A night in a suite at the Eldorado Hotel more than a decade ago helps demonstrate the life values of the Nevada-born renaissance man Don Carano, who died October 3 at the age of 85. The night in the suite at Eldorado included Carano, President George H.W. Bush, Steve Wynn and Larry Ruvo, senior managing director of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits of Nevada. Ruvo had been the finance chair of President George W. Bush’s Nevada campaign and was hosting the former president for a speaking engagement in Reno the night of President George W. Bush’s State of the Union. The elder former president wanted to dine but also watch his son’s speech so Carano offered a suite. “We were in that suite for two to three hours before, during and after the State of the Union, having drinks, a wonderful dinner,” said Ruvo, who called Carano a close friend for more than 40 years. “I never heard once the president talk about himself or Don talk about himself. They were two peas in a pod and both family men. Whatever was asked about Don, he deflected the discussion to his family, his children and his business partners.”

Dan Carano’s Path to Becoming a Nevada Luminary

Ruvo said the funeral on October 11 was a celebration of Carano’s life. “As emotional as I was last Wednesday, walking in to say goodbye to a man who was like a brother, I walked out and it was truly a celebration of his life,” Ruvo said. Carano was a pioneer in multiple industries in Nevada and built his portfolio of businesses from a humble upbringing in Reno as a second-generation Italian-American. Born on October 17, 1931 to Louis Carano and Millie Lewis, Carano went through school in Reno before graduating from University of San Francisco and a two-year stint in the U.S. Army.

Following his time in the Army, he went to University of San Francisco Law School and moved back to Reno to found the McDonald, Carano & Wilson law firm. He eventually left the firm as a practicing attorney, but remained of counsel until his death. He used the experiences he learned in his legal career to help build the other portions of his business life.

In 1967, he partnered in the Boomtown Casino and in 1972 bought into the Pioneer Inn before opening the Eldorado Hotel Casino in 1973. According to the Eldorado website, Carano was advised by many not to move forward with the hotel on the north side of the railroad tracks in Reno. Instead, Carano built the hotel and the 282-room hotel with 10,000-square-feet of gaming became a success. It now has more than 800 rooms, eight restaurants and 80,000 square feet of gaming. In addition, the Eldorado Resorts company now has 19 locations in 10 states, including Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The Eldorado separated itself from other casinos with a strong focus on employees, beverages and dining, Ruvo related. The Eldorado opened the La Strada in the 1980s, as well as the Eldorado Coffee Company and a microbrewery called The Brew Brothers, making it the first casino to operate a small brewery.

The culinary focus of the Caranos and the Eldorado are crediting with helping to shape the way Reno eats, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. “The Eldorado was definitely setting the benchmarks for our culinary fabric to move forward in Reno—no doubt about that,” Reno restaurateur Joel Giandalia told the RGJ. 

Cover and feature photos courtesy Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery

Winemaking Venture and Business Expansions

The love of beverage led to a hobby in winemaking, which eventually led to another business venture. In 1981, Don and his wife, Rhonda, launched a Sonoma County winery, Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery. “After they bought the present site, my wife and I and Don and Rhonda sat under a tree and toasted with cheese and wine,” Ruvo recalled. “They did everything they said they would do and more on that property and did it in such a stylish, elegant and loving way.”

His casino ventures expanded in 1992 when he partnered with Circus Circus and Mandalay Resorts/MGM to build Reno’s first mega resort, the Silver Legacy Resort Casino. “He was a proud veteran, respected lawyer, champion of law enforcement, successful winery owner and founder of one of Reno’s most iconic downtown establishments, the Eldorado Hotel and Casino,” Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve said in a statement. “He will be truly missed, but his contributions to The Biggest Little City will live on. Don will forever be known as a pillar and philanthropist in northern Nevada and the surrounding community.”

In 2000 the Caranos expanded their winery business with two additional vineyards, the Vintners Inn and the John Ash & Co. restaurant. In 2008, the Caranos bought Lazy Creek Vineyards in Anderson Valley, famed for its pinot noirs. Today, Ferrari-Carano has 24 estates with more than 1,900 vineyard acres. Many of the winery’s wines are widely lauded, from its fume blanc to its chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons. “After we bought the initial parcel, the wine bug bit us, so over the years we continued to acquire different properties,” Carano reported on the winery’s website. “I’m proud to say that the Ferrari-Carano name represents quality and consistency without compromise, a commitment that is reflected in every bottle of wine we make.”

The original Dry Creek Valley Estate Winery is focused on creating the company’s renowned white wines. The grapes are harvested at night to keep the grapes crisp and intense with fruit flavors, according to the company. The facility has five barrel cellars to ferment and age the chardonnays for “lush, rich wines with complex nuances.” Ferrari-Carano’s red wines are made at the Mountain Winery on the RockRise Mountain on the east side of Alexander Valley.

Philanthropic Endeavors and Accolades

His philanthropic endeavors were also great throughout the years in both Reno and his Alexander Valley home community in California. He was integral to a variety of downtown Reno developments and helped launch the city’s youth football league.

Over the years, Carano was recognized by a variety of organizations, including the International Gaming and Wagering Business Hall of Fame, Nevada Food and Beverage Directors Association, the American Lung Association Distinguished Community Service Award, Hotelier of the Year Award and the International Restaurant and Hospitality Rating Bureau. The University of San Francisco Law School named him Alumnus of the Year in 1999. He was also named a “Knight in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic” by the Consul General of Italy in 1997, the highest honor for an Italian living outside of Italy. Earlier this year, the University of Nevada named him a Distinguished Nevadan.

In a Reno Gazette-Journal article following his passing, former Reno Mayor Bob Cashell called Carano one of the city’s most influential people. “Don Carano was a great leader, he was a great businessman and he was a very generous man who helped a lot of people,” Cashell said in the story. “He was just a great friend and a great partner. He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever known in my life, and I’ll miss him sorely. I bet Reno would look a lot different without Don. It was his leadership that helped create and redevelop downtown. He kept drawing things to that area. Without his leadership, a lot of things wouldn’t have happened.”

Ruvo said Rhonda Carano was able to describe him the best and read an email comment she sent. “Don would want people to remember him for the characteristics of the man he was,” she wrote. “Kind and caring to all, no matter who they were. His unassuming personality defines his magnetism as a person. That was his greatness, not the hotels he built, his brilliant legal mind or the wines he made. It’s his love for all of us.”

The love was spread to many, Ruvo said. Ruvo said the term family is often overused in business, but for the Caranos, it was true. “It was indelible; it wasn’t just said, it was meant,” Ruvo said of the term family. “Whether it’s the Ferrari-Carano Winery or the Eldorado hotel team, there was a true love between them and their employees, but more importantly, their employees and them.

Carano is survived by Rhonda, his five children—Gary, Gene, Glenn, Gregg and Cindy—as well as 11 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and the Eldorado Resorts family, all of whom Carano always put ahead of himself.

“The renaissance man he was, the brilliant mind he had, born in Reno and came from nothing, he became the most revered, respected and loved attorney in the state, then the most successful hotelier in northern Nevada, then goes on to make one of the most iconic wine brands in the world,” Ruvo said. “All this time, he was the revered and loved head of a family, a big family. He still always had time for those kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whether he was cooking, which he loved to do, or just spending time with them or time with me on the boat, which we both loved.

“Always… it was never about him. We lost a great Nevadan.”