John Balletto has been farming for most of his life -- but he didn’t always focus on wine grapes. In 1977, after the untimely death of his father, 17-year-old John started a vegetable farming business with his mother. As it turned out, he was pretty good at growing things; the company eventually became the largest vegetable producer north of the Golden Gate Bridge, growing more than 70 different vegetables on 700 acres.
If it hadn’t been for three El Niño storms in 1998 that wiped out three successive Balletto vegetable plantings, and a lack of water for growing vegetables on one of John’s properties in western Sonoma County, John might be more famous today for his zucchini than for his Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Fortunately for wine lovers, John switched from farming vegetables to growing wine grapes, and today he owns 600 acres of prime vineyards in the Russian River Valley AVA. Starting with the 2001 vintage, he began producing estate-grown wines under the Balletto label, and today Balletto winemaker Anthony Beckman produces 18,000 cases per year of acclaimed Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris.
The wines combine bright, pure fruit with good structure and food-friendly acidity. (The Teresa’s Unoaked Chardonnay was a big hit at our office holiday lunch last year -- it was a delicious companion to everything from lightly truffled frites to steamed mussels.) Retail prices range from $16 for the Pinot Gris to $40 for the Burnside Road Vineyard Pinot Noir.
Last month, over lunch in Santa Rosa, I learned more about John’s transition from vegetable farmer to winegrower to vintner.
Wine Review Online (WRO): When the economics of running the vegetable business stopped making sense, what prompted you to start growing wine grapes?
John Balletto (JB): We had 35 acres up on Burnside Road in Sebastopol, where we were living, and we didn’t have enough water to grow vegetables there. So we consulted with (winegrower) Warren Dutton of Dutton Ranch, and he said the property would be a great spot to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. DeLoach Vineyards offered us a contract in 1994 to plant the grapes, so in 1995, with Warren’s help and guidance, that’s what we did.
WRO: How did you make the switch from growing vegetables to growing grapes?
JB: I took some classes from Rich Thomas at the Santa Rosa Junior College, and Warren was also a big help.
WRO: Did anything about the grape growing business surprise you?
JB: The transition was a little easier going from the vegetable business, where we were harvesting 12 months out of the year, to the wine side, where you only harvest two months out of the year. But those two months in the vineyards, it surprised me how critical it is to make sure you pick those grapes at the optimum level of ripeness. You really only have a short window to make it happen.
WRO: How many vineyards do you have now?
JB: We own 12 vineyards -- all in the newly expanded Russian River AVA.
WRO: How would you characterize your vineyards in the Santa Rosa Plains, west of the city of Santa Rosa, compared to your vineyards in the Sebastopol Hills, southwest of Sebastopol?
JB: There’s definitely a difference up in the Burnside Road area of Sebastopol Hills. It’s much cooler up there and there’s a lot more wind, so those grapes tend to ripen in the latter part of October -- it’s about a two- to three-week difference from down here in Santa Rosa Plains. You can leave the grapes on the vines longer up there, so they have a little bit more intense flavors. We also have a Pinot Gris vineyard south of Sebastopol, and it’s much cooler -- it’s amazing how much difference 15 miles will make.
WRO: Many California growers, yourself included, saw greatly reduced yields in 2011 because of the rain and cool weather. How do you deal with those kinds of losses?
JB: We do have crop insurance, but what happened in 2011 was pretty catastrophic. When the Chardonnay crop is off 40% and the Pinot Gris crop is off 50%, as a grower you just pretty much have to take your lumps and move on to the next year.
WRO: When and why did you start producing wine?
JB: In 1999, we decided to move forward on a winery permit for our existing vegetable shipping facility – we were going to make wine for DeLoach. We had this massive vegetable packing facility, so we went ahead and permitted that for winemaking – for 150,000 cases of production.
Our first vintage was 2001 -- I sold my vegetable company that year -- and we really were just going to become a producing arm for DeLoach. But in 2001, 9/11 happened, and two years later, DeLoach had some serious financial problems. So we ended up having to buy them out of our partnership, and we were basically on our own. We were producing only 2,000 or 3,000 cases of wine with a 150,000-case permit, so we basically looked at each other and said, “Well, we’re going to need to start producing more wine if we’re going to make the building pay for itself.”
WRO: What’s Balletto’s total production now?
JB: We’re going to bottle right around 18,000 cases of 2011.
WRO: Did you ever imagine that your wine production would reach that level?
JB: I knew we had to grow to a certain number of cases to make the business sustainable, because you have certain fixed costs whether you’re producing 100 cases or 50,000 cases. In order to grow and do that, we’ve had some winery tenants at the facility -- Dutton Goldfield has made their wine here now for seven years, and we also do some custom crush work for Bogle Winery and for Peter Paul Wines. We’re only bottling 10% of the grapes we own now, and selling 90% to other wineries.
WRO: How would you describe the intent and style of Balletto wines?
JB: Our goal is to make a great bottle of wine that everyone can afford and enjoy. Our wines are very food friendly. Our Pinot Noirs are not over-alcoholed, and they’re not too big -- they can be shared with dinner.
WRO: Whose wines do you drink, other than your own?
JB: Whenever I go out to dinner -- if my wine’s on the menu, I will always order that, and someone else’s, too. If it’s Chardonnay I’ll order a Sonoma-Cutrer, if it’s Pinot Noir, I’ll order a La Crema -- something to compare it to. That’s what Robert Mondavi would do -- wherever he would go, he would always compare other people’s wines to his. I thought that was a really great thing to do. It’s expensive to have dinner sometimes, but it’s fun.