Embracing Their Heritage
Pellegrini Wine Company
Alexia Pellegrini is the fourth generation to work in a family wine business. But only recently has she been able to make a full commitment, in part because she finally got the job that suited her. She is Chief of Operations at the new Pellegrini Wine Company. “I like to get dirty,” she says and laughs. Although a Pellegrini, she has developed her own identity and fought to express it, regardless of family expectations.
She had worked for the family before, first as a sales rep for the wholesale distribution part of the company for about four years. “I don’t like putting on suits and calling on customers.” Her description of sales people is that they are a “different breed,” and that she is not a good fit in the category. “No offence, we need them just the way they are, but at best, they’re snake charmers.” During the years that she worked in sales, she says she quit “nicely” a few times. “But they said I was doing a good job and wouldn’t accept my resignation. So I finally had to just leave.”
Alexia is tall and attractive with a soft but decisive delivery, sprinkled with understated humor. She talks about and to her father, using his first name. “It was somewhere in the beginning when I worked with him. I said ‘Papa,’ and someone said ‘Oh my god, Papa, that’s so cute.’ That’s done,” I thought. “Kill that one. In an office setting, he’s Robert. It works.”
When harvest rolled around again, she worked in the cellar at the winery. But during her subsequent years of employment there, she felt stifled because she could not expand into other areas, especially coding and graphics, which she had taught herself, working nights in the San Francisco music scene, designing posters, fliers, and musician album packaging among other tasks. “I’ve always worked music at night, managing the office, the box office, or stage managing.” At the time, she didn’t like being “stuck” in Sonoma either because her friends were all in San Francisco. Again, she walked out.
So what finally brought Alexia back? After the older family business dissolved, her father Robert Pellegrini formed the new Pellegrini Wine Company in 2013, based at the winery on the iconic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Olivet Lane estate that his parents had purchased in 1970. In his mid sixties, Robert Pellegrini continues to express passion for the wine business that he was born into and worked in throughout his life. But this time, his own daughter is his partner.
Robert’s grandfather and great uncle had started the business in 1919, becoming grape merchants during Prohibition and selling to home winemakers across the country. When Prohibition was repealed, they opened a winery, which they suspended in 1958 because the family’s wholesale distribution network required all of their energy. In the 1950s, Robert’s father Vincent joined the business and further expanded its distribution activity, selling big-name wine brands across the nation. In 1970, after Robert graduated from college, the family purchased the 70 acres on West Olivet Road in what is now the Russian River appellation of Sonoma County and became pioneers in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production. The family had been making its wines in other facilities but in 2001 built its own winery on the Olivet Lane property and hired highly respected winemaker Merry Edwards, who raised the quality of the wine to remarkable levels. At that point, they terminated distribution to concentrate on winemaking.
As it turns out, Alexia has somehow absorbed her father’s dedication to the wine business even though she has experienced it in an entirely different way. Her father’s grandfather was a towering figure in Robert’s life, who began to teach his grandchildren about wine when Robert was 12 years old. Alexia hardly remembers her own grandfather, who died when she was nine. “He was jolly and boastful,” she says. “He talked in a certain way, but I wasn’t really paying attention to what he was saying.”
Alexia grew up on the Peninsula, an hour and a half south of Sonoma near the family’s wine distribution center. “I didn’t have the vineyard experience growing up. We didn’t even have a winery when I was younger. It was very far removed from my everyday life.”
After graduating from the University of Santa Clara, Robert went directly to the University of California, Davis, for classes in viticulture and winemaking. There was never a doubt in his mind that the wine business was his destiny, and he enthusiastically embraced it.
Alexia started out in journalism school and taking art classes. “None of that was going anywhere,” she says. Her parents offered to pay her rent if she took a wine class. “For the first time, it actually made a lot of sense to me. The experience of learning the process, the harvest, the wine going into the bottle… Almost immediately I was offered an internship through Santa Rosa Junior College to go to work at Penfolds in Australia, an enormous winery. Robert did not like that. He did not want me to go half way around the world, but I did it anyway.” At Penfolds, she was the red grape booking officer, booking 20 tons every hour to go to the crusher in 24-hour cycles. The internship at Penfolds got her another internship at St. Francis Winery in Sonoma when she returned. This time, she got lab training.
While working at the winery, Alexia earned a Certificate in Wine Sales and Marketing from Santa Rosa Junior College with continued wine education at Culinary Institute at Greystone and University of California at Davis Extension. But after leaving her employment there, she “wanted to be creative again,” she says, and moved to Los Angeles to finish a degree in graphic design from Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, where she graduated with honors. But she still was not sure how she would apply the training.
