University viticulture and enology departments are churning out droves of graduates, who are well prepared with theory and expect to fill in the practice with on-the-job training after they enter the wine business. But many others enter the business from unrelated fields. Dentists, engineers, stock brokers, tech professionals, to name a few, become inspired, take courses, and join the ranks of wine professionals in one capacity or another, learning as they go. Finally, people from related fields hop a low fence and cross over into viticulture and winemaking. Pietro Buttitta is one of those. A graduate of the Cordon Bleu culinary school with nine Michelin star restaurants on his resume along with sommelier status, Pietro joined his father Nicolas Buttitta several years ago as winemaker in the family business at Rosa d’Oro Vineyard, located in Lake County above Napa. Nor would it be fair to ignore the training that Pietro got from his father, who has always been a farmer and winemaker. “I didn’t go to Davis, so I don’t have that education. Instead, I approach winemaking as a cook, and I think that’s a benefit because cooking has allowed me to learn actual winemaking more quickly than even a Davis trained enologist.”
What do cooking and winemaking have in common?
You learn by having your hands in everything in both winemaking and cooking. There’s the day to day stuff like sanitation in cooking. If you work in a professional kitchen, you spend half your life cleaning. That’s just the nature of the beast. That’s minor, but it’s part of having your hands in everything. I taste everything. We don’t run a lot of lab samples. We just taste. I taste every barrel every month, check everything out. If I do a blend, I blend by taste. Most people check their pH meter to see if a wine needs acid or not. I don’t really believe in adding acid, but if I do have to do it, I do it by taste, not by instrument. It’s the notion of balance, like a dish, balancing sweet and sour for example. I think I’m probably more in tuned with that. And I like the nerdy aspect of both cooking and winemaking. If I’m cooking a dish, I like to know where the dish came from and how it evolved that way, what they were using with it. So as far as reference points or flavor profile for a lot of these grapes, I think I take them more literally more than many other winemakers do. I’ll really read up on something. I get fixated on a varietal from time to time and go to every tasting I can and do everything I can to taste every single Italian Dolcetto for instance. Okay, I’ve been through 50 of them. I’ve really focused on them and studied them, and now I have this idea and know how to chaperon them to this particular point. And if I don’t know, I’ll learn it along the way. That’s a kind of kitchen-y attitude. A lot of winemakers don’t taste. One thing that a lot of winemakers get stuck with is the house palate because they don’t taste other people’s wines. I’m tasting everybody’s stuff all the time because I’m new and I’m learning and that’s the only way I’m going to learn, something that other people just don’t do. You can’t be a good chef if you’re not out tasting food and buying cookbooks all the time, or going to wine clubs. So it’s familiarizing yourself and learning and having hands in everything. Right now, I’m changing the leaf canopy in the vineyard because I don’t like the sun exposure on some of the grapes. I don’t like the way that they’re exposed, so I’m changing cross-arms and the way that they’re angled, little stuff like that. I see the whole process from beginning to end. I can be in tuned with it from before the grapes are even red to when they’re bottled. That part’s cool. It definitely keeps me going.
The Rosa d’Oro theme is Italian winegrapes, and you’re willing to buy them anywhere rather than confine yourself to your own 14-acre estate or even Lake County.
But that’s reluctant. I would really love to source all of our fruit from Lake County. I’d love it if it were all estate grown, but probably about 85% is the best we’re going to do. I think Lake County is pretty unique. I think there’s value to be had here. We just had a big, long discussion about Sangiovese and what we’re going to do because we don’t have enough of our own. We could get some here from a vineyard in Lake County, and I get all romantic about it, that it’s on a beautiful hillside, and that it’ll be amazing one day, but it never is. So we struggled with this decision and eventually decided that it was okay to go with Amador County Sangiovese because the quality of the fruit was so much better. But we almost stayed with our local source, which was mediocre, just because we could put Lake County on the bottle. So I think that there will be kind of an evolution with the Lake County profile, especially because of its high altitude and volcanic soils. I think it’ll be a long slow process, but I think it’ll be worth being on board. Sourcing good fruit from everywhere, that’s fine, but we’re a winery that wants a house profile. If you get fruit from Paso Robles and some from Monterey and other places, I think it’s wonderful to have 12 different wines that are all super site specific, but that’s just not us. There’s a stylistic continuity when you’re getting 13 different varietals from the same place. I’d like all of our fruit to be from Lake County, even better from our own appellation, Kelsey Bench, where our vineyard is located. That would be ideal. Lake County is a charming place, the viticulture and growing climate, and being in a place that’s evolving and changing, is pretty exciting. It’s not like Napa that’s so established. And it’s not like France or Italy, where you have a hundred guys that are growing the exact same grape because that’s what their region does. We’re pretty blessed not to have to play under those Old World rules. There’s a lot of freedom here, maybe too much, but it’s pretty engaging.
