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Willie Benedetti, legendary rancher, turkey farmer and restaurateur, dies at 69

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Willie Benedetti, the lifelong Sonoma-Marin rancher and greater than fiction, cigar-puffing country character perhaps best known for his enormous, smoked-then-grilled turkey legs, died Friday at 69.

Benedetti, a partner in Benedetti Farms and in the Willie Bird’s Restaurant consistently praised as one of the region’s greatest old-school bars and dining spots, succumbed to an aggressive abdominal cancer.

“You’re talking a legend,” John Zimmerman said Friday from behind the bar at Willie Bird’s in Santa Rosa. A bartender there for 31 years, Zimmerman said Benedetti was beloved by legions and was renowned for falling asleep from apnea without a Dutch Master cigar falling from his mouth.

Said the restaurant’s manager, Judy MacDonald, a friend of Benedetti’s since high school, “Willie was just a very likable guy.

“He loved to sit at the bar and visit with all the customers” she said. “He was a nice guy.”

The fourth-generation Sonoma County rancher and his family partners never were as polished and refined as many of Sonoma County’s more recent agriculture elites, the grape growers and vintners. But they never were hayseeds, either.

The Benedettis sent smoked turkeys to the White House and for years Williams-Sonoma has sold their free-range turkeys through its catalogue. The Queen of England savored one of Willie Benedetti’s smoked ducks.

“He loved his business,” said Arthur Benedetti of Petaluma, one of Benedetti’s two sons.

Last October, the Tubbs fire threatened the Benedettis’ working farm northeast of Santa Rosa. As many as 40,000 holiday birds might have perished had state firefighters not aggressively fought the fire and opened Calistoga Road to allow trucks bring feed in and ship turkeys out.

“Cal Fire saved these turkeys,” Willie Benedetti declared at the time.

His late parents, Walter and Aloha, and Walter’s brother, Alvin, got their start in the poultry business outside of Petaluma following World War II. But they focused on selling fertile turkey eggs.

Willie Benedetti was just 14 when, in 1963, he rerouted the family into raising turkeys for the dinner table. As a Future Farmers of America project, the Sonoma Valley High School freshman hatched nearly 500 turkeys and raised them for sale as holiday dinners.

Benedetti’s father wasn’t wild about the project because of the extra work involved in raising meat birds, but his wife aided and abetted it.

The story goes that on the day before Thanksgiving of 1963, the Benedetti boy walked into John King’s Beauty Salon in Petaluma to deliver a freshly dressed turkey to a stylist and she announced, “Here comes the Willie bird!”

Then and there was born the name of the fledgling Benedetti business.

In time, Willie Benedetti and his brother, Riley Benedetti, and their cousin, Rocky Koch, were raising tens of thousands of Willie Bird turkeys for sale around the country for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Heck, we’ve just kept raising our turkeys outside the way everyone did in the old days,” Benedetti said in 2011 to Tim Tesconi, the former Press Democrat farm editor and Sonoma County Farm Bureau chief.

“We used to call them ranch-raised. Now they call them free range.”

Tesconi observed in his article seven years ago, “Willie Bird has become the Cadillac of turkeys, commanding a premium price because it’s Sonoma County-grown, free range and fed a diet of organic grains.”

Willie Benedetti and his partners operated also a deli on Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

It was Benedetti’s mother, Aloha Benedetti, who founded Willie Bird’s Restaurant in 1980 in a former hofbrau. Her son, the joint’s namesake, later took it over from her.

Benedetti and his partners also fired up the grill at the Sonoma County Fair, Santa Rosa’s Wednesday Night Market and other public events. Their huge turkey legs, previously smoked and then grilled on-site, are legendary.

Willie Bird smoked turkey bacon is hugely popular, too.

Willie Benedetti, a 1967 graduate of Sonoma Valley High, lived on a 267-acre ranch in western Marin County, near Valley Ford. More than a year ago, he got entangled in a legal beef with Marin County when he applied to build a home on the land for his son, Arthur.

County land-use officials told him that to comply with a new law, he could not build the home unless he abandoned plans for retirement and agreed to continue farming on the land. Benedetti and the Pacific Legal Foundation sued Marin County.

Benedetti told a reporter last February, “It’s crazy because if I build the house, the county will literally never see it or even know it’s here.

“My nearest neighbor is 5 miles away,” he said. “Who in the hell is the house going to bother? I’m talking about a little house for my son and grandkids out here beside me.”

His son, Arthur, said Friday his dad and the County of Marin resolved the dispute, and permission for the construction of a home for him and his family has been approved. But with his father’s death, he said, the construction plan is on hold.

If Willie Benedetti wasn’t raising turkeys or spending time with his family, he was happiest watching and promoting the sport of rugby, or fishing.

Just this past June, he fished for halibut for a week in Alaska. “We came back with 650 pounds of fish,” Arthur Benedetti said.

Willie Benedetti died at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital early Friday morning.

Said Art Benedetti, “You should have seen the people flow into the hospital. He helped out a lot of people.”

In addition to his son in Petaluma and his brother, Riley, in Santa Rosa, Benedetti is survived by son Aaron Benedetti of Valley Ford, brother Eddie Benedetti of Petaluma and two grandchildren.

Arrangements for services have not yet been made.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.