On the Right Side of History
Pellegrini Family Vineyards
The Pellegrini family has been in almost every phase of the wine business, beginning with Nello and Gino Pellegrini, who were grape merchants during Prohibition and later wine producers. Nello’s son Vincent expanded the business into the wholesale distribution of imported and domestic wines and spirits and, at the same time, purchased a vineyard, at first selling the grapes and then developing the Pellegrini brand. Today, Vincent’s children Robert, Richard, and Jeanne, the third generation to become active in the family business, concentrate on wine production.
We’ve all heard the adage, “It’s better to be lucky than smart.” But sometimes it’s impossible to distinguish between the two. The family owns 65 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on West Olivet Road in the heart of the Russian River Valley, prime California terroir for those noble grapes of Burgundy. In 1973 when Vincent Pellegrini purchased the property and planted the vineyards, no one had heard of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, nor did anyone outside of the neighborhood know the Russian River Valley. Later in 1988, a year before their father died, Robert, Richard, and Jeanne went looking for another vineyard site, where they could plant Cabernet Sauvignon, which was attracting followers. Their Russian River Valley property was ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but too cool to properly ripen Cabernet. They settled on a 55-acre ranch in Cloverdale in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County. Today, Alexander Valley Cabernet commands similar prices to Napa for premium Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1988, only the locals were aware of Cloverdale or the Alexander Valley. Whether the family is the beneficiary of luck, smart choices, or both is relevant only as entertainment. More important, they are producing the three most prestigious wines of California in appellations that are uniquely suited for those grape varieties.
Richard Pellegrini says that people often ask him which is his favorite red, Pinot or Cabernet. “It’s like my kids,” he answers. “It depends on what was up that day. They’re their own persons and have their own personalities.” I recount our conversation with minor editing for clarity.
You were in the Russian River Valley before the appellation had any recognition.
Yes, my father thought the purchase was a really good thing. “If worse comes to worse,” he said, “sooner or later they’ll build apartment buildings here if farming goes bad.” If Sonoma County had not made the area an agricultural preserve, maybe none of this would have happened. The area was depressed at the time. He purchased the Olivet Vineyard in 1973, and it was planted and up and running in 1975. It was a diseased prune ranch with some apple trees on it too, I think, and my family cleared the land and decided what they wanted to do. In 1975, there was just very little going on there that was new. There was old vine Zin hanging around, head pruned vines, field blends, the wines that the original Italian immigrants were making. My father had actually looked for property in Napa, but Napa seemed expensive. The family had roots in Sonoma, so he thought it was a more logical place to be. He had very good people advising him as well. The University of California, Davis was instrumental, and he had a couple of old time friends, families, who had been friends for generations from the grape purchasing days, and they gave him a lot of good leads.
How did the Alexander Valley purchase occur?
We kept maturing and going forward, and the brand kept catching a little bit more fire. We were doing so much business on the distribution side with restaurants, so we were able to sell our Pellegrini wines to them. They were asking for Cabernet, and it’s hard to grow in Russian River Valley because of cool weather. So we started scouting out a Cabernet vineyard, and the vineyard in Cloverdale became available. My brother, my sister, and I purchased that vineyard in 1988. People would say “Clover-what?” Healdsburg was just starting to be recognized. I can remember shortly after buying that vineyard and looking at shops on the square in Healdsburg. We could have bought them for $75,000 each. But I thought, “Oh, god, they’re all on unreinforced masonry. What if an earthquake comes?” But it would have been great to just tear them down and start over if that had been the case, but nobody had the foresight.
How would you compare that vineyard to Napa, or would you?
I find that Alexander Valley wines, not to say that one is better than the other, but I find that Cabernet tends to be softer and more approachable than Napa. Napa Cab is a little bit more Eucalyptusy and has a tighter feeling. The wines are not as fruit forward as Cloverdale wines. That’s my take on it. I think it’s all due to soil differences.
Pinot Noir is an easy sell these days. Is Cabernet maybe less so?
Depends who you talk to. It’s a whole subjective thing. I have friends who will rave about my Cabernet. Then I have the Pinotphiles, and they don’t want to know about Cabernet. Pinot Noir is a chameleon. It goes with so many different things. But the Cabernet market is alive and healthy, absolutely. It all depends on pedigree, where, who, how, what. And Cabernet has longer aging potential for those who want a cellar although for our wines, we really strive to make them very drinkable when they go to market. We’re not into the trophy business. That’s never been our claim to fame. “Oh, I bought it, and I have to lay it down for five years.” That’s not who we’ve tried to be. We’re really very much on the old style, family sitting at the table. And if we don’t like it, we don’t want to sell it. Our wines are very much modeled after the family’s taste. Everybody puts their two cents in about why they like this better or that better.
