Dino Cortopassi stands in the viewing tower and gazes upon his paradise.
In every direction, there is life.
Ducks drift on a lagoon below. In the distance, a coyote prowls a stubbled field. Directly across from the tower, Sandhill cranes rise skyward.
The Black Hole, it is called. West of Lodi on Woodbridge Road, it is a preserve like no other, a hooting, cawing, quacking, warbling, flapping and spectacular oasis of life.
The viewing tower is an aerie of sorts, a retreat with leather chairs, high-powered Canon binoculars, and a spotting scope that might reveal a sparrow on Mars.
As he scans for Mallard ducks, Cortopassi is asked if there is a spot in the preserve that holds special appeal for him.
“No, not one place,” he said. “Look, there are 750 acres out here. I love it all.”
He is proud of what he has created, and still nourishes, at The Black Hole. Yet the process of creating an arcadia from a vast cornfield did not come with an instruction manual.
Along the way, for Cortopassi, a man of formidable grit and acuity, there were many lessons learned — and no lack of frustration.
A ‘Delta Rat’ with a gift for business
“D--- Sand Willows, look at ‘em all.”
On a cloudy autumn morning, Cortopassi, 83, is leading a tour of his preserve. He wears a bright red ball cap, a camo vest, green plaid shirt, and denims. His clothes are rustic-casual, but his silvery goatee and penetrating eyes lend a professorial edge.
He slows his Toyota Sequoia and points out a large stand of spindly plants.
The Sand Willows were part of the grand experiment he began in 1992 with the launch of The Black Hole. As it turned out, they were a mistake.
Cortopassi has worked and played in the Delta nearly all his life. He is a self-described Delta Rat, someone who knows — and appreciates — the Delta from the peat soil up.
At 10, he started driving a truck, hauling barley, on the Delta farm of his father, Amerigo, who immigrated to America from Italy at age 17. On weekends and during the summer, Cortopassi put in 12-hour days, braving the sun and dust and muck. When he had a few rare free hours, he was hunting and fishing, usually in the Delta.
In those days, the Delta skies would nearly erupt with birds, thousands upon thousands of them, streaking through the skies in dazzling displays that would be etched into Cortopassi’s memory forever.
Later, after graduating from UC Davis, he leased land and became a Delta farmer himself.
As it turned out, an exceptionally astute one.
Cortopassi, over the years, amassed over 5,000 acres of farmland, most of it in the Delta. He grew many crops, from beans and rice to cucumbers. But he had a special penchant for tomatoes, and purchased a cannery in Modesto to process them. That business, Stanislaus Food Products, remains a highly profitable supplier to restaurants and pizzerias across the country. He also invested in real estate, olive oil, and even ice cream.
Yet there was always the siren song of the Delta. He loved relaxing there with friends and family, reveling in the change of seasons, exalting in sounds and sights of nature.
“You know how a kid is on Christmas morning? That’s Dino at sunrise in The Black Hole, when the ducks are coming in,” said Fritz Grupe, a long-time friend.
Over the years, Cortopassi felt a growing need to give back to the region from which he had taken so much.
And so in 1992, the quest began.
Cortopassi would take most of his profitable acreage on Brack Tract out of cultivation. He would create the ultimate wildlife haven, one where small-scale farming and a myriad of creatures co-existed, where the throb and flurry of nature would continue throughout the year.
That such a venture had never been attempted before did not faze him.
Risking much and winning big
Time and time again, Cortopassi has trusted his instincts.
“Dino is not afraid to push all his chips in,” said Grupe.
He invested heavily in Dreyer’s Ice Cream over several years, even when the stock price cratered. He steadfastly believed in the company and its top management, and kept buying.
When Dreyer’s was eventually sold to Nestle, Cortopassi and a circle of friends and family had accumulated a substantial chunk of the company.
The sales price: $2 billion.
When Cortopassi felt his farming company had been cheated by Libby, McNeill and Libby over the sale of green beans, he launched an expensive and protracted lawsuit.
To settle an appeal over punitive damages against Libby, Cortopassi flew to Chicago to deal directly with the then-president.
In the exec’s corner office, Cortopassi offered one number, the Libby exec held fast to another. It seemed a stalemate. As he moved toward the door in the president’s corner office, Cortopassi paused, and then made a final proposal.
Let’s flip for it, he said.
The president was taken back, then agreed.
As he began The Black Hole, Cortopassi was pushing his chips in.
‘Loafing knolls’ for a favored bird
Of those creatures he hoped to attract, he prized one above all: Mallard ducks, also known as Greenheads, which he’d hunted for many years.
“They are the wiliest ducks,” he said. “They are a true challenge, the toughest to hunt.”
He knew attracting them would be simple, as many thousand Mallards migrate into the Delta each winter, then return home to northern climes. Cortopassi didn’t want to merely attract vagabonds. He wanted them to nest at his preserve, lay their eggs, raise their young.
“The long-range goal wasn’t to shoot them, but create a year-round habitat for them,” he said.
He started with 350 acres. It would not be a matter of simply reducing farm operations. Ironically, for the land to burst with untamed diversity, much human intervention would be needed. Water flows had to be carefully modulated. Soil had to be contoured to provide the ideal mosaic of cover, marsh, open field and open water. The right mix of flora would be critical.
Cortopassi consulted biologists and became disillusioned.
“They are in silos. They are smart, but ignorant of the Delta and how nature interacts out here,” he said. “They couldn’t see the whole picture.”
They were not, he said, Delta Rats.
