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This week on the WineGuyMike™ Radio Show© I uncovered a great American story that really resonated with me. I was very moved by what I learned this week about Balletto Vineyards & Winery, and I’m not talking about the wine we’ll get around to that shortly. Each week I share stories with you that I find so compelling; well I just have to talk about it with anyone who is kind enough to listen. So fasten your seat belt and here we go as I invite you to travel on a virtual road trip to Sonoma County and the Russian River Valley.
Let me give you a little background about my family; my Grandfather was born in Sicily and came to New York State as many Italian immigrants have throughout the history of our country. He was very poor and settled in the real Upstate of New York and not what people that live in the city now refer to as “Upstate”. My Grandfather worked in a steel foundry, raised a family of five, and bought a small farm in Mexico, New York. This farm raised all the food that fed this family and I mean 100%, from the beef, the pork, the poultry, the vegetables, and of course the wine. My Grandfather was a magician at the craft of grafting fruit trees and grape vines, this is where my inspiration for wine was born right in my Grandfathers garden and vineyard.
My grandparent’s had a large roadside vegetable stand that helped provide the scarce money that raised my Italian family. This will give you a little background on why I was so moved in hearing the great American story of Mr. John Balletto and the Balletto Vineyards & Winery.
John Balletto was a high school student with great promise. He was hard working and a great track and football athlete with hope of a very promising collegiate opportunity. John’s Father succumbed to a very untimely death when John was only 17 years old. The dreams of college ended very quickly for John Balletto but his tenacity and willingness to work hard did not. As any entrepreneur will tell you; you better be able to face adversity and shift gears quickly, this is what John Balletto has been so insightful in doing throughout his life.
Facing the reality of the writing on the wall John went to his Mother who had 5 acres of land and with $200.00 dollars John Balletto became a vegetable farmer. This business grew very successfully but the cost of leasing land became prohibitive so with the help of his high school counselor, Mr. Pete Barbieri, John and his wife Terri purchased their first ranch in Santa Rosa, California. John eventually grew his vegetable business to 700 acres of land and was producing 70 varietals of vegetables to the tune of 2 million cases of vegetables a year. John Balletto had become the largest grower north of the Golden Gate Bridge, pretty darned impressive for a guy who became a vegetable farmer at 17 with all the money, $200.00, he had to his name.
Things began to change in John’s game though. In 1994 and 1995 the NAFTA Agreement was put in place and drastically changed the vegetable business. With the floodgates opened to the outside world to import their vegetables into the U.S. it made it next to impossible to sustain meaningful business. John didn’t quit though, his tenacity drove him on. Mother Nature was very cruel or so it appeared in 1998 with three successive El Nino storms wiping out three successive crops. The vegetable farming business was done but John Balletto was not. He had 35 acres of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, planted on the western hillside of his ranch in Sebastopol, California.
Guess what John did next? You guessed right John began the conversion of his land that he grew his vegetables on and began turning that land into vineyards. John had a mentor, Mr. Warren Dutton whose families farming history dates back to the 19th Century. Mr. Dutton suggested that John consider getting into the grape growing business and John did just that, and the rest is history. John is now the largest vineyard owner in Sonoma County and produces wines under the Balletto Vineyards & Winery label. 10% of the grapes that John produces are used for their own Estate grown and produced wines while the other 90% are being used by other winemakers and vineyards around the region. In July 2010, the Balletto Family was honored being awarded the Sonoma County Farm Bureau Farm Family of the Year.
Part two of this story; even if you grow amazing grapes which John Balletto does you have to have someone who knows what they’re doing when it comes to the winemaking piece of the equation. Enter Anthony Beckman, winemaker extraordinaire. Anthony was my featured guest on the WineGuyMike™ Radio Show© this week. Anthony started his career as a daily news journalist on the East Coast and has always had a burning passion for wine and food. After leaving his career as a journalist Anthony worked in bio-tech software development in San Francisco. He was a frequent flier in the Sonoma Wine country as this is where his heart truly was. No longer able to resist his true calling Anthony was up to his knees in a tank of Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, he quit his tech job and has never looked back. His second harvest found Anthony in New Zealand. He obviously is drawn to varietals that like the day time sun and nice cool nights. Anthony came back to Northern California as head wine buyer for Taylor’s gourmet grocery market in the Sacramento area.
Like many aspiring winemakers before him Anthony got himself checked into one of the finest wine institutions in the world, U.C. Davis. Anthony received his degrees in Enology and Viticulture from the hallowed grounds of Davis. In 2007 Anthony was hired by Balletto as their Enologist and was then promoted to Head Winemaker in 2009.
Having Anthony as a guest this week on the WineGuyMike™ Radio Show© was a real treat. Anthony graduated from U.C. Davis with top honors and it was obvious why. This winemaker has a burning passion and love for wine first and is as smart and articulate a guest as I have had the pleasure of having on the show.
