Apr 22, 2021
Sal Giumarra, California grape industry icon, dies at 95

Sal Giumarra, who for 50 years led the Giumarra family grape-growing operation, died at age 95 in Bakersfield, California on March 25.

During his tenure as president of Giumarra Vineyards, Sal oversaw the company’s expansion to become known as a premier grower of table grapes and established the “GrapeKing” label as an industry-standard of quality throughout the world.

Sal Giumarra

According to his obituary, he did this not from behind a desk but in the fields alongside his employees, and many of his farming innovations are now standard practices in the industry. For 41 of those years, Sal also served as a member of the Arvin-Edison Water Storage District Board of Directors providing leadership to the District when it implemented critical water management programs and projects for District landowners.

Known and respected as much for his decency and generosity as for his skills and hard work, Sal attended Pacific Military Academy in Culver City beginning in the second grade. Pacific reinforced the core values he learned at home with his family: honor, discipline, pride, and duty. Sal’s father Joe, who had lived a rags-to-riches story to become one of the largest wholesale fruit and vegetable suppliers in Southern California, began to grow his own produce in Delano and Bakersfield and in 1942 moved his family from Los Angeles to Bakersfield. Sal graduated from Bakersfield High School in 1943 lettering in football, the sport which he loved. He received his draft notice shortly after graduation and, although he might have claimed exemption as part of a farming family, he joined the Army Air Force that October. In that selfless commitment and true to his early learned values, he was one of those dubbed “The Greatest Generation”- the men and women who chose to do their part fighting fascism because it was the right thing to do.

Sal served as a tail gunner with the 91st Bombardment Group of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, doing bombing runs in Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers over Germany from his base in Bassingbourn, England. The odds of survival for B-17 crews were less than 50-50, and over 50,000 American airmen died in WWII, the majority over Germany. On the famous Black Thursday mission in 1943 over Schweinfurt, more than 60 B-17s were shot down.

Sal, too, was shot down, on his 18th mission, crash-landing in Giessen Germany. As his plane was losing altitude, with one engine on fire and the other running out of control, Sal accidentally spilled his parachute while jettisoning a machine gun. Because he couldn’t jump, every member of the crew voted to stay with the falling plane. Sal recalled later in life, “In that moment I experienced the ultimate blessing of camaraderie.” Miraculously surviving the landing and ready to take on the enemy, he and his crew evacuated the downed plane with guns drawn only to be met by American troops and the news that Patton had taken the area just 45 minutes earlier. That experience further deepened his faith, in God and in man.

Once he returned home, these lessons of duty, hard work, loyalty, comradeship and love of family guided the remainder of his life. In later years, when asked to discharge a poorly performing employee, he famously replied, “I’ll help him. I’m a maker of men, not a breaker of men.”

Like many of his generation Sal was born to immigrant parents and grandparents. His father Joe and grandfather, Salvatore, came from Ragusa, Sicily, and settled in Los Angeles where Sal was born on July 16, 1925. He began a life of farming at age 13, working in the fields beside his father after school hours and every summer.

After the Army and graduation from Bakersfield College, where he played football on the 1948 Renegades championship team, Sal joined his brother Al raising cattle and farming cotton until his father prevailed on them to join the grape-growing operations at Giumarra Vineyards. In the 1960s Sal was president and under his leadership of a team of family members, Giumarra Vineyards grew from a local farm into a global business.

Joe Giumarra, Sal’s nephew and currently Vice President of Field Operations and member of GVC’s board of directors, described Sal as a force of nature, a visionary, and a life-long inspiration whom he saw as a second father and said: Sal had a green thumb. His first love was grapes, but he was also a grower of tree fruit, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, carrots wheat, barley and cotton. He was as capable with tree fruit and with wheat, barley, and cotton. His early application of scientific methods-especially in the use of size and bloom sprays for Thompson Seedless-made Giumarra one of the premier growers in the world. That success was equally attributable to Sal’s attention to packing methods and his obsession with quality control.

But most of all, Sal was persistent. He would not allow failure to discourage him or disillusion his employees. If something didn’t work he’d say, ‘it was just a trial experiment,’ and move on. He inspired loyalty in all-from managers to field employees. His is a great loss.

Leroy Kuntz, a long time Giumarra veteran and also Vice President of Field Operations, reflected as follows on Sal’s leadership: He was a pioneer in our industry-from using Gibberellic acid in the stretch/bloom and sizing of table grapes to developing the first two-row sprayers. His findings are still in use worldwide. But it was his personal qualities that stood out. He never asked anyone to do anything he wouldn’t do. He trained everyone, raising people up, teaching those who couldn’t read or do the math needed for a job, until they could advance. He ran his ‘escuelas’ in a mix of English and Spanish with an occasional bit of Italian. I loved working with him, and I loved him.

Sal, who knew no bounds in the love for his family, was predeceased by his wife of 48 years, Florence Easton, and by their daughter Sally. He is survived by Cynthia, his wife of 25 years, his brother Alfred and his wife Rosemary, and by his daughters from his first marriage, Gina Giumarra MacArthur, Dede Giumarra, and Terri Giumarra, by his grandson Henri MacArthur and his wife Sarah, his granddaughter Grace MacArthur, and his great-grandchildren, Cassidy, Jace and Raelynn MacArthur. Beloved husband, father, and grandpa, he is and will be deeply missed by all and will be remembered as a man whose word was his bond and who was kind, generous and ready to help anyone in need.

Sal was a faithful member of the Canyon Hills Assembly of God. A Memorial and Celebration of Life will be held at Canyon Hills Church at 10:30 a.m.on July 16, 2021, which would have been Sal’s 96th birthday.

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