08 Feb Balletto Vineyards in the Russian River Valley
I had a plan, well sort of. It was Day 3 of our Flash tour and Flash tours are pretty busy! We had spent a day in Sonoma and this day was to start in Napa and end up in the Livermore Valley. That’s a lot of ground to cover. I had a plan to start the day and to end the day, but the middle was a bit mushy. There was much driving to be done, so the wine needed to wait until later in the day and I had not done enough research to find a proper stop. Michael dove online and saved the day. A mid afternoon stop that could be our final Sonoma destination that had a patio for a picnic lunch and a hike! Balletto it was! Since then I have had multiple people tell me how much they like this winery, but at the time…I knew nothing about them.
Balletto Vineyards is located in Sonoma, with their winery just a little bit off the 12 on Occidental Road. The address says Santa Rosa, but they are closer to Sebastopol. They were farmers first, with John Balletto starting the business running the family’s 5 acre farm growing vegetables in 1977. John’s father had passed away and to care for his family, he gave up college athletic scholarships to start the business. They expanded the property they owned and grew more and more produce. In 1995 they had 700 acres and grew 70 different varieties of produce and were one of the largest vegetable farms in Northern California. Multiple El Ninos in 1998 wiped out much of their crops and as they looked at potential future water crisis’ they determined to turn their properties to wine grapes. They began with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and sold fruit to Sonoma Wine Producers. In 2001 they created Balletto Vineyards, keeping 10% of their fruit from their Russian River Valley Vineyards for themselves. Their produce packaging and shipping center, became the winery.
In the tasting room you can ask about the self guided tour and they will give you a laminated map to guide you. These are done in conjunction with Sonoma.com and on their site you can find details on multiple Free Vineyard Walking Tours.
We started out with the hike, it was a beautiful day and getting to see the soil and the vines and a little of the story of this place seemed to be a good way to set the mood for the wines we would taste later. The tour had 7 stops, each telling you a bit of behind the scenes information on things Balletto Vineyards is doing to be sustainable, to care for the land and the people on it. Because after all…that really does make for better wine.
Preservation of Habitat
Located in the Russian River Valley the vineyard and winery sit next to the Laguna de Santa Rosa which is a major tributary of the Russian River. This part of the Russian River Valley is flat and open and the Laguna de Santa Rosa is a wetland habitat where you can see a variety of birds, including osprey, pelicans and Great Blue Herons. Diversity in species and landscape are vital to keeping environments healthy.
When Balletto began as a vineyard, they already understood the importance of water conservation. Here next to the winery they have 3 holding ponds where they reused water from the winery. The water is specially routed to the ponds from the winery where it is treated. It is then reused for irrigation and in the spring for frost protection. In addition they have mobile fans for the vineyard. Frost protection can be quite the water guzzler, so the fans allow them to use less water. They also utilize recycled water from the City of Santa Rosa’s Laguna treatment plant.
While water can be in short supply, the morning fog brings lots of moisture to the vines. When you get close to harvest, this can be detrimental as it can increase the chance of fungal diseases. To mitigate this, vineyards use trellising. The Chardonnay vines at Balletto are trellised to keep the clusters of grapes even along the vine, allowing for more air circulation among the leaves and clusters and decreasing the chance of mold and fungus growing.
We walked along the vines and were drawn to the beautiful clusters which were going through veraison, turning those beautiful shades of deep purple, bronze, or silvery gray. Balletto grows 9 varieties of Pinot Noir and one Pinot Gris (known as Pinot Grigio in Italy). Pinot Gris is Pinot Noir’s lighter dryer cousin. These grapes thrive in the Russian River Valley’s cool coastal climate. There is Chardonnay here also, so the colors of the berries in the blocks varied from the bright greens of the still ripening Chardonnay to the dusty grey bronze of the Pinot Gris to the deepening purple of the Pinot Noir. Here for your viewing pleasure, a selection of grape glamour shots.
Terroir is the idea of the essence of a place. This begins with the soil. The vineyards of Balletto encompass 5 different soil types with the two primary types being Wright Loam and Blucher Fine Sandy Loam. North of the winery near Oxnard road you find Clear Lake Clay. The differences in soil, site and climate are what make vineyards unique. Mind you, we were just standing on one of the Balletto Vineyards, they own 16 estate vineyards in the Russian River Valley AVA from the Santa Rosa Plains to the Sebastapol Hills area and Petaluma Gap. From these vineyards Balletto creates 8 vineyard designate wines, allowing you to taste the difference in terroir.
Pomace for Fertilizer
Pomace is the seeds, stems, skin and sometimes pulp, left over after the grapes are crushed for their juice. Named for the Goddess of Fruit “Pomona” this leftover from the wine making process can be used for fertilizer. It tends to be a little smelly, as any good fertilizer is. Here at Balletto they create piles of pomace after harvest and let them dry for 16 to 18 months, then they use them as fertilizer between the rows. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle…there you go.
