughter Turned World Class Paso Robles Winemaker

Grapevines were Janell’s playground as a child — now, she’s bringing a new perspective to the family farming tradition by putting Paso Robles Zinfandel in a can.

By Logan Davis

August 31, 2021

Janell Dusi, founder and winemaker at J Dusi, with her signature blue truck.

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Meeting Janell 

Rarely do we come across a winemaker whose very first memories are of grapevines and Zinfandel. Janell Dusi is one of those winemakers. 

Her story begins in the early 1900s when Janell’s great-grandparents were drawn from Northern Italy to a quiet little town in California called Paso Robles. At the time, Paso Robles was a quiet farming town with just a few grapevines — and the Dusis wanted in. They bought land in 1925, covered it in Zinfandel, and committed their livelihood to the craft of growing and selling grapes. 

A lot has changed since then; Paso Robles is a thriving wine region, Zinfandel is its claim to fame, and the Dusi name carries some serious weight. As we drove down the dirt road to meet Janell for the first time, the family history and charm remain palpable; 4 generations of Dusis working the land, pouring wine, and delighting in a slice of life rooted in tradition. We knew immediately that this was a special family, and a simple taste of their Zinfandel sealed the deal. 

When we asked her to partner, Janell says she didn’t hesitate. 

“You are young women with an amazing idea and just freaking ran with it; that’s what I did, too.” 

Here’s the story of how Janell Dusi stayed true to her roots while giving the Dusi name a new meaning. 

Janell’s journey to wine

Janell grew up a true farmer’s daughter. Vines touched her bedroom window, and family time meant working the field. Grandfather Dusi spent his days tinkering around the vineyard, often with Janell at his heels. She carefully observed his deep love of the land, sustainable farming practices, and learned the old world Italian style of growing grapes.  Grapevines were the passion, livelihood, and joy of the Dusis — but they didn’t make wine. They were farmers, not winemakers. Janell had other plans. 

“Iconic labels from Ridge to Turley wanted Dusi grapes, so I always thought ‘why don’t we make wine?’ For as long as I can remember, I always thought we should put our name on a bottle.”

Janell Dusi's great grandparents, Slyvester & Caterina, and their three boys, Guido, Dante and Benito, who planted the fist vineyards in 1925 and 1945.

At age 13, a young and ambitious Janell Dusi entered an amateur winemaking contest. She was hooked, and so began years of experimenting with fermentation and small batch winemaking, from pressing grapes through a cheesecloth with her grandfather to making wine in the garage. Janell took to working in tasting rooms and at vineyards, and eventually moved to Australia to work a harvest.

Though Janell ventured out to learn the ins and outs of making premium wine, it all began for her on her grandparents farm; she still considers herself a farmer above all else. Knowing Janell, it’s impossible to imagine any life for her that isn’t surrounded by grapevines, steeped in zinfandel, and accessible via tractor. She was determined to come home and make that vision a reality. 

Dusi farm to Dusi wines

Around the age of 25, Janell moved back to Paso Robles to live on her family’s vineyard. She was ready to make her own wine, but when she pitched the idea to her dad he responded with a loving but firm “you’re crazy — I don’t know about this...” Eventually, with a good dose of daughterly charm, she convinced him to give her a small amount of grapes. 

The winemaking started slowly with Janell producing a couple tons of Zinfandel per year. It all changed when she met Billy, a wine salesman based in Paso Robles. Full of charm and an entertainer at heart, Janell was drawn to his charisma and knowledge of the field. They’d travel the states together exploring food and wine, then return back to Paso for Janell to perfect her craft. Her intimate knowledge of vines combined with his entrepreneurial spirit made them an unstoppable duo. 

“Billy gave me the advice to wait to bottle the wine I was most excited about, to come out strong. In 2006 I made a Zin that was full and fruity and spicy and just... everything. We went for it.”

The Zin was an instant hit, and so J Dusi wines was born. A tasting room followed soon after in 2013, and since then they’ve expanded to 8 vineyards, produce 10,000+ cases annually, and work with 11 different varietals in the cellar. But the humble Dusi tradition is still woven throughout every part of the winery. Oh, and Billy went from sidekick to beau. 

