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.
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
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
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
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
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.”