“The knowledge base John and I have, at this point, is really what makes the wine in the bottle what it is.” —Anthony Beckman
The Balletto family’s road to BEST Pinot Noir started in 1977, when John Balletto took over the family’s five-acre farm following his father’s untimely passing (John was just six months out of high school). Within 10 years, he’d grown it into one of the largest vegetable farms in Northern California.
“In 1995, we planted 35 acres of grapes on Burnside Road, because we didn’t have enough water to grow vegetables there,” says Balletto, adding that Warren Dutton offered guidance and support for the venture. “In 2001, we made our first wine: 200 cases of Chardonnay and 200 cases of Pinot Noir.”
Today, the Balletto family grows more than 600 acres of premium winegrapes, all in Russian River Valley; only 10 percent of the fruit is held for the Balletto wine label (the balance is sold to 25 other Sonoma County wineries). “I’m like a kid in a candy shop,” says winemaker Anthony Beckman, who joined the winery in 2007. “Because we’re only taking 10 percent of what we’ve planted, I can be really picky about what comes in as Balletto Pinot Noir.
“Plus, since it’s all estate fruit, John and I can spend a lot of time in the vineyards throughout the year making decisions and timely adjustments that affect fruit quality. Pinot Noir isn’t a grape you can bring into the winery and make dramatic changes to improve it. The day you pick it, you hope it’s 95 percent done.
“The knowledge base John and I have, at this point, is really what makes the wine in the bottle what it is.”
Balletto produces 18 bottlings as of 2013, covering six different varietals. Its seven Pinot Noirs are all estate blends or vineyard designates (it also produces a Rosé of Pinot Noir). Tasting highlights include the 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: “It has a fruit core, but is equally savory,” says Beckman. “There’s nice baking spice around the edges, and the oak is held in check."
The 2012 Sexton Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir is my favorite of the day. “This is one of six single-vineyard Pinots we produce,” says Beckman. “It grows at about 900 feet elevation, about 10 miles from the ocean. So again, it moves away from the ‘softer’ perception of Pinot. This has some black tea and aromas that are harder to define; it’s spicier, more savory and tannic. It’s a bigger-style Pinot.”
To demonstrate how different each Balletto Pinot Noir is, we next taste the 2012 Winery Block Pinot, which, says Beckman, “is not an easy Pinot. When I taste it, I get bramble fruit, but also a sautéed mushroom essence—earthiness—maybe coffee/mocha/molasses. It’s more acidic that our other Pinots, definitely ready for food.”
Asked what about Pinot Noir is so appealing, Beckman becomes philosophical. “It’s a tough wine,” he says. “It’s not a big color or big structure wine, usually, but it still has to have structure and tannin; it can’t be completely soft. It’s a wine that has to show its balance on all levels. It’s very finicky, hard to grow and prone to rot and unevenness.
“When you take something that’s so thin-skinned and try to grow it in an environment like this one, where it’s wet and foggy, you really have to be on top of it to get a quality product. …And because it’s so difficult, there comes an allure of ‘I can do this.’ You work harder.”
And that is how award-winning Pinot Noir happens.
“It’s very rewarding for us to win something like this, that we can share with our staff and club members,” says Balletto. “We’re very honored. I know it’s not only a reflection of the wine, but of the whole Balletto team. It’s our staff, and it’s how Balletto is entrenched in the community.”
“It’s really nice, for all the hours we put in here, to get this sort of recognition,” agrees Beckman.
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