Like most California wine grape growers, Nick Buttitta, started this year’s harvest earlier than usual – in his case, in mid-September, about a week sooner than normal.
But that’s where the similarity between his Rosa d’Oro Vineyards, near Kelseyville, Calif., and just about every other wine grape vineyard in the state ends – at least in terms of varieties. His low-impact farming practices, including the use of rootstocks that require minimal water, also distinguish his from most other California vineyards.
The former Sonoma County grower had two goals in mind in 2004 when he established his new vineyard in Lake County, where Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel are the most widely-grown grapes.
One goal was to be different. “Because it would be a small vineyard, I didn’t want to be in the midst of competing with everyone else,” Buttitta says.
Also, he wanted to honor his family’s Italian heritage. (His grandfather immigrated to the United States from Palermo, Sicily, an island off the southwest coast of the country. His maternal roots go back to Verona in northern Italy.)
Buttitta’s 12-acre, sustainably-farmed vineyard, located on the Kelsey Bench AVA, is situated at an elevation of 1,400 feet. He specializes in Italian reds -- Barbera, Primitivo, Dolcetto, Aglianico, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Negroamaro, Sagrantino and Refosco.
Located in the middle of the vineyard, is the family’s winery. It’s the only winery in in this particular AVA. Production of Rosa d’Oro Vineyards-labeled varietal wines is limited to 2,500 cases a year.
Buttitta’s son, Pietro, has taken over the wine-making duties. In that role, he draws on his experience working as a professional chef at several higher-end West Coast restaurants and as a certified sommelier. In addition, he helps tend the vines and handles the wholesale end of the winery business. His sister, Livia, manages the tasting room, located in Kelseyville. Located in a historic bank building where the original vault now serves as a gift shop.
“Everything from planting, pruning, picking, even placing the label, has been a family effort,” Buttitta says.
As usual, Buttitta began this year’s harvest of his Italian varieties with Dolcetto. Typically, it’s ready to pick about the same time as Chardonnay. Buttitta expects to finish this season by picking the Anglianico, which is similar in maturity to Cabernet Sauvignon.
“We’ve had a pretty ideal growing season and the quality of the grapes looks very good,” says Buttitta, who served as chairman of the Lake County Winegrowers Association in 2013
He was raised on a ranch in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, where his family began growing premium wine grapes in 1953.
His interest in focusing on Italian varieties dates back to the 1970s when he was delivering grapes from the family’s vineyard to the Sebastiani Winery. The owner, the late August Sebastiani, was renowned as a skilled, innovative winemaker.
“He was a big fan of Barbera and told me he could never find enough good quality Barbera grapes,” Buttita recalls. “I offered to grow Barbera on five or six acres of open ground I had at the time. But, August said the climate wouldn’t produce the quality of grapes he wanted. After buying my Lake County vineyard, with its beautiful, well-drained volcanic soils, I thought back to August’s comments. Here was my opportunity to plant Barbera.”
After sampling numerous wines made from Italian varieties and experimenting with grape varieties grown in Italy under soil and climate conditions similar to his Lake County location, Buttitta settled on the ones he now grows.
Each variety is planted in blocks no larger than about 1 to 1½ acres. For the most part, the vines are planted 6½ feet apart within rows. The rows are spaced from 6½ to 9 feet from each other. This results in a planting density of about 760 vines per acre, Buttita notes.
He tailors his canopy and crop management techniques to fit the specific needs of each variety.
“This helps focus flavors while respecting what makes each grape unique,” Buttitta explains.
The site of his vineyard – atop a volcanic knoll – dictates his water management practices.
“Knowing from the start that we don’t have a lot of water to work with has forced us to use it very moderately,” he says.
That’s why the three rootstocks Buttitta chose when planting the vineyard – 101-14, 1103P, 110R – are more drought-tolerant than most.
That’s also why he doesn’t irrigate his fields in blocks. Instead, he uses individual faucets to control the timing and amount of water applied to each vine row.
“By using our drip system judiciously, we’re able to maintain good, moderate growth on our vines,” Buttitta says.
Pruning is another critical aspect of his crop management program.
“We’re looking for maximum flavor and quality in our grapes,” he says. “So, we prune pretty severely. Almost everything is two-bud pruned and we drop fruit as necessary to keep the vines balanced.”
He limits production of lighter-bearing varieties, such as Aglianico and Refosco, to 2 tons per acre. Yields of heavier-bearing varieties, like Barbera, are kept at about 4 tons to the acre. By contrast, it’s not unusual for San Joaquin Valley growers to produce 10 tons of Barbera grapes per acre, Buttitta notes.
His favorite aspect of growing wine grapes is pruning. In fact, he does almost all of it. “A lot of people give me a funny look when I say it, but I enjoy the work,” he says. “Looking down the row after I’ve pruned it and seeing a row of vines, that was all gnarly when I started, all nice and straight, is very rewarding to me.”
Nebbiolo has proven to be the most challenging of Buttitta’s Italian red grapes to grow well. Initially, Buttitta had shied away from growing this variety after reading an article describing the difficulties Robert Mondavi encountered in trying to grow it. The Nebbiolo vine features unusually long canes and very large clusters. The trick, Buttitta says, has been learning how to work with that growth and manage the canopy.
“I think we have it figured out,” he says.
Buttitta made his first Nebbiolo wine in 2007, using grapes grown on a neighbor’s vineyard. Last year was the first time he made wine from his estate-grown Nebbiolo grapes.
“I think we’ve got the flavor profile pretty close to the Italian,” he says.
This year, a Rosa d’Oro Vineyards Nebbiolo won Gold and Best of Class at the Sunset Magazine International Wine Competition.