From Paul Franson's Travel Tastes


Reno Gazette-Journal
Wednesday, December 22, 1999

Making a home
in wine country

Eldorado owners also play 
active role in their winery

By Paul Franson
Special to the
Reno Gazette-Journal

The Villa Fiore hospitality center at the Ferrari-Carano vineyards and winery.

There’s a little bit of Reno in Sonoma County.

Don and Rhonda Carano are Reno residents who own Ferrari-Carano Winery, a renowned winery in an area where great wine flows.

Dressed in his jeans as he discusses vine pruning, however, Don Carano could be mistaken for a native of narrow Dry Creek valley near Healdsburg. And as she talks about cooking her favorite Christmas ravioli, Rhonda could be a young Italian-American housewife.

In either case, those appearances are deceiving. Reno native Don Carano is a lawyer who specialized in business and gaming law before establishing the Eldorado Hotel/Casino as a 282-room property in 1973 on what was then considered the wrong side of the tracks. Today, the hotel has 817 guest rooms, 10 restaurants, a casino, conference center and showroom.

Rhonda Carano is also a native of Reno with Italian roots. She has a degree in nutrition from the University of Nevada, which led her into the management training program at the Eldorado, where she gravitated toward marketing. She became director of advertising and public relations, a position she still holds.

The Caranos also own the Pioneer Inn Hotel/Casino and are partners with Circus Circus Enterprises, Inc., in the Silver Legacy Resort Casino, northern Nevada’s first thematic mega-resort.

Their winery in the Dry Creek valley, like their resorts, is a very grand. The visitor center, Villa Fiore, occupies a new building that combines the best of Roman and Renaissance architecture. The winery itself incorporates the best of modern and traditional practices and equipment. And from that beautiful base, the Caranos are deeply involved in the winery’s direction and operation.

The origins

Ferrari-Carano has been a success from its first 1985 vintage, but its origins go back much further.

Rhonda and Don early on decided to focus on food at their casino, a unique approach that resulted partly from necessity: They couldn’t afford the big name acts of other Nevada casinos.

With their Italian backgrounds, that also meant good wine, and they made many trips to find favorites to serve. On a trip to northern Sonoma County in 1979, they were struck by the resemblance of the rural valleys to land in their ancestral Italy and soon bought a 60-acre parcel in remote Alexander Valley with 30 acres of grapes and a 1904 farmhouse. It was a refuge from the busy casino and wasn’t intended to develop into a big winery.

Buy a vineyard and you’re halfway to making wines, however, and the Caranos soon created Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery, hyphenating Don’s paternal grandmother’s name to theirs to add another touch of quality.

The Caranos started modestly, and the winery grew from its own success. The couple now owns 2,500 acres in Sonoma County, half planted with wine grapes in 17 vineyards. These vineyards supply 85 percent of the winery’s needs; the goal is 100 percent.

The Caranos match the grapes to the environment, with varieties like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon preferring warm areas like Dry Creek and Alexander Valley, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay excelling in cool Carneros and Russian River Valley.


AT HOME: Nevada natives Rhonda and Don Carano enjoy their home in California’s wine country.


Blending grapes into wine

The Caranos early on adopted what was a somewhat-controversial philosophy in 1985. Recognizing that most outstanding European wines are blends of different vineyards and even grape varieties, they decided to blend fruit from their disparate vineyards to produce consistent wines with a flavor1 profile they liked — and thought their customers would, too.

Then and now, many California winemakers consider wines made from single varieties grown in single vineyards to be the ultimate, but not many vineyards have the perfect qualities that makes that work.

The Caranos even chose a winemaker partly based on that shared philosophy. George Bursick has been with them from the first vintage in 1985, and his wines have been favorites of critics and the public ever since.

Ferrari-Carano’s first Chardonnays were immediate hits, and its Sauvignon Blancs (called Fumé Blanc though they aren’t very smoky) are also excellent. The winery has had more trouble with reds.

Initially, Ferran-Carano used red grapes from vineyards on the fertile, flat floor of Alexander Valley. This area produced great white wines, but even Bursick admits the reds were wimpy.

Eventually, the winery acquired property high in the mountains, where umrrigated vines struggle, producing intense flavors. Now the winery’s reds also have an enviable reputation.

The Caranos spend about one-third to one-half of their time at their home in Alexander Valley near the winery, a home they adore.

"We totally love the wine country lifestyle," Rhonda Carano says. She says it helps them connect with their ancestors, who pursued the agricultural life in the hills near Genoa. "There’s something special in dealing with Mother Earth," she says.

Where to buy

Needless to say, FerrariCarano wines are available at the Caranos’ properties but at other fine restaurants, too. Fully 85 percent of the winery’s wines are sold at restaurants, an almost-unheard-of proportion, though they can be found in high-end wine shops and some grocery stores.
To visit

Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery is in Dry Creek valley just west of Healdsburg north of San Francisco. Its tasting room is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and charge $2.50 to taste —refunded with a $20 purchase.

For tours, call two weeks in advance: (707) 433-6700, Ext. 249.


From Paul Franson's Travel Tastes