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            The second in a series of pieces on Bedrock growers by the James Beard Award winning author David Darlington is on the indefatigable Dino Amantite of Pagani Ranch. The Pagani Ranch Heritage Wine, made from the oldest plantings at the vineyard, is part of the Winter Release.


Pagani Ranch

You might expect that, in a 130-year-old vineyard, stability would be the rule. After all, grapevines that survived phylloxera, Prohibition, “California burgundy,” the white-zin craze, and the revival of zinfandel as a premium wine have pretty much seen it all. But at Sonoma Valley’s venerable Pagani Ranch, change is in the air.

This 55-acre vineyard – a classic California field blend of zinfandel, petite sirah, carignane, mourvedre, alicante bouschet, gran noir, lenoir, golden chasselas, and sauvignon vert – is owned by eight descendants of Felice Pagani, who immigrated from the Lake Como area of Italy at the turn of the 20th century. Felice ultimately turned the duties over to his son Louis, but by 1973, when Louis needed more help, he prevailed upon his niece Norma to move up from Point Richmond with her family.

“I didn’t want to go,” remembers Norma’s now 53-year-old son Dino, then a 14-year-old baseball pitching ace at Richmond High School. “It was a big adjustment – but I took a liking to vineyard work. I worked with Uncle Louis hand-hoeing and pruning and suckering, and I couldn’t wait to get home from school and drive the tractor. A lot of what he taught me about farming is still in my mind every day.”

When Dino finished high school, he “took all of Rich Thomas’s classes” in viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. “When I figured out I couldn’t make a living here [on the ranch],” he says, he went to work for the St. Francis Winery in nearby Kenwood, eventually becoming its vineyard manager and director of grower relations.

The St. Francis field crew tended the Pagani vines, whose fruit was sold to various wineries. Located in the northernmost part of Sonoma Valley – which receives a moderate marine influence from the Santa Rosa plains, often inspiring spring frosts – the vineyard is typically pruned in late winter, necessitating an October harvest. Wineries that picked the grapes early got them only moderately ripe, frequently dispensing them into vast blends of “California burgundy” jug wine or generic white zinfandel.

The Pagani fruit came into its own in 1990, when Ridge Vineyards starting buying it. Ridge’s second Pagani zinfandel was named the tenth best wine in the world by Wine Spectator, instantly awarding the vineyard iconic status. St. Francis started buying some of the red grapes too, and over the next 15 years, Ridge and St. Francis produced dueling Pagani zins.

That era came to an end in 2008. Amid an economic recession, St. Francis – which, during Dino’s tenure, had grown from 8,000 to 250,000 cases and been purchased by the Kopf family (which owns Kobrand Wine & Spirits) – decided that it couldn’t afford to keep him on. Moreover, it proposed to pay less for (and buy fewer of) the Pagani grapes. Having had to deliver such news to other growers in the past, Dino now found himself on the other side of the equation – but there was a silver lining.

“I had Plan B in place,” Dino says – with the result that now, in addition to Ridge, Pagani sells its fruit to Bedrock, Biale, Carlisle, and Seghesio Vineyards.

“I always wanted to sell grapes to those wineries,” Dino says. “They’re small, they all make rocket juice, and they sell their wine direct, with no middle man taking a cut. It’s the best thing that ever happened to us.”

Exiting the corporate environment was also a welcome change. “I didn’t know how much pressure I was under [at St. Francis] until I got out of it,” Dino says. “Even when things turn out to cost less than planned, you’re still under the gun. It was great experience – I learned how to deal with budgets, spread sheets, and work plans. But I spent all my time in meetings, explaining farming to people who had no idea what I was talking about to begin with.”

On the other hand, Dino says, “Morgan [Twain-Peterson of Bedrock] has a vineyard of his own – and when someone’s a grower, not just a winemaker, they can walk the walk, not just talk the talk. They know how to pull leaves, sucker, and shoot-thin; if a big rain is coming and the grapes are at 24.5 [degrees Brix], they won’t say they aren’t ready. Dealing with Morgan, Mike (Officer of Carlisle), Pete (Seghesio), and Robert (Biale) is a dream – I just wish I had more fruit for them.”

This touches on the other big change that’s now afoot at Pagani: its first new planting of grapes in 90 years. “Some of our vines were planted in 1884,” says Dino. “Some blocks have vines missing, and as far as tonnage is concerned, the old ones are going downhill. A vineyard is like a baseball team – if an old player has bad knees, you need new players coming up. After all, we’re talking about a piece of wood that’s been out in the weather for 100 years.”

For Dino, the new planting represents the fulfillment of another long-held dream. “I’ve been begging my family to do this since 1976. The problem is that we’re all still living on what my great grandfather did – he came from Italy and somehow got the money to plant 55 acres of grapes, providing income for people who weren’t even born yet. But we can’t keep living off his legacy. Family members get a little income here sometimes, but at the price it costs per acre to farm, we usually just break even. We need to do a few things for ourselves – but for anything to happen, a winery had to force the family’s hand.”

Thus, Ridge and Seghesio – the two biggest players in Pagani’s stable – recently wrote a letter to the family “insisting that we plant new vines because they need a consistent supply of grapes down the road.” As a result, in May 2012, twelve and a half acres of zinfandel, primitivo, and petite sirah were planted along Highway 12 between Glen Ellen and Kenwood – in Dino’s view, “the most beautiful virgin sacred ground that God ever created.”

Like the old vines, the new ones will be head-trained in the old-school “goblet” style with arms radiating out from a central trunk. “It would be a shame to have trellises here,” Dino says. “I just can’t see wires on this ranch. We could grow really good cabernet, sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, and merlot; maybe someday, who knows? But our heart and soul is mixed blacks and zinfandel – this has always been a zinfandel ranch, and it always will be a zinfandel ranch.”

Accompanying the brand-new vines is a brand-new well, and, to combat frost, the vineyard also contains five wind machines. None of this comes cheap, but the planting was financed completely by the family with Dino’s 75-year-old mother, Norma, contributing six figures.

“It would have been my inheritance,” Dino says. “But I would have just put it in the ground anyway. It’s a shame we haven’t been doing five acres at a time every couple of years – we could easily plant another fifty acres here. Now I’m trying to get the family to plant another twelve and a half. Twenty-five acres of new vines, producing four tons of grapes per acre, would put us in good financial shape for the future. The ranch could support itself.”

Looking toward that time, Dino’s 24-year-old son Greg is now employed as a vineyard mechanic for Chateau St. Jean nearby. His other son, Richard (22), is taking viticulture classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, just as his father did at the same age. “For a family to work in the wine business, you need to be like the Sangiacomos,” Dino says, referring to Sonoma’s well-known grapegrowing clan. “They all have their roles, and they all get along – there’s no infighting. That’s something to be proud of. When a whole family pulls together with the same goal, it’s awesome. It’s a team that can’t be beat.”

In the meantime, Dino now works for Cook Vineyard Management, which oversees vineyards throughout Sonoma County. “It’s a better fit for me,” he says. “It’s medium-sized, family-owned, out of the corporate world. I manage thirty-five vineyards – some big, some small. The farthest away is Annapolis, out by the coast. The company has real good field workers. Pagani Ranch is a client.”

Which is to say that, whenever Dino has agreed to manage vineyards for someone else, “part of the deal is always that I still work here. This ranch is my passion. It gets in your blood. That’s another reason I begged my family to plant more acreage – so I can stay on the ranch. My heart has always been right here.”

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Bedrock Wine Co.
P.O. Box 1826
Sonoma, California 95476

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