After the old company dissolved, the winery remained closed for eight months. Last year, Alexia walked into the building on Olivet Lane, where she had not been for six years since she had worked there. “I opened the door. Spider webs were everywhere, and for some reason dead lizards were all over the place.” At that moment, her mission announced itself.
“I needed to clean up the trash, get the propane back, turn the electricity on. For three or four weeks, working alone, I would go in, get the forklift out, and take away the bird nests from under the overhang. My dad would come by once in a while, but he was working on other things, wrapping up the final paperwork. He doesn’t know how to use a hammer anyway. I remember being on the forklift with a dust mask on, looking down at him, and he says, ‘You know what? I’m going to make you Vice President of Operations.’ I took down my dust mask. I’m like, ‘That’s a BS title.’ Vice President was the first to go. But corporate structure says you have to have a title, so I stuck with Chief of Operations.” As soon as we could, we hired Lynn Krausmann as our winemaker. Basically, last year from July to harvest time, we got the place going, but all hospitality and everything else had to wait.”
The Olivet Lane estate is 70 acres with 60 planted to heritage Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines, in the ground since 1975. Olivet Lane was one of the first vineyards in the Russian River Valley appellation to be planted with these varietals, long before consumers knew what they were. The location is now famous for the quality of those vines. Matriarch Aida Pellegrini owns 51 percent of the new company and Robert 49 percent. Robert is the President, and Alexia is the Chief Operating Officer. Together, they have boundless energy and big dreams.
The five-year plan centers on the property itself. The family has hired an architect to come up with a design for the entire estate, including a new hospitality center with a chef’s kitchen where they expect to host wine club members. The Center will be completed in 2016, but in the meantime, Alexia has transformed and outdoor alcove into a tasting bar. “I did quite a bit of landscaping,” she says, “created an outdoor entertainment area, put in a bocce ball court, and planted an organic farm-to-table garden with ity bity plants that are now ginormous.
“I’m very neighborly because I’m out there in my truck and in the yard. I was available to save goats from a dog, so I’ve met that neighbor. The person who did all of our electrical work is another neighbor. So basically, there are a couple of plots of land next to us that we’ve always had our eyes on, that my grandfather had his eyes on. Now we’re contenders.
“My friends in San Francisco ask, ‘Are you still doing that wine thing?’ I’m really doing it. This is it. It’s a pleasure to go to work every day.” And Robert is gratified and proud. The Pellegrini legacy lives.
California Wines of the Month
Pellegrini 2013 Rosé of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Winemaker Lynn Krausmann’s Notes
This Pellegrini Rosé was made by saignee method, in which free run juice is drawn from select Pinot Noir fermentation tanks after several hours of skin contact. Fermentation was completed in stainless steel tanks at low temperature, and malolactic fermentation was suppressed to preserve aromatics. The 2013 Rose’ of Pinot Noir has a lovely pink hue that conveys a hint to its rose petal and hibiscus fragrance, as well as its intense strawberry and juicy watermelon and blood orange flavors. This radiant Rose’ has the vibrant acidity for a crisp and lively impression yet delivers a full-flavored impact along with a silky finish. You will find this Rose’ suitable for pairing with almost any food or occasion. Although you will enjoy a chilled glass of this delicious refresher all by itself, it is remarkably versatile as a dining companion, matching brilliantly with light salads but also holding up to strong and spicy flavors. Try it with prosciutto and melon, seared tuna, or seafood paella (Alcohol 14.1%, Total Acidity 5.85 g/L, pH 3.12).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The color of this wine is truly jewel-like. A rounder more weighted Rose’ than its European cousins, it nevertheless has plenty of acid for that refresher kick that we expect from Rose’. Serve chilled with any food or even without. It will be delicious regardless.
Pellegrini 2011 Zinfandel, Sonoma County
Winemaker Lynn Krausmann’s Notes
To enhance the fruit character of the grapes, fermentation is conducted in small five-ton open top tanks. After a five-day cold maceration, the native yeast from the vineyard began fermenting spontaneously. For the next 14 days, the must was punched down three times a day to extract all the color and flavors from the skins. The wine was aged in a
Combination of American and Hungarian oak barrels, about ten percent of which were new. A medium plum red color, the wine’s fruit-forward fresh strawberry, blueberry, and rhubarb aromas and flavors are enhanced by a touch of spiciness. From a cooler vintage, the more restrained, medium-bodied style offers easy drinkability. The wine is balanced with good acidity, and soft tannins are pleasing on the palate. It’s enjoyable with a variety of fare from pasta to game (Alcohol 14.5%, Total Acidity 6.20 g/L, pH 3.28).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Zinfandel alcohol has begun to descend from the over 15% stratosphere, where it got lost during the last ten years. At 14.5%, this Pellegrini Zin reminds us that Zinfandel can be a fine food wine. Notice that pigmentation is lighter, which is true to this classic California variety. No worries about pairing with food. This one is versatile. Cill it down a bit in the refrigerator if summer temperatures over-heat the bottle.