But doesn’t taste change over time?
It does. People are more interested in food friendly wines now with lower alcohol, so you don’t have to hang onto the table after you’ve had a glass, easier going wines. That’s where we’ve tried to be. I can remember when Chardonnay was it, and nobody wanted to talk about anything else. I remember when Rose` became White Zinfandel and then got so beat up that everybody thought of it as box wine. All of a sudden, the new generation coming behind thinks they invented Rose`. We make a small amount of Rose` each year and most of it is sold in the tasting room or to our wine club members. But believe it or not, most people consider Rose a summer wine, May to September, because it goes so well with summer fare, but have Rose` with Turkey sometime. It’s a Thanksgiving wine too, Rose` and Pinot Noir. If you had talked to someone 20 years ago, even 15 years ago, it had to be Chardonnay with turkey, come on. What else is there? Things do evolve. The more people travel, the smaller the world gets. They get exposed and come back with new habits. Who would have thought that Levi Strauss was going to dress the world? If you wore blue jeans in Europe in 1965, people would have looked at you like you were crazy. Now you go to Europe, and everybody looks like they just came from the U.S. because they’re all in blue jeans. And European winemakers come to the U.S. to look at the techniques that we’re using here to modernize their ways of thinking and of production. The way to consider wine is that it is a living thing and changes constantly. People’s tastes change constantly. It’s the nature of it all.
So how do you keep your fingers on that pulse of changing tastes?
We get a lot of feedback from the tasting room. But the best barometer that I have about anything that’s changing is my children. Listen to what they have to say, and they’re going to tell you what that generation is looking for. My children are now 34 and 32. They’ve got the pulse on it, and they can program my telephone too. We just spoke about Rose`, and they were thrilled that we considered making it. We started about three or four years ago. Sauvignon Blanc is a comer in that crowd, especially in these last few years. Part of it is also the economic climate. You get to certain things a little easier than others. Every night’s not Christmas. You need alternatives for Tuesday.
Are your children involved with the winery?
Not at this time really. They’re pursuing other careers. My daughter was involved for a long time doing marketing and public relations, and she moved on to working for an investment bank. But they all have their fingers in the business. It’s kind of like their second job. Again, they were born with it. The family is getting large. There are three of us and eight cousins in the next generation. It’s good for some of the youngsters to have backgrounds in something else.
What’s your prognosis for next year? Everybody says that 2012 has been a great vintage.
It’s been a great vintage and a bountiful vintage, and I think consumers are going to be in the driver’s seat because there’s going to be a lot of wine for sale. And when there’s a lot of wine for sale, prices are very competitive. The winner is the consumer. They’re going to get a lot of good wine at very good prices. I think we’re crawling out of the doldrums economy-wise, and that helps too.
California Wines of the Month
Pellegrini Family Vineyards – 2009 Chardonnay Russian River Valley
Winemaker Dan Fitzgerald’s Notes
The Chardonnay grapes for this wine come from our estate vineyard in Russian River Valley. In contrast to our barrel fermented Olivet Lane Chardonnay, the grapes for this wine are harvested earlier, whole-cluster pressed, fermented and held in stainless steel tanks. The wine does not undergo malolactic fermentation and is bottled in spring, following the harvest. It is meant to be enjoyed for its youthful fragrance, green apple-like flavors, and bracing acidity. The 2009 Pellegrini Chardonnay is a beautiful straw color with yellow and green highlights. This wine shows intense aromas of Pippin apple, Bartlett pear, and lemon zest. With good acidity and a long finish, we especially enjoy this style of Chardonnay with appetizers or with simply prepared and unadorned seafood such as marinated Dungeness crab or sautéed Petrale sole (brix at harvest 23.24, alcohol 14.5%, pH 3.21, total acidity 0.69 g/100 ml).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This is Chardonnay in its freshest and truest expression, without a secondary malolactic fermentation and without exposure to oak barrels. Richard Pellegrini says that he has chosen screw caps for wines, which should be consumed early rather than aged for later consumption, because screw caps seem to seal the true fruit flavors of the wine within the bottle and prevent the wine from undergoing change which naturally occurs in wines that are sealed with natural cork. This wine is best served with appetizers, first courses, and main courses of poultry and seafood. Serve chilled.
