The Cambrian

Someone to Know: Bassetti roots planted deep in Green Valley

Ellis Bassetti with some of the olive trees he planted.
Ellis Bassetti with some of the olive trees he planted. PHOTO BY SUSAN MCDONALD/SPECIAL TO THE CAMBRIAN

The leafy arbor next to the Bassetti family ranch house is a true escape from contemporary life. And it’s a respite from the heat that often climbs into the 90s this time of year at their remote Green Valley farm just seven miles east of downtown Cambria.

Thick wisteria winds and unfurls overhead and a wall of grapevines and carefully pruned apple trees enclose the arbor in shady coolness. Outside this bower, the road is dusty, the hills parched, but the temperature under the leaves is more than comfortable. No surprise it’s the favored spot for gatherings of family and friends who are often the appreciative recipients of Bassetti hospitality.

Ellis Bassetti is the third-generation Cambrian to call the place home. He and his wife, Susie, continue the family legacy of agriculture — only instead of raising cattle as his forebears did, they grow wine grapes, olives, citrus, flowers and herbs.

The first Bassettis to settle on this land were Ellis’ grandfather, Pietro Bassetti, and his wife, Teresina, who journeyed from Switzerland to Ellis Island more than a century ago and traveled by wagon train to California. (No, Ellis was not named after the famed New York harbor entry point for immigrants, but after his mother’s favorite cousin.)

His grandfather came to Cambria and leased 300 acres of land at Green Valley where he raised dairy cows. Ellis never met Pietro Bassetti, who died in his 50s, but knows from photographs that he had a big red mustache.

Ellis’ dad, Tilden Bassetti, was born in 1907, in the original family ranch house down the road from where Ellis and Susie now live. The ranch was isolated — this was long before current highways — and the family was self-sufficient, producing their own meat, milk, vegetables and fruit. There wasn’t much reason to leave home.

“My dad was 12 before he even went to San Luis,” Ellis said. “There was no Highway 46 until ’74. I remember driving through the mud when they were building it. That was a pretty rough ride.”

In the 1940s, Tilden and his wife, Rena, bought a neighboring 333-acre ranch (from William Randolph Hearst) where there was abundant water for the beef cattle they raised. Ellis was born in July 1944 in San Luis Obispo and calls his growing-up on the Green Valley ranch as “wonderful –peaceful and quiet. We had only one neighbor.”

He attended Cambria Grammar School — “the real grammar school” — and Coast Union High School. He worked side-by-side with his dad on the ranch and for fun hunted and fished Santa Rosa Creek with Olie and Eddie Fiscalini. “Those guys could catch anything.”

Ellis and a “handful of other local guys” went to Cal Poly, where Ellis majored in mechanized agriculture. He also joined ROTC and delayed the draft — this was during the Vietnam War — until after graduation. He went into the Army as a second lieutenant and spent a year in Vietnam as a combat engineer, building roads, bridges and a mess hall.

After the service, Ellis returned to Cal Poly for a teaching credential, married Susie, and moved to Salinas where he taught metal shop classes at Salinas High School. After a year, as his dad was looking at retirement, Ellis bought the family cattle business and Ellis and Susie moved into the old family ranch house.

They raised two children in that house. Son Travis graduated from Harvey Mudd College and has a computer consulting business in Austin, Texas. Natalie, who is married to Navy Chief Petty Officer Eric Kleimstein and has 6-year-old twin daughters Ashley and Olivia, hopes her family will be transferred back to California next year from Pensacola, Fla.

Ellis and Susie hope so, as well.

Most of the 633-acre ranch was sold in the early 1990s. Ellis and Susie kept 60 acres of land so bare of vegetation Ellis described it as “desolate.” Their first plantings were 65 poplar trees for shade. Then they added citrus, herbs, apples and flowers. Susie made beautiful wreaths from dried herbs and flowers that are sold in top national catalogs. They continue to ship wreaths five days a week.

They planted their first vineyard — seven acres of syrah grapes — in 1998, a year after Ellis had major heart surgery. Then they added another seven in 2000, as well as three acres of olive trees. They have replaced three acres of syrah with grenache and added a half-acre of viognier grapes.

Their syrah grapes have helped Denner Vineyards of Templeton earn top honors for winemaking. With a high percentage of Bassetti grapes, Denner’s 2008 Dirt Worshipper rated a whopping 97 points from Robert Parker and sold out within hours of the rating’s publication. Two years later, Dirt Worshipper earned 95 points, again with Bassetti grapes. Denner’s winemaker also produces syrah wine under the Bassetti label.

Without complaint, Ellis says he and Susie are “pretty much tied to the ranch.” That’s the life of a farmer, and they feel lucky to have it.

He brings their products to the Cambria Farmers Market each Friday to showcase their wreaths, olive tapenades, fresh-baked pizzas and foccacia, and other farm-to-table products.

For this quiet, somewhat shy guy, the face-to-face contact with the public has been a learning experience.

“I’m getting used to talking to a lot of people every week,” says Ellis. “We are so fortunate to be able to do what we do.”

Susan McDonald’s monthly “Someone to Know” column is special to The Cambrian. Email comments and suggestions to cambrian@thetribune