Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Balletto Vineyards: A Sonoma Winery Visit

From its humble roots as a five-acre vegetable farm, Balletto Vineyards has grown dramatically. Today the Balletto family owns more than 700 acres of vineyards. They keep the top 10% of the fruit to make estate wine like we tasted on our recent visit.

From Cucumbers To Chardonnay

Today Balletto Vineyards stands with the top wine producers amidst the Pinot Noir-rich Russian River Valley of California wine country. But that wasn’t always the case. In 1977, 17-year-old John Balletto established his first business, a five-acre vegetable farm in Sonoma County’s Sebastopol.

Within two decades, the Balletto family had grown the business into the largest vegetable farm in Northern California. They grew 70 different vegetables on 700-plus acres. Fate, however, would intervene. Having concerns about the state’s growing water shortage, enduring heavy destruction from three El Niño storms, and facing economic hardships from the NAFTA agreement, they set their sights on the wine grape growing business.

Over a three-year period they converted their vegetables over to grapes, primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They started selling fruit to well known Sonoma County wineries. They saved the top 10% in quality for themselves and created the first Balletto Vineyards vintage in 2001.

Shaking The Road Dust

We recently visited Sonoma and made a beeline for the Russian River Valley, the source of some of the world’s best Pinot Noir. Friend Ray Carlson is a grape grower in Sonoma and provides the fruit for Balletto’s award-winning BCD Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Our thirsty crew included tasting team members Cabernetor, Glorious T, Green Dragon (my wife), cousin Mary and her husband Cleve. We came in a few days before the Wine Bloggers Conference in order to visit a few select wineries. Ray opened the door for us at Balletto, and we jumped in with both feet – and an empty glass.

Upon arrival we were treated to some bubbly. The 2013 Brut Rosé is 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay. Made in the traditional method, it is light on the tongue with outstanding perlage. Just the thing to shake off the road dust.

Chardonnay is another iconic wine for Russian River Valley. Balletto offers four different versions including their flagship 2015 RRV Chardonnay. It is moderately oaked with a creamy texture and notes of vanilla. Thirty percent new oak is used in aging. The 2015 Sexton Hill Chardonnay teases with a taste of crème brulée and savory notes. Our group also enjoyed the 2016 Gewürztraminer, which displayed an aromatic floral bouquet.

The Pinnacle Of Pinot

The wine list showed no less than eight different Pinot Noir. Vineyards at Balletto less than a mile apart can produce Pinot with wildly different tastes. The 2015 RRV Pinot is a blend of seven different vineyards. It retails for $29, is the winery’s best-seller, and certainly must be one of the best values around. The vines are low yield, providing rich, concentrated flavors. This is simply a beautiful wine.

The 2014 Burnside Pinot Noir has spicy accents with a delicate finish. The 2014 18 Barrel Pinot combines grapes from three top estate vineyards high in the Sebastopol hills. The wine is aged for 18 months in oak barrels. This still had strong tannins and should rest a year or 18 months for best results.

The 2014 BCD Pinot Noir consistently wins oodles of awards. It is a luscious style of Pinot Noir with a velvety texture and good acidity. It has notes of black cherry and earth.

Our hats are off to Anthony Beckman, the winemaker at Balletto since 2009. A former news journalist who earned an enology degree at UC Davis, the stories are now all about him. Under his guidance Balletto offers a portfolio of sublimely good wines and extraordinary single vineyard bottles.

Balletto Vineyards is a special place – and not only for the wine it produces. Nestled among the fields of vines is a regulation baseball field. The vineyard workers asked John Balletto if he would sponsor their baseball team. He went above and beyond by setting aside four acres of land and donating all the materials. The vineyard crew donated the labor. So Sunday afternoons you might hear not only the popping of corks, but the crack of a bat.

Be sure to stop in at Balletto on your next visit to Sonoma. Tell them Ray sent you!

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