The story of Balletto Family Winery unfolds from the roots of a farm-to-table narrative. The story starts sadly when, after the untimely death of his father, John Balletto, at the age of 17, began growing produce in 1977 beside his mother, Hazel.
The farming business grew and in 1981, he purchased his first ranch and continued to lease land. He was successful in the business and he and his wife, Terri purchased a large parcel of land to expand the produce he was growing and build a new packing facility. Ironically, this land is where the Balletto Family Winery is now located.
Fast forward to the 80s and 90s and John and his wife, Terri, became one of the largest vegetable farmers growing more than 70 different vegetables on over 700 acres. In 1998, even though the business was robust, Mother Nature dealt them three separate bad storms wiping out three of their plantings.
The Balletto’s saw upcoming challenges from California’s growing water shortage and the future of the vegetable business in general. While the couple talked about how to address the impending issues, friend and neighbor Warren Dutton of Dutton Ranch suggested the Balletto’s start growing wine grapes, which require less water. Seeing a bright future for wine grape growing in Russian River Valley, John and Terri transitioned a small portion of their land to vineyards in 1999 – now known as Burnside Road Vineyards. The Balletto’s had 35 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris vineyards on their home ranch in the western hills of Sebastopol and knew they had something special and decided to capitalize on it.
In the next three years, they converted all their vegetable farms to estate vineyards planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and started selling fruit to well-known wine producers in Sonoma County. After seeing their success with wines made from their grapes, they decided to save ten percent of their estate fruit to make their own wines under their name.
My Conversation with the Winemaker
I had a chance to talk to Anthony Beckman, Winemaker and Vice President, from Balletto Family Vineyards this week. He talked about helping to architect, design and plant the vineyards. Recently the team tasted a 10-year vertical from the Sexton Ranch Vineyard and how fulfilling it was that he was the only winemaker to farm the land.
Anthony did not start his career in winemaking. He was first a journalist who realized that he didn’t want to work in an office for the rest of his life. He went to UC Davis’ Viticulture and Enology program where we graduated with honors. During that time, he worked as a wine buyer for Taylor’s Market, a gourmet grocery and wine store in Sacramento.
He has been with Balletto Family Vineyards since January 2007 when he was hired as the company’s assistant winemaker. He was promoted to winemaker in January 2009, and Vice President in 2013. Before joining Balletto, he worked harvest for Peay Vineyards in the Sonoma Coast, Hudson Vineyards in the Napa-Carneros region, Delegats (Oyster Bay) in New Zealand, and Quivira Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley.
A Shared Perspective
He shared the Balletto’s “farm forward” philosophy. It’s about having 100% control of the vines and making wine from estate vineyards. It’s about complete control from vineyard to bottle. It’s about concentrating on how a great climate equals healthy vines and how every vine is touched by a person at least four times prior to harvest.
The vineyards are in Laguna Ridge, Santa Rosa Plains and Sebastopol Hills with a total of 16 estate vineyards. They currently make nine different Pinot Noirs, nine Chardonnays and two sparkling. The wines are meant for consumers to understand the sense of place and differences between wines. “My goal is to make best wines I can from the vineyards” he said. “Scores are not important to me.”
The story of how the sparkling wines came to market was a great one. Terri was a big fan of sparkling and shared that love with Anthony. But they realized it would take several years to bring to market. When Andrew talked to John about his proposal, his answer was “Your newborn son, Jack, will be five years old when that bottle is ready. We must do it now.” And the first bottle was ready when his son turned ten.
An American Viticultural Area in Process
The family is very involved in the Sebastopol Hills Winegrowers Association, a collective of passionate winegrowers and winemakers dedicated to showcasing the unique terroir and exceptional wines of the proposed Sebastopol Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA). “It’s a special place,” he said. “And it deserves to be designated as such.”
Andrew told me that vines are like family, and the team is dedicated to make daily decisions and they want to take care of them and nurture them while showing the unique terroir of Sebastopol Hills.
Sustainability is Key
Since 2010, the vineyards have been certified by the State of California as Certified Sustainable Winegrowing Vineyards. It’s about recycling water, using cover crops, composting, pest control, solar power, and taking care of their people. In 2005, Balletto Vineyards created the Balletto Ranch Conservation Easement, which is 55 acres in conjunction with the Sonoma County Open Space District.
- 2022 Balletto Family Vineyards Five Plus Five Blanc de Noir Sparkling – A Pinot Noir sparkling that was aged five years in neutral oak barrels and then bottled in 2017 for a second fermentation where it spent five years aging in bottle. I tasted lemon curd, fresh baked bread, herbs, jasmine, and green apple with a nice minerality. It was soft and savory. It’s not a wine that they can do every year, but when the conditions align, they will make it.
- 2020 Balletto Family Vineyards Chardonnay Sexton Hill Vineyard – This was my kind of Chardonnay done in an Old World style. I tasted key lime, apricot, apple, saline, baking spice, quince, and pear. Due to the California fires, this year they did not make Pinot Noir, but the Chardonnay was delicious, and I enjoyed the minerality. This is the most exposed sunshine spot on the vineyard.
- 2021 Balletto Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Sexton Hill Vineyard – Notes of black tea, red berries, rosemary, herbs pomegranate and truffle. It has a structure and volume, but it doesn’t feel heavy.
- 2021 Balletto Family Vineyards Harvest Select Noble B Chardonnay — This is a dessert wine made from targeted Chardonnay grapes that have been affected by botrytis or “noble rot.” This was unctuous wine aged in stainless steel drums for one year and settled in bottle for another year. I tasted honey, coconut, and touch of ginger.
Balletto Family Vineyards’ journey from farming vegetables to winemaking is a story of resilience and foresight. John Balletto’s strategic shift to wine grape cultivation, guided by challenges and a changing agricultural landscape, resulted in the establishment of a series of estate vineyards. Winemaker Anthony Beckman’s commitment to a “farm-forward” philosophy ensures control from vineyard to bottle, reflected in their diverse portfolio of Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and sparkling wines. The family’s dedication extends beyond viticulture, with active involvement in the Sebastopol Hills Winegrowers Association and a pursuit of an American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation. Certified sustainable since 2010, Balletto Vineyards combines tradition and innovation, producing exceptional wines while prioritizing sustainable practices. Their story tells about an agricultural evolution and an evolution to produce outstanding wines while preserving the land they cherish.