How wine producers get into the business of making wine has always fascinated us. There are those born into a multi-generational winery and those who abandon a lucrative business career to start a new adventure. There are those who graduate from University of California at Davis to slave at a winery and eventually graduate to a senior winemaker. And, there are those who fell into the business out of desperation.
That was the case with John Balletto, whose transition from a vegetable farmer to a successful wine producer embodies the proverbial Horatio Alger story of perseverance and hard work.
Balletto was raised on a vegetable farm in Sonoma County near Sebastopol. He worked alongside his father in high school and was planning to move away to pursue his love of football and track at a major university. Then, his life took its first turn for the worse when in 1977 his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer during his senior year of high school. After his father died, he postponed college, sold his coveted Pontiac GTO, and bought 5 acres surrounding the family home for a small vegetable farm to operate with his mother.
He continued to buy property and in 10 years he became one of the largest vegetable growers in northern California. Then came a second wave of setbacks: a medfly infestation, the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement, a worker strike, and three El Nino rainstorms. The bank called his loan and instead of going further into debt, they sold the business – but not the land. Down but not out he took the advice of winemaking friends such as Warren Dutton and Cecile DeLoach, and gradually turned vegetable fields into vineyards. His fortune took a turn for the better, as evidenced by his pinot noirs and chardonnays, made under the guidance of winemaker Anthony Beckman.
Moving from vegetables to grapes wasn’t really out of character, he said. His family was from Genoa and he was tasting wine since he was 8 years old.
“The vegetable business was the catalyst to get me started in grapes. Hard work works,” he said.
He never lost his appreciation for farming.
“When we were in full production, we had 700 acres and getting three crops of vegetables a year. It got so intense because you can’t make a mistake,” he said. “All of that carried over to the grape business. We went from 16 vegetable varieties to a mono crop. Although that sounds easy, you have certain times of the year that are just as critical as vegetable farming.”
The Russian River Valley rewards Balletto with cooling fogs in the morning and warm afternoons. His property – 800 planted acres – is 10-12 miles from the ocean. He said Sebastopol Hills is one of the top five areas in the world for pinot noir and chardonnay.
Balletto is making nine pinot noir wines, seven of which are vineyard-designated, and five chardonnays. Everything comes from estate-grown grapes. He also makes small amounts of sauvignon blanc, syrah, zinfandel, pinot gris and a rosé of pinot noir.
We liked the 2016 Balletto BCD Vineyard Pinot Noir ($46) for its luxurious texture and structure. It has lots of bright cherry notes and a dash of spice. Balletto’s rosé of pinot noir is also a delicious wine to ring in spring – lots of cherry and strawberry flavors enveloped by crisp acidity. The Balletto Russian River Valley chardonnay ($28) has good balance and pear, citrus notes.
Sebastopol Hills, which actually is part of both Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs, is more remote for tourists on the wine trial, but it is home to some of the top pinot noir and chardonnay producers. Balletto counts as its neighbors Merry Edwards, Martinelli and Patz & Hall. Other wineries from this region that are producing great pinot noirs and chardonnays include De Loach, Inman Family, Hartford Court, Kosta Brown, La Follette, Littorai and Pali. It is one of the coolest regions in Russian River Valley – great for pinot noir – and has many rolling hills where Balletto’s vineyards are planted.
Balletto said he is happy with the direction his fate took him. “I tell my two daughters what a great business this is to be in touch with the land, sharing friends and traveling the world to meet great people. What other industry can you do that?”
The success of The Prisoner has inspired several winemakers to copy its style of a highly extracted, bold and rich blend of red grapes. This style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but we know it’s popular. The Prisoner, under new ownership and made in massive quantities, is expensive. Here are a couple of similar wines that mimic this wine:
Ravage California Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($13). If you like your cabernets extracted and rich rather than complex and layered, this wine is for you. Inky dark and rich in flavors of dark fruit, it is blended with merlot, petite sirah, zinfandel and other red grape varieties.
- Three Finger Jack 2016 ($22). This wine is named after an outlaw who once roamed the Sierra Foothills where this wine is made. The bottle shape is something you would find on the bar top of a saloon. Extracted with rich and dark flavors of blackberries and black cherries with a good dose of chocolate and vanilla.
- Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve California Pinot Noir 2016 ($17). Typical of Kendall-Jackson this is a well-made, balanced wine that is reasonably priced for pinot noir. Bright fruit character with red cherry and strawberry flavors and an underlying earthy note. Hint of vanilla.
Gamble Family Vineyards Paramount Red Wine 2015 ($90). Tom Gamble’s flagship wine, this Bordeaux-like blend is dense and delicious with good complexity, black cherry and licorice aromas, dark fruit flavors and a hint of clove. Fine tannins and long finish.
- Cuvaison Methode Beton Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($35). This may go down as the most unique sauvignon blanc we’ve tasted. Winemaker Steve Rogstad ferments and ages a special lot of estate-grown Carneros grapes in a concrete (Beton) egg. The egg allows the lees to stay suspended to develop a richer texture. Mango and pineapple notes with a dash of thyme.
- Famille Perrin La Gille Gigondas 2015 ($28). The producers of Chateau Beaucastel now has a gigondas. A blend of 80 percent grenache and 20 percent syrah, the 2015 is soft, approachable and luxurious with opulent raspberry and anise flavors, rosemary herb aromas and soft tannins. It may not be chateauneuf du pape, but it’s a lot less money and delicious to drink now.