Pellegrini 2011 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Winemaker Lynn Krausmann’s Notes
This wine comes from two vineyards in the southwestern corner of the Russian River appellation in Sonoma County. The vineyards’ proximity to the Laguna de Santa Rosa Ridge promises perfect growing conditions for Pinot Noir, brilliant sunshine in the afternoon and Russian River region cool evenings. After a four-day cold maceration, the vats were allowed to warm up, and fermentation began with the native yeast from the vineyard. Fermentation lasted about 12 days with each tank punched down by hand according to traditional Burgundian methods of vinification. The wine was aged for 11 months in a combination of Chateau Sirugue and Remond barrels. One-third of the barrels were new with the balance being one and two-years old. Bright red garnet in color with fragrant aromas of cherry fruit, rose petal, and spice, this classic Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is medium bodied with flavors reminiscent of Bing cherries accented by subtle spice and earth notes. The wine shows bright acidity, complexity, and elegance with a soft, velvety texture, imparting a versatility that can cross the boundaries from red and white meats to salmon and seared tuna (Alcohol 14.2%, Total Acidity 6.40 g/L, pH 3.47).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The hallmark of true Pinot Noir is the lightly pigmented, jewel-like color that you see in the glass, not unlike the Pellegrini Zinfandel above. I mention this in reference to both wines because, until recently, the tendency among California winemakers has been to amp up both varietals in color and alcohol. What you will enjoy in this Pellegrini 2011 Pinot is an elegant and balanced wine. Don’t let the wine overheat in summer temperatures. If necessary, put it in the refrigerator for 15 to 20 minutes.
Pellegrini 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley
Winemaker Lynn Krausmann’s Notes
The 2010 growing season would be classified as a cool one. There were, however, two massive heat spikes both in July and August. The first heat wave was the most damaging. Fruit that was still green cooked under the unseasonal heat. We lost about 50% of our crop between both heat waves. The result of this calamity was small yields that benefitted from a long Indian summer. The fruit was picked at perfect ripeness and fermented in small stainless steel tanks. The ferments were aerated early on to provide color, supple tannins, and mouth-feel. Once fermentation was complete the new wine underwent an extended maceration of the skins to further develop structure and complexity before being pressed off to barrel. Both primary and secondary fermentations were completed with indigenous yeast and flora. Deep ruby red in color, the wine reflects distinct Alexander Valley Cabernet characteristics with dark berry fruit in the nose and rich plum fruit flavors, supple tannins, and fleshy texture in the mouth. Framed by moderate oak in the bouquet and on the palate, this balanced, medium-bodied Cabernet pairs well with grilled beef and lamb (Alcohol 14.5%, Total Acidity 6.70 g/L, pH 3.51).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Pellegrini wines are remarkably similar in style with moderate alcohols, native yeasts instead of added yeasts that produce extraneous flavors and higher alcohols, and finally a balance of fruit flavors, refreshing acidity, and smooth tannins. These wines bear witness to a thoughtful and consistent style that delivers more natural and always delicious wines.
Menu of the Month
Menu for a Summer Fest
Linguine with zucchini, almond, and mint pesto
Grilled fillet of Sockeye salmon served with marinated cherry tomato salad
Fresee salad with green beans and red grapes, dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Chilled stone fruit compote with fresh whipped cream
Recipe of the Month
Marinated Cherry Tomato Salad
This salad is an especially delicious side dish for almost any grilled fish. It’s a classic Italian summer salad, but we adapted this specific recipe in Vegetables from an Italian Garden, Season by Season Recipes from the Silver Spoon kitchen, published by Phaidon Press. Enjoy!
1 1/3 cups halved cherry tomatoes
1 celery heart, thinly sliced
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 canned anchovy fillet, drained and finely chopped
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 strip finely pared lemon rind
1 sprig oregano, chopped
Or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper
Put the tomatoes into a large bowl and add the celery heart. Pour the oil into another bowl; add the anchovy fillet, lemon juice, lemon rind, oregano, and garlic; and season with salt and pepper. Whisk together with a fork, and then pour the dressing over the tomato salad. Stir, cover, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving.