A Vintage Christmas

“This is going to be a huge Christmas,” Janell Ciatti says. “This year it’s all about family.”  Her words underscore a year of good news and wonderful changes.

For starters, after successfully handling the operations of the family wine company in South America, her son, Greg Livengood, has taken over the reins as president and he and his new wife, Danielle, the daughter of one of Janell’s best friends, have moved nearby. This will be their first Christmas in Marin as newlyweds; it’ll also be the first for Stella, the Ciatti family’s exuberant seven-month-old Australian shepherd, whose own stocking will hang alongside the other family stockings over the fireplace in the study.

You can share in the Ciattis’ holiday good fortune because their home, along with three others in Ross, will be on the annual St. John’s Tour de Noel, making it a two-time tour veteran. “The last time was in 1993 when the house was brand new,” Ciattisays. “It’s so different now; it has so much patina and has really grown into itself.”

Originally, the house grew from a simple desire on the part of her husband, Joe, for a place to store wine. Joe Ciatti’s life is rooted in the wine world: his grandfather Guiseppe Bagnani owned Geyser Peak Winery in Sonoma for several decades after Prohibition ended. And as a young man Joe built his own company, Joseph W. Ciatti Co., into the nation’s largest brokerage of grapes and bulk wines. This year he turned the company over to his stepson, Greg, and is now enjoying a second bloom as CEO of Vintage Wine Trust, a real estate investment trust devoted to wine.

Only 15 years ago, however, Joe Ciatti was a wine seller without a home wine cellar. Rather than remodel their home, the couple found a 1920s ranch-style house for sale. Set on two lush Ross hillside acres, it was ripe for rebuilding.

They asked architect Robert Gregory of St. Helena to design a Spanish Colonial Revival home for them. “It’s such a beautiful style,” Janell Ciatti says. “There were a lot of homes like that in Southern California where I grew up. I’ve always loved it; it feels so right.”

The 9,000-square-foot residence, erected by Redhorse Constructors, is laid out on two and a half levels with intimate patios, a classically designed rear foyer courtyard and a private pool terrace off the master suite.

Inside, there’s plenty of room for entertaining friends and business associates: a spacious living room, a large wraparound wet bar, a dining area and, around the corner, an inviting kitchen and family room. Even the more private study has a welcoming feel, with framed family photos and comfortable seating. Upstairs are four bedrooms and a gym.

Although a Southern California designer initially handled the interior space planning, it was the owner of the furnishings store Sunrise Home in San Rafael, “Annie Bowman, my dear friend, who took over at the end of the construction phase, and continued to be the interior designer over the years,” Janell Ciatti says.

Bowman says she was guided by her understanding of Ciatti’s needs: “She’s elegant, friendly, has more friends than anyone I know, entertains a lot but also likes quiet gatherings with her gal pals. So, in the living room we made different seating groups and scaled the furnishings to the architecture.”

As for the 2,500-bottle wine cellar that started it all, a custom cabinet designer helped create the room of Joe Ciatti’s dreams. “I had collected different-size bottles over the years and cases of specific wines,” Ciatti says, and he worked with the designer to make sure the racks would accommodate all of his bottles: large ones, .750s, magnums and cases. “I’ve had it to full capacity at times,” he says, “but more recently, because I have not collected much, it has some growing room.”

With its rustic tasting table and intricately carved leather-upholstered chairs that Janell Ciatti found in a New Orleans antique shop, the room is a favorite setting for special dinners. Recently, two wine-cellar evenings brought in $6,000 each to benefit the Family Service Agency of Marin.

The biggest recent news for the Ciatti family is the successful completion of radiation and chemotherapy treatments for Grandpa Jack, Janell Ciatti’s beloved 83-year-old father. Accordingly, this year, instead of joining several other Ross families at a Mexican resort as they usually do, the Ciatti clan is gathering at home.

Janell’s three sisters and their families will come from Southern California and Seattle. Grandpa Jack will come with his companion, Lois Kelly, from Santa Rosa. By then, Janell will have displayed her
collection of holiday decorations, including the Santa Claus dolls and the sentimental sterling silver ornaments that hang on manzanita branches in the foyer. She purchases a new one every year for her son Greg and daughter Andrea Livengood, a fourth-grade teacher at Bacich Elementary School in Kentfield.

With landscaper Angela Fitzgerald, Janell will cut fresh greens from the trees and shrubs on the property for arrangements and centerpieces, studding them with dried pinecones and pods. A tall, bushy evergreen tree in the living room will be adorned with pinecones and strung with amber lights.

She’ll set aside one day to make her family’s traditional Christmas treats—English toffee for her son and decorated cookies for her daughter. “My mom and I usually invite some of my friends and their moms over before Christmas and we ‘paint’ cookies,” Livengood says. “I love that day.”

Holiday dinners occupy a special place in the hearts of the Ciattis’ children. “I think one of the best Christmastimes here was when we had 20 family members around the table, including my cousin’s brand-new baby and my grandfather,” Greg Livengood says. “There were four generations together. It was a really special year.”

This year, out-of-town family members will begin arriving on December 23, filling up the guest rooms in the Ciatti home and their son’s new home in Kentfield. On Christmas Eve, everyone will gather for a dinner of chateaubriand and salad served on one of the same sets of holiday plates given to Janell and her sisters by their late mother. Joe Ciatti will pick the wines. “I will try to pair whites, reds and dessert wines with what we are serving,” he says. “I typically try to do something extra special for holiday celebrations like bring out an unusually big bottle I’ve collected at auction.”

The best surprise of the night might be the premiere viewing of Greg’s video tribute to Grandpa Jack.

The next morning, when everyone rises to exchange large stockings filled with presents, Janell will serve Ramos Fizzes, egg soufflé and candied bacon. “The children love the candied bacon,” she says. “If I don’t make tons, they’re disappointed.”

Guests are free to come and go throughout the day, but they hurry back in the evening, bringing friends with them, for a buffet of lasagna, salad and cookies set out on the bar. “It’s very casual and relaxed,” Janell says with a laugh. “By that time, I’m usually dead.”

Image 2:  Joe and Janelle Ciatti
Image 3:  A vintage ornament decorates their tree.
Image 4:  A holiday decorated door welcomes you to Tour de Noel

If You Go:

The 21st Annual Tour de Noel
Saturday, December 8     9:30 a.m.–4 p.m.
St. John’s Episcopal Church   14 Lagunitas Rd., Ross
415.456.1102     stjohnsross.org
Tickets: presale $30     Day of event: $35,   Lunch: $10