Are Cal-Ital varietal wines coming back into the American consciousness?
I think so. The Barbera conference in Amador County was sold out a month and a half before it happened two years in a row now. I think that’s probably indicative of something. It was big. A lot of these younger consumers don’t have any brand allegiance, but they’ll pretty much try anything, especially if they can tell their friends that they’ve just discovered something new and one-up them. That can work well for neat things in neat little areas. I think the downturn in the economy, the way it’s been going, has not hurt Italian varietals. I think they’re slowly inching up. Napa isn’t necessarily the Holy Grail anymore, at least with the younger crowd. More and more people are familiar with Amador County, and there’s plenty of Italian winegrapes up there. We like Multepulciano and Sagrantino, but the only Multepulciano and Sagrantino that we could find were in Yolo County. That’s it. There are only 12 acres of Sagrantino in the United States, and we’re planting one right now. Our Sangiovese is largely from Amador County. I’ve been planting Sangiovese, but it needs time to grow. We’ll have our first harvest this year on the first block. Soon all of our fruit will be estate grown with the exception of Muscat. We have just ten planted acres, and it’s enough for about 3000 cases of wine, which is about all we can possibly handle with regard to barrel storage anyway. Right now, we’re just at a little over 2000 cases. We have Nebbiolo planted and Negro Amaro. We’ll have our first Refosco harvest this year, quite a bunch of new grape varieties.
Do you expect these wines to taste like their Italian counterparts?
These wines will never be much like anything in Italy. We’re not going to find the same soils or mutated vines that have been inbred and crazy over 500 years. Winemakers pretty much agree on that, so you either pull out your bag of tricks and blend or do other things, or you totally let go and decide that’s just not what it’s going to be. But you also have to have some sort of guidance, something to aim for, to expect some sort of evolution, and that’s hard to judge from the inside. But here in California, anything goes for better or for worse. If Nebbiolo here doesn’t taste anything like a Nebbiolo in Italy, should you label it a Nebbiolo? Good question.
California Cabernet doesn’t taste like French Cabernet, but that doesn’t stop California winemakers from calling it that.
Yeah, I don’t think it’s exclusively an Italian problem. I think it’s more a definition problem or a marketing problem even. It might be more a marketing question than a winemaking question. What should consumers expect when they see Nebbiolo on a bottle of California wine?
How do you and your father divide tasks?
He’s a vineyard guy. He started the winery and likes the wine world, likes being around it, but he’s a grower more than an aficionado of wine, which is fine. They’re two sides of the same coin, and he does both. But the way it has evolved, it’s become apparent between us that he likes being in the vineyard. He likes being up here pruning. He likes being up here during the winter. He’s a home body. I like being out, two different things. But there’s a way we can balance that out and make it work for both of us, and it’s starting to work. I’ve realized that this business is so perfect for me. Being in the kitchen without sunlight was really difficult. The winemaking, the viticulture side, the business and marketing side, going to New York to find a distributor, that’s all awesome. I like all that. I’m writing my own schedule as I go. That’s exciting for me. I used to have a five-year attention span, but my enthusiasm for this business definitely has not waned. It’s a sign that I’m in the right place. Some things may change, but the big picture is correct.
It feels like when I was working in kitchens, and working my way up, and learning all the time, and as long as I’m learning and things are changing, I can be totally onboard. I can work a 90 hour week. This is kind of write-your-own-adventure land. If I get bored with this, it’s my own fault.
Wine Clubs of the Month
Artisan Series Wine Clubs
Rosa d’Oro 2011 Muscat, Yolo County
Winemaker Pietro Buttitta’s Notes
The fruit for this delicious Muscat was harvested from Nova Vineyards in Yolo County. This release is a lovely version of Muscat that actually is a blend of two types of Muscat, 60% Muscato Giallo, “Yellow Muscat” in English, and 40% Muscat Canelli, a clone of Muscat from the town of Canelli in Northern Italy. We harvested the Moscato Giallo at lower sugar levels to impart minerality, acidic backbone, and less tropical flavor to the mix, while the Muscat Canelli was harvested at its aromatic peak. These come together to make a serious and elegant Muscat with length, great delicacy, and just a touch of sweetness. Enjoy with spicy food or appetizers, or simply chill down and consume while in the sun (alcohol 12.5%, brix 23 for the Giallo and 25 for the Canelli, fermented without malolactic and fermented in stainless steel tanks, 300 cases produced).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Muscat is known for the intense flowery aromas that this Rosa d’Oro wine displays in the wine clubs. A charming white wine, the Rosa d’Oro Moscato is especially suited to summer days and the foods that we enjoy in warm weather. Yet you can easily drink this wine also as an aperitif. Serve chilled.