He trusted his own vision, and also relied on people who’d worked in the field, whose fingernails weren’t always clean. Chief among these advisors was Gary Kerhoulas, manager of a hunting club in the Sacramento Valley.
Over months, Cortopassi and his team of hands-on wildlife managers built the preserve. And learned. The first watercourses were too broad. They had to be narrowed, and more cover added.
“I call Mallards the `Wild Bill Hickok’ of ducks,” he recalled. “They like a lot of cover at their backs.”
Some plants, though native, proved to be bullies. Sand Willows spread out and choked other vegetation. So did cattails. So Cortopassi stopped planting the Sand Willows and started planting Gooding’s Willows, which are tidier, more vertical, like trees. Tules were planted instead of the aggressive cattails.
New pumps and water pipes were installed. (There are now six miles of pipe on the property.) Nesting boxes for wood ducks were raised, 62 in all.
Gravel mounds, referred to kiddingly as “loafing knolls,” were added so ducks could dry off, warm themselves, and relax.
Amidst the lagoons and marshes, modest slices of farmland were cultivated, though with surgical care. Crops were planted as cover for wildlife or feed, or both. Corn, which degrades peat soil more rapidly than most other crops, was sharply reduced and replaced with rice, wheat and alfalfa.
A scientist’s grasp
As he masterminded The Black Hole, Cortopassi called upon his own experiences as a farmer and hunter. He collaborated with the chosen few whom he trusted. He also studied. He’s an avid and retentive reader, devouring four newspapers each day and the New York Times on Sunday. For customers, friends and family, he edits a quarterly compendium of news and features. In the most recent edition, his introduction cited Shakespeare’s Richard III and shared the etiology of the word, “hallelujah.”
He speaks three languages, English, Italian and Spanish. His vocabulary is uniquely rich, and includes the saltier edges of the lexicon. Grupe recalls his grandson, Fritzie Huber, after hunting with Cortopassi, shared an observation:
“Mr. Cortopassi sure uses a lot of curse words.”
The boy’s dad, Kevin, suggested that Fritzie had probably heard most of the words before.
“Yeah, but I’ve never heard them strung together the way Mr. Cortopassi does,” the boy replied.
To manage The Black Hole as productively as possible, Cortopassi steeped himself in the biology, agronomy and hydraulics of the Delta. With a scientist’s grasp of detail, he can expound on how global warming is reducing the duck migration to the Delta or how different crops affect peat soil subsidence.
He can also share trivia.
“Did you know a duck can sleep standing on one leg?,” he asked.
From exasperation, a name
Driving through The Black Hole’s heavy equipment area, Cortopassi pauses his SUV and points out a tractor. Mounted on either side are wing-like extensions festooned with bells.
Before harvesting alfalfa or grains, the tractor moves through the field, bells ringing. Mallard hens are flushed from the nests, and a stake is planted near the nests to mark them.
When the harvest begins, the nests are spared.
Month by month, Cortopassi’s vision became reality, but the changes — and expenses — seemed a constant.
“Every time I’d go out there, he’d tell me, ‘dammit, Fritz, this didn’t work so I have to do this and change that and fix something else.’” recalled Grupe. “And I told him, ‘Dino, this whole thing is nothing but a big black hole.’”
The name stuck.
In 2002, Cortopassi added 400 more acres to the preserve. Over time, the birds and other creatures came, and they came in great variety and numbers. To minimize environmental damage, the preserve is not open to the public. Cortopassi makes it available to members of the Audubon Society, who’ve noted several dozen bird species, from hummingbirds and orioles to owls and vultures.
Acre-for-acre, it likely holds the richest diversity of life in the Delta.
“When you visit The Black Hole, you feel you are stepping back in time, getting a glimpse of the Delta as it may have been many years ago, before so many changes, even before the Gold Rush,” said Ken Nieland, president of the Sandhill Crane Festival, which Cortopassi has supported since its inception.
Room for reflection
By any metric, The Black Hole has been a resounding success.
Not long ago, Cortopassi sat next to a large lagoon at his preserve and methodically counted 229 birds.
Of those, 215 were Mallards.
He allows limited hunting on the property by a few friends, but is not interested in killing birds himself anymore.
“For us, at our age, the bloodlust isn’t there,” Grupe said. “We’d rather protect ducks than shoot them.”
Yet nature evolves, nothing is static, Cortopassi says. So The Black Hole must evolve, too.
The quest must continue.
In 2016 Cortopassi and his wife, Joan, established and funded the Wetlands Preservation Foundation. It’s aim: make sure The Black Hole continues in perpetuity.
There is a full-time crew of workers at The Black Hole carrying out Cortopassi’s directions. Yet Cortopassi insists on climbing aboard a tractor or bulldozer himself and doing the major earthmoving, or “sculpting” as he calls it, for the preserve.
During the pandemic, Cortopassi, who is semi-retired, spends much of his time at The Black Hole, usually with his black Labrador, Cooper, at his side. There is a sprawling clubhouse with a conference room, dining room, kitchen, and living quarters. Adjacent is the 40-foot viewing tower.
There is a space Cortopassi calls “The Serenity Room.” It is enclosed by big picture windows and is usually bathed in sunlight. There are comfortable chairs. A table is laden with books and magazines.
The room fronts a pond fringed by tules and willows, a showcase for waterfowl, including his cherished Mallards.
Cortopassi, the quintessential Delta Rat, often settles into a chair in the room, reflecting on the wondrous place he created.
“I look out sometimes and just think: What a lucky man I am.”
Rich Hanner can be contacted at email@example.com