Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Syrah, Zinfandel
Even though its first vintage was only five years ago, Balletto Vineyards has its roots firmly planted in Sonoma County. Born out of what was once the largest produce grower north of the Golden Gate, this family winery is getting noticed for good reason. (Its 2004 Zinfandel won a double gold medal at the 2005 Sonoma County Harvest Fair, and Wine Enthusiast deemed the 2004 Pinot Grigio a Best Buy in February.) So how do you move from growing vegetables to making award-winning wine? Having a passion for farming and a smart business sense certainly doesn’t hurt.
John Balletto, who owns the winery with his wife Terri, was working toward an athletic career when his father’s untimely death in 1977 (John was 17 at the time) took him down a different path. Instead of going to college, where he’d planned to continue playing football and running track, he took over the small farm on the family property, growing zucchini and other vegetables. “We had about $500 in the bank and one old flatbed truck,” says John. “We’d work all day [John’s mother Hazel worked beside him on the farm from 1977 until 1992 when she was 75 years old], then I’d drive the vegetables to market every night.”
All that hard work bred success for the Ballettos. Their farm grew from four acres in 1977 to more than 500 by 1985. By 1990, they were producing more than a million cartons of vegetables annually, had 200 employees and owned their own trucking company and shipping facility. In 1995, they began planting grapes in west Sebastopol on the recommendation of family friend Warren Dutton. “There wasn’t enough water for vegetables there,” says John, “so we planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.”
When 1998 saw a stormy spring much like that of 2006, the farm suffered devastating crop loss. That, coupled with other economic factors, prompted additional grape plantings beginning in 1999. By 2001, the Ballettos had more than 300 acres of grapes planted and had crushed their first vintage of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Late that year, they sold the vegetable business, retained their land holdings and started making more wine. By 2005 they were up to 8,000 cases annually.
The Balletto estate sells about 90 percent of its grapes to other wineries, including Sonoma-Cutrer, Gary Farrell, Kenwood, Bogle, Domaine Chandon, La Crema, WesMar and Alderbrook. The remaining 10 percent stays on the estate, where consulting winemaker Dan Cederquist has first pick of the clones, crops and blocks he wants to keep.
The cellar team is headed up by Cederquist, who’s also a partner for Crew Wines. Cederquist met John Balletto in 1998. “I just loved the grapes coming off his property,” he says. “The Pinot Noirs John produces are fabulous.” Cederquist’s team makes Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Dry Gewurztraminer and Zinfandel. The Zinfandel is grown in the Russian River Valley at BCD Farms. The same vineyard is also producing a Syrah that Cederquist describes as “a beautiful, big wine that needs more time in the barrel.” The scheduled release date for that one is 2007.
John also gives credit to his “many wonderful employees, including Garth Harding [who’s been there 21 years], Manuel Vallejo [20 years] and Monica Hunter [8 years], among others” for the winery’s success. And also to his mother, who with only a third-grade education, was on her own at 17 and never looked back. “She taught me many things: How to work hard, to always keep my word, to be a good and fair person and to be conservative. Well, conservative wasn’t for me—but I still hold to the other principles,” he says. And those principles, combined with the right group of people, have resulted in some noteworthy wine.
The 2004 Sonoma Coast Pinot Grigio has aromas of melons and apples and a smooth, creamy feel with rounded flavors of tropical fruits and subtle spices.
For their 2005 vintage, Terri Balletto had the idea to create a Chardonnay that was fermented in stainless steel (it did have partial malolactic fermentation to smooth it out). The idea was to let the fruit speak for itself, without the influence of the barrel coming through (it’s a notion that’s growing in popularity among Chardonnay drinkers). This particular “Theresa’s Vineyard” Chardonnay has a pear and honey aroma and comes off earthy and smooth on the tongue. It has a finish that’s dappled with citrus, minerals and just a pat of butter. It’s entirely different from the winery’s 2002 Chardonnay, which is a bit livelier on the nose. In fact, I think I’ll go ahead and call it sassy: It’s a sassy, creamy Chardonnay with hints of vanilla, honey and fig on the palate.
The two Pinot Noirs I sampled were quite different in character as well. The 2002 has that sultry, sensual Pinot Noir scent I’ve grown to covet. Combined with aromas of cherries, raspberries and butter, it begs for a taste before your mouth is even near it. Its structure is light, earthy and food-friendly. The 2004 has a spicy, fruity nose and flavors of vanilla, dark berries and cherries. I have a special place in my heart for 2004 Pinot Noir—and this one fits right in.
Next came the 2004 Zinfandel (of which only a few precious bottles are left). Its grapes came from cuttings from DeLoach’s old vine Papara Vineyard. It’s thick and lovely on the nose with aromas of blueberries and cinnamon. Its deep garnet color is true to its smooth, dark cherry finish. Once I had some, I immediately started looking for some dark chocolate. I think those two would go down just fine together. (Go ahead and argue—I’m sticking to my guns on this one.)
The 2005 Dry Gewurztraminer has vanilla and caramel aromas with more of an apricot taste on the palate and a creamy, vanilla-laced finish. Not too sweet, it’s only available in the tasting room and at restaurants.
All the grapes Balletto uses are hand-picked and then placed into French oak barrels following steel tank fermentation. The barrel room was formerly the vegetable facility and holds 1,800 barrels. Behind that building is a state-of-the-art, 10 million-gallon wastewater holding pond, designed by David Long at Brelje & Race, which is used for irrigation. Even further back lies the Laguna de Santa Rosa wildlife preserve, which the estate backs up to on the west side. “Eventually there will be a trail from Occidental Road to Highway 12,” says John, so people can enjoy the Laguna from a closer viewpoint. The Ballettos are working in conjunction with the Laguna Foundation and the county (to which they sold 60 acres along the Laguna) to best preserve and enjoy the area.
Speaking of enjoying the area, the Ballettos, who share their new tasting room (Terri headed up its design) with Dutton-Goldfield Winery, will host a grand opening of the tasting facility on Sunday, Aug. 6, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It will feature new and pre-release wines (including Balletto’s next offering of Zinfandel) with food pairings by Larry Petrobon of Casual Catering. So there’s your chance to meet the winemakers and other staff members and see for yourself what Balletto is all about.
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