Rosa d’Oro 2010 Sangiovese
Winemaker Pietro Buttitta’s Notes
This intensely traditional Sangiovese displays all the savory complexity and depth that this noble grape has to offer, complementing robust food and capable of graceful aging. Seventy percent of the grapes were harvested from Amador County, 22% from Lake County, and 8% from Yolo County. This extremely bright and focused wine has good acid, light tannin, and exceptional aromatics with clean fruit in a nimble medium weight package. The wine has a natural spiciness that complements summer food but can be enjoyed on its own just as easily. The wine was aged for 11 months in barrel, all two to four years old. The wine is unfined and unfiltered (alcohol 13.8%, 212 cases produced).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This is a fruity but well structured Sangiovese like all Rosa d’Oro reds. Serve it at cool room temperature with any food that you’ve cooked on your outdoor grill, including red and white meats and grilled vegetables, marinated in olive oil and finely chopped garlic.
Rosa d’Oro 2010 Sagrantino, Tracy Hills
Winemaker Pietro Buttitta’s Notes
This obscure grape variety was harvested from Jeff Brown’s Oso Vista Vineyards in Tracy Hills, California. The Sagrantino grape is indigenous to central Italy where there are only 250 acres of it planted. In Italy, it can produce a very dark and earthy wine with pronounced tannins due to its thick skins and high level of antioxidant polyphenols. Despite its stature, it generally does not make a really dark wine. It has an almost ruby color with great clarity, and like the other noble Italian reds, it is floral at the same moment that it is dense, earthy, and jammy. Acidity is moderate. Though big and burly, it is also elegant and light over all that rich earth and mineral. Our 2010 Sagrantino has layers of red fruit, dusty earth, cinnamon, and clove. The wine is unfined and unfiltered and aged for 11 months in oak barrels. Suggested pairings include mushroom dishes, roasted meats, especially lamb and game, and Asiago cheese (alcohol 14.4%, 100 cases produced).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The lightly pigmented color of this unusual wine is reminiscent of Pinot Noir. Instead, it has different and distinctive aromas, flavors, and especially structure. Rosa d’Oro wines are typically unfined and unfiltered, so they have an intense and earthy quality and a certain amount of sediment. By accident, I discovered that they will hold for days after the cork is pulled, like only the finest wines. I had tasted the Rosa d’Oro reds and left them on the counter. Four days later, they caught my attention because I wanted to dump the remaining wine and clear the bottles from the counter top. Instead, we happily finished the bottles. Normally, I can keep whites in the refrigerator for no more than three days before they oxidize and reds for only two days. The rich and distinctive aromas and tastes of these wines, in opened bottles for four days, were astonishing. Serve at cool room temperature.
Rosa d’Oro 2010 Montepulciano, Tracy Hills
Winemaker Pietro Buttitta’s Notes
These Montepulciano grapes were harvested from Jeff Brown’s Oso Vista Vineyards in Tracy Hills, California. Montepulciano likely originated in Tuscany and is Italy’s second most widely dispersed indigenous grape variety after Sangiovese. Paradoxically, the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany doesn’t grow the Montepulciano grape but instead produces Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which is a clone of Sangiovese. Montepulciano grapes produce a wine that has deep color, moderately low acidity, and soft tannins due to its low skin to juice ratio. Our 2010 Montepulciano is rich and full with flavors of plum, coffee, chocolate, and violets. Unfined and unfiltered, the wine was aged for 12 months in barrel. Suggested pairings include a meaty ragu, eggplant Parmigiana, cannelloni, pizza, pork, lamb, and spicy dishes (alcohol 14.4%, 96 cases produced).
Anna Maria’s Notes
An earthy and natural wine, unfined and unfiltered, the Rosa d’Oro Montepulciano has unusual aromas and flavors, embraced by acid and tannin texture. The reds all have moderate alcohol levels around 14% but pack a wallop of sensation. Unusual fragrances, flavors, and texture mingle and enrich the Mediterranean foods that they were meant to complement. Serve at cool room temperature.