“It’s a different day when Billy walks into the tasting room. He brings the spirit and education and joy to customers in a way that makes it fun. I drive the big equipment, work in the vineyard and cellar, he brings the people and joy and sales.”

Keeping with the family tradition, J Dusi wines is still family owned and operated. Janell and her brothers, nieces, and kids all work in the vineyard, drive the tractor, hand pick the fruit, crush the grapes and ferment the juice — it's a family operation, from bin to barrel to bottle. Janell loves every moment of it, and is committed to honoring the land through each sip of wine.

Janell Dusi and her family, harvesting their world class Zin

“Winemaking begins in the vineyard, and that’s where we live. I want to show the terroir, the elements, and be as noninvasive as possible.“

Old Vine Zinfandel — a Dusi special 

Blessed with a long growing season, Paso Robles is considered a nearly perfect place to grow Zinfandel, and vintners have flocked there to attempt the craft since the 19th century. Paso Robles has the biggest diurnal Temperature swing from daytime highs to nighttime lows, making it perfect for dry farmed grapes and full bodied fruit. Zinfandel remains Paso Robles’ signature grape. Old Vine Zinfandel is a term used only for Zin produced from vineyards that are typically over 50 years old. They’re desirable because older vines produce less fruit than young vines, resulting in more concentrated and flavorful wine. 

Dusi wine crates full of freshly harvested Zinfandel grapes

But it’s not quite as simple as picking any old vine is Paso. There are some quirks to Zinfandel that make the grape incredibly unique — and require masterful winemaking to make it sing. While with most grapes harvest requires picking the plumpest and juiciest grapes, the full-bodied, complex profile of Zinfandel comes from using the entire cluster. 

“My dad says 'The best was to test Zin is in the middle of the night', because you can’t see anything and just have to taste the whole cluster blindly”

Zinfandel has the most uneven ripening of any varietal, so rather than all grapes on a vine having the same size and sugar level, Zin is a bush vine with grapes all different distances from the ground — which really influences ripening. Even within each cluster the ripening is uneven, ranging from plumb berries to raisins. It’s finicky in nature, making a truly good bottle hard to find.  

Zinfandel is a labor of love. It’s far from uniform, but when done right, the complex jam to fruit to spice ratio makes Zin irresistible. The nearly century old Dante Dusi vines in Paso Robles are what make the J Dusi Zinfandel in a class of its own; 2018 Paper St. Zin took the gold medal in the Central Coast Wine competition, the 2016 Paper street Zin was granted 92 points by Jeb Dunnuck, and the list goes on.

The Maker Zin

We lucked out with this one. Janell has always dreamed of making a Zin from both her vineyard and Paper Street, the newest family vineyard planted, nurtured, and maintained by her brother and dad. The grapes from both vineyards are of the same cutting from the vineyard of 1945 but planted in two different vineyards with varying terroir to reveal all sides of Zinfandel. 

That’s what we’re bringing you, folks: an Old Vine Zinfandel, rooted in tradition, combining the big and spicy elements of Paper Street with the softer, smooth, fruitiness of the Dante Dusi vineyard. The result is a wine full of dark berries and baking spices, striking the perfect balance that could only come from these two very special vineyards in Paso Robles.

“It’s deep and bold. It shows the worlds of Paso in a nutshell. It’s perfect.”

When designing the can, Janell knew exactly what she wanted on it: a ‘Dusi blue’ vineyard truck. 

“My grandfather was a depression baby and didn’t want to buy anything new, so he spray painted everything that was a color he called 'Dusi blue' I felt it was its own Crayola color; I knew exactly what it was. I wanted the label to honor him”

It’s the paint stroke on Dusi wine bottles, and the color on the Maker can. The blue pick-up is a nod to the fleet of old trucks that lived on the Dusi farm growing up, all doorless and flat bed, packed with old wooden crates of grapes. 

Janell Dusi and her siblings hauling grapes on their grandpa's blue tractor

Janell recommends pairing the Maker Zin with BBQ ribs and a dry rub spice (like a true country girl). Alternatively, she recommends honoring the Dusi Italian roots and sipping it alongside a delicious za or spaghetti, or creamy polenta and short rib. 

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