Local resident Kevin Ferguson grew up hearing stories of the Gemello Winery, the family business his great grandfather John Gemello, and grandfather Mario Gemello, started together in Mountain View in 1934.
That winery, launched at the dawn of post-Prohibition America, persevered for nearly 50 years before Mario retired and sold it. The land was later partially dedicated to the city, making space for what is today Gemello Park, located at Solana Court and Marich Way.
But it wasn’t until Mario had a cancer relapse in 2002 that Ferguson began to uncover just how well-connected his relatives were in Mountain View during the Great Depression, when the city had just a couple thousand residents.
“I decided it was time to come home and be close to him in his last few years,” said Ferguson, whose career in journalism took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas before returning home to the Bay Area in 2002.
Mario and Kay, Ferguson’s grandmother, lived on the family winery property in Mountain View for decades before moving into their home in Los Altos in 1974. Kay, who’s now 101 years old, still lives in that same house.
“When I moved back, I ended up spending Sundays with my grandfather,” Ferguson said. “I had read the book 'Tuesdays with Morrie,' which kind of inspired me to do something similar with my grandfather and hear stories that he had from the old days.”
The pair began parsing through cassette tapes that great-grandfather John made when he was still alive, telling stories about launching Gemello Winery and what life was like in Mountain View nearly 100 years ago, as well as his upbringing in northern Italy.
“My great-grandfather had a pretty thick Italian accent, so my grandfather would kind of transcribe or repeat what he said, and I would document it into my computer,” Ferguson said.
That documentation slowly began to resemble distinct chapters. Ferguson said the thought to turn it into a book crossed his mind, but when grandfather Mario died of cancer in 2005, the idea got put on the back-burner – that is, until COVID-19 hit.
When the pandemic forced everyone into shelter in place in 2020, Ferguson started spending a lot more time with his now-centenarian grandmother Kay, helping out with her caregiving.
“When I was spending time with her I would go through all the newspaper clippings from the old days and some of the cassette tapes and notes I had taken with my grandfather,” Ferguson said. “She would elaborate on them if she remembered.”
Ferguson soon realized it was high time to resurrect the book idea he had toyed with nearly two decades earlier when his grandfather was still alive. That’s when “Rain on the Monte Bello Ridge” began to take form, “a memoir about health, aging and winemaking,” as Ferguson describes it.
Ferguson is still looking for the right publisher to take on his unique project, but in the interim, he’s been posting completed chapters on SubStack about once a month. While every chapter is entangled in local history thanks to Ferguson’s deep family roots in the area, local readers may find “The Birth of Mountain View” to be among the most intriguing.
The chapter tells the story of one of Mountain View’s earliest residents in the 1850s, Henry Rengstorff, and his descendants’ connection to Ferguson’s own family.
Rengstorff first settled as a farm laborer in the Santa Clara Valley, “saving enough money to purchase squatter's rights to 290 acres of land in San Jose,” Ferguson writes.
“In 1864, Rengstorff extended his real estate holdings, acquiring the 164 acres of land, which is now part of Shoreline Business Park in Mountain View, east of Highway 101,” Ferguson writes. “He constructed a ship landing, and called it Rengstorff Landing. It would play a significant role in the economic development of Mountain View and the surrounding area.”
Flash forward to the mid-1920s, a few years before the Depression hit, and Ferguson’s great-grandpa John, a farmer, found out a ranch was for sale by Louis and Arthur Martel, the grandchildren of Henry Rengstorff.
“Gemello investigated the tip and was intrigued,” Ferguson writes of his great grandpa. “So intrigued, in fact, he recognized the 31-acre site west of El Camino as the perfect location for his grand plans: his own vineyard and winery, something more successful than what he was able to do in his native Italy.”
At the time, nearly 100 years ago, the 31-acre plot in Mountain View cost just $30,000. But with the Great Depression just around the corner, and Prohibition still in full swing, the Gemello family was in for a struggle to bring the dream to life. Spoiler alert -- they made it happen.
Throughout the chapters he’s released so far, Ferguson achieves a careful balance of telling his family’s story while also contextualizing it within the greater history of Mountain View and surrounding cities, making it a compelling read for anyone with a curiosity for what life was like in Silicon Valley, what was once an agricultural community, before the tech boom.
Ferguson’s chapters also stay relevant to modern readers by bringing in the voice of grandmother Kay, who at 101, is still around to tell the tale of just how drastically the region has changed.
“When Mario lost his bout with prostate cancer at 89, many of us assumed she would follow close behind. Victim of the broken heart syndrome,” Ferguson writes. “But somehow, she’s rebounded and 15 years later, she’s still going. How this centenarian defies the odds is beyond resilient.”
While giving his grandmother's age the spotlight it deserves, "Rain on the Monte Bello Ridge" also reminds readers that centenarians have a lot more to share than just their secrets to longevity.