As hard work, timing, and opportunity would have it for John Balletto as he transitioned from vegetables to grape growing in Sonoma County and the Russian River Valley, this area turned out to be one of the best places to grow grapes that there is. Mother Nature took its cruel El Nino swipe at John but he never gave up. It was a blessing in disguise as the climate of Sonoma provides perfect growing conditions. The weather in Sonoma is foggy until late morning when it burns off and makes way for sunny clear blue skies late into the day. The cool prevailing winds that influence this area are perfect for growing exceptional grapes that are draped with moist dew thoroughout the night into the late morning hours. In other words the grapes bake in the sunshine all day and then the cool moist influence shuts down the ripening process throughout the night and allows the fruit and sugars to concentrate within the grapes. That’s why Sonoma County wines in the right hands of a great winemaker are fantastic, and this is what the Balletto wines are.
I thought a great deal about my conversation with Anthony Beckman this week while I virtually tasted wines with him on the radio show and wondered why he is a great winemaker. The Balletto wines are some of the best wines I have tasted in recent memory. As I have said before great wines are a direct translation of a winemakers personality in a bottle, and this is the case with Balletto wines and winemaker Anthony Beckman. The other thing Anthony has going for him is that he doesn’t realize yet just how good of a winemaker he really is. Anthony makes wines in a style that I love, not overdone and not underdone, just perfect.
At Balletto Vineyards & Winery they produce wines that are in a food friendly style that really complement your meal. The wines are a bit lower in alcohol, are high in acidity, and these wines are not over manipulated. The Balletto wines are fermented and barrel aged on the lees, but in old barrels that leave the wine in a state of neutrality meaning the wood from the barrels do not overly impart their nuances into the wine. These wines are stirred to let all the goodness of the lees and sediment to infuse with the juice and maintain a wonderful texture in the Balletto wines. Honestly these wines are just some of the very best California has to offer. Anthony’s personality in the bottle is this; detailed and restrained. You must try these wines; I will be enjoying them today at my usual Sunday family gathering.
I tasted through three of the Balletto wines with Anthony this week and here are the wines I sampled.
2008 Pinot Gris
Here’s a fantastically complex Pinot Gris. This pale-straw colored wine opens with musky and exotic fresh fig and floral honey tones. The secondary aromas reveal ripe red apple, melon and lemon. Altogether, these aromas are ever-changing and intoxicating. In the mouth, its lush and perfectly viscous with a dose of tartness that balances and holds the wine together.
The fig and honey aromas make a secondary appearance in the finish to create a generous and incredibly long aftertaste thats enhanced with a hint of butterscotch. This versatile food wine has enough body and flavor to complement rich seafood like lobster and scallops and would also serve as an aperitif. It’s a perfect summertime wine.
To add complexity, the Balletto Pinot Gris is made in two separate lots. The first is fermented in a stainless steel tank at 52 degrees Fahrenheit. This cold fermentation takes up to five months to complete and gives the wine its bright fruit tones and crisp mouth feel. The second half is fermented in old, neutral barrels and generally finishes in three to six weeks. The barrels are stirred every two weeks to keep the solids in suspension and enhance the wines texture.
This beautiful golden-straw colored wine has lush and heady aromas of honey, cream and mango that nicely compliment its brighter green apple and pear aromas. There is a touch of spice and vanilla from oak ageing and a scent of Meyer lemon that foreshadows the wines crisp acidity.
In the mouth, the viscosity and balance of the wine instantly stand out. There’s a gorgeous weight and texture which is offset by both the wines bright fruit and its refreshing acidity. It’s one of those wines that draws you in for a second (and third) sip. Granny Smith apple, baking spices and rich creme brulee round out the initial flavors, and then it finishes with lasting apricot and light butterscotch.
This wine is easy to enjoy at the dinner table. It has the rare quality of being lush and refreshing at the same time and will enhance a wide variety of foods. Because of its tartness and texture, it will pair well with salty foods like aged cheeses, roasted sardines and oysters. It can also pair based on its creamy side and compliment rich soups like butternut squash and potato leek, or a wide variety of roasted white meats and vegetables.
This wine was completely fermented in 60-gallon French oak barrels (28% of which were new). The wines were stirred every two weeks for the first seven months and then left to settle for bottling after 10 months. The frequent stirring of the yeast cells on the bottom of each barrel helped give the wine its rich texture and mouth-feel which developed as the spent yeast cells slowly degraded and released enriching molecules into the wine. This traditional practice has been used for hundreds of years to enhance the texture and weight of Chardonnay.
2009 Russian River Pinot Noir
This dark, garnet colored Pinot Noir exhibits floral aromas of rose petals intertwined with spice components of ginger, dusty earth and a hint of vanilla. Fruit aromas of raspberry and cassis form the core of the wine, and in the mouth, create a long, delicious finish that can be tasted for several minutes.
The wine is showy with a seamless viscosity that is balanced with a healthy bit of tartness to keep the wine fresh and lively. It’s full in the palate with fine, coco-powder like tannins and a nice dose of astringency that lend additional grip and structure to this wine. Overall, the wine has struck the fine balance between delicate and structured, and will improve with bottle aging during the next five years (or more).
With the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, they ferment each lot of grapes separately in three to six ton batches. They do not add commercial yeast to the tanks and instead rely on the natural yeasts found on the grapes and throughout the winery to ferment the juice. This process tends to increase the length of the fermentation and add an additional layer of complexity to the finished wine. During fermentation and barrel aging, they treat the new wine as gently as possible in an effort to preserve its aroma.
The Balletto wines reviewed today all receive the WineGuyMike™ Seal of Approval™