Pellegrini Family Vineyards – 2009 Merlot, Cloverdale Ranch, Alexander Valley
Winemaker Dan Fitzgerald’s Notes
The 2009 growing season was marked by a warm end of summer, which brought the fruit to a near-perfect level of ripeness by mid September. Our Cloverdale Ranch Merlot displays a broad range of characters from the ripe red fruit on the nose to the rich cocoa notes in the finish. Aged for 18 months in a combination of French and American oak barrels, one-third of them new, the wine has a firm, tannic backbone that is tempered with a lush velvety textured mouth-feel. This is a wine with incredible diversity for food pairing but can certainly be enjoyed on its own (brix at harvest 25.1, alcohol 14.6%, pH 3.64, total acidity 0.68).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This is a delicious Merlot from the Cloverdale Ranch in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, an appellation which has established a reputation for premium Bordeaux varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Rich and smooth on the palate, you can serve this beautiful wine with your most elaborate holiday meals. Serve at cool room temperature.
Pellegrini Family Vineyards – 2006 Milestone, Sonoma County
Winemaker Dan Fitzgerald’s Notes
The Milestone is a tribute to our founders and was made to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Pellegrini Family Vineyards. With the first winery bonded in 1933, the company’s history spans four generations and traces its evolution from being a grape and wine merchant house to producer of estate-bottled Sonoma County wines. Milestone was conceived by selecting special lots of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc to form a mosaic that would be defined by its depth of color, richness, complexity, and supple texture. With Merlot as the dominant varietal, it is a stylistic nod to the wines we admire from Pomerol and St. Emilion, yet Milestone’s character is clearly the provenance of three vineyards located in the Russian River, Alexander, and Sonoma valleys (brix at harvest 25.28, alcohol 14.3, pH 3.67, total acidity 0.59 g/100ml) .
Anna Maria’s Notes
After six years in the bottle, the 2006 Milestone is everything you would expect from a fine Bordeaux blend. It shows deep berry flavors and spice and is beautifully balanced with fruit flavors, acid, and a soft tannin texture. The wine is a delicious example of the best that Alexander Valley vineyards can produce.
Pellegrini Family Vineyards – 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cloverdale Ranch, Alexander Valley
Winemaker Dan Fitzgerald’s Notes
The 2010 vintage of our Cloverdale Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon is dark garnet in color with complex aromas of currants, cedar, and winter spice. Aged for 18 months in a combination of French and American oak barrels, one-third of them new, the tannin profile is as concentrated as the fruit, which is the result of smaller yields from the vines. This wine will age and age (brix at harvest 24.6, alcohol 14.5%, pH 3.54, total acidity 0.66 g/100ml).
Anna Maria’s Notes
From beginning to end, from the aromas that waft from the glass to its long finish, this Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will furnish your holiday table with richly delicious berry flavors and spice, not unlike the Milestone blend above. For those of you receiving both wines, comparing them will be an interesting task. Merlot dominates the Milestone whereas this wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Both of the wines enter the mouth with a similar layered taste profile and balance, but the Cabernet finishes with slightly green sensations that are typical of the variety.
Menu of the Month
An Intimate Holiday Dinner for Four
Wild Mushroom Soup with Barley
Beef Fillets, Sautéed with Balsamic Vinegar, Served with Baby Spinach with Pine Nuts
White Winter Salad of Endive, Fennel, and Shaved Parmigian with lemon-olive oil dressing
Orange Ginger Cake, served with Moscato d’Asti
Recipe of the Month
Beef Fillets Sautéed with Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic vinegar is a great match with beef, even just a drizzle on a serving. Adapted from Olive Oil, from Tree to Table by Peggy Knickerbocker and published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco, this simple, delicious, and elegant recipe features fillets cooked in a blend of red wine and Balsamic vinegar. Enjoy!
4 filet mignons, each 1 ½ inches thick, trimmed of all fat
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 tablespoons dry red wine
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 carrot, peeled and cut into ¼ inch dice
1/2 red onion, cut into 1/4th inch dice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Add the olive oil to heavy skillet and place over medium high heat. Put the meat in the skillet and sear on both sides, turning once and allowing a minute or so on each side. Add the wine and balsamic vinegar. Toss in the carrot and onion around the meat. Cook the meat until done to your preference, just a few more minutes on each side for rare. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with the vegetables piled on top.