Field of Dreams
There is more to wine than the soil and the grapes, the people who make the wine are part of this story. It’s their hard work you taste in the glass. Protecting the land and conserving it’s resources, is good for grapes, but it’s also, more importantly, good for people. A sense of community is important. Here is one story from Balletto on building community.
Next to the winery, it is impossible to miss the “Field of Dreams”. Instead of being in the middle of a cornfield, this field sits on 4 acres in the middle of the Balletto vineyard. In 2004 the Balletto vineyard crew asked John Balletto if the winery would sponsor their league baseball team. John Balletto took it a step further and took 4 acres next to the winery and donated all the materials to build a regulation baseball field. The vineyard crew built the field and now in the Spring and Summer the league plays games here on Sundays. Blocks in the vineyard now sport names like “First Baseline Chardonnay” or “Field/Dream (west) Pinot Gris”. (scroll to the bottom to see the field in our video of our walk)
On to the Wines
Balletto has an extensive tasting list ranging from Sparkling wines (which makes perfect sense since they grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), to Pinot Gris, Sav Blanc, Chardonnay and a Gewurtztraminer. They produce a lovely Rosé of Pinot Noir and a Vin de Paille dessert wine from their Pinot Gris. Their Reds are dominated by Pinot Noir (no surprise there), with several vineyard designates. They also have a Zin and a Syrah.
2013 Brut Rosé 2013 $42
This wine spends 3 years in the bottle. In June of 2017 it was given 90 points by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay this Sparkling wine is made the the Methode Traditionelle. It is dry and refreshing with balanced acids and a little mineral note. Stacy at Briscoe Bites did a great review on this wine http://briscoebites.com/balletto-brut-rose/
2016 Savignon Blanc $19
This wine comes from the Balletto Estate Vineyard on Hall Road, where they have two blocks that balance each other. The South block fruit is 80% of this wine with bright fruit and high acidity while the fruit from the north block adds a rich and savory note to balance the wine. My note on this was “Bright without being abrasive”. They note that the wine is pressed lightly in whole clusters and fermented in neutral oak for 5 months on the lees. 20% of this goes through malolactic fermentation. They produce 1200 cases of this wine.
2016 Teresa’s Unoaked Chardonnay $20
The grapes for this wine come from the west end of the vineyard around the winery which has sandy soil and they are a Robert Young clone. The grapes are harvested early, whole cluster pressed and given a long cool fermentation. This is 100% stainless steel, no lees stirring and no Malolactic fermentation. What you get is vibrant with great acidity, but also with a great texture. They made 3,260 cases of this wine.
2014 Cider Ridge Chardonnay $38
This wine comes from their new Cedar Ridge Vineyard which sits just 10 miles from the Pacific. It is cold and foggy and windy, but the vines are on slopes that face west, get amazing sun and sit at an elevation of 950 feet. This wine has tropical notes and well as subtle nut tones and a little minerality. The grapes are whole cluster pressed and then barrel fermented, so it is a great contrast to Teresa’s Unoaked.
2016 Gewütztraminer $19
This Gewürztraminer is from their Piner Road Vineyard where they have 2 blocks of Gewürztraminer totaling less than 5 acres on the 58 acre vineyard. With a nose ripe with lychee, beeswax, honey and white flowers, this wine steps away from the traditional Burgundian wines this winery is known for.
2016 Rosé of Pinot Noir $18
Rosé has come back full force and drinking pink is finally fashionable again. This particular Rosé is of Pinot Noir. They specifically farm blocks of Pinot Noir at Balletto for their Rosé, the idea is to have brightness and soft tannins to give the wine structure. This rosé is light in color because they limit skin contact. They do 80% whole cluster pressing and 20% is sanguine (or the bleed off from their regular Pinot Noir fermentation). This gives the wine depth. Luckily they make 4,840 cases of this wine, but you should still plan to get the 2017 as soon as it comes out, and stock up. Our friend Sarah did a review that I will share with you.
Sonoma Magazine – “22 Best Sonoma Rose Wines to Drink All Summer,” June 2017
“A perennial favorite, we loved the easy drinkability of Balletto’s Rosé. The classic strawberry notes are complemented by herbaceous green tea, Kefir lime, candied apple and a bit of minerality. At under $20 a bottle, easily findable at the grocery or liquor store across the country, and family owned and operated, it’s an easy pick for the ice bucket when company comes over.”- Sarah Stierch
2014 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir $29
This Balletto Pinot Noir is a blend from 7 of their estate vineyards. Because the vineyards are diverse and range from warmer to cooler areas and open flat areas like the estate vineyard at the winery to vineyards that are steeper hillside vineyards, these grapes blend to create a wine with depth and complexity. This wine and all of their Pinot Noirs are fermented with native yeast. They ferment in 6 ton open top fermenters and then age in mostly neutral French Oak.
2014 Cider Ridge Pinot Noir $42
This Pinot is from the new Cedar Ridge Vineyard. Balletto has 14 acres of Pinot Noir planted here and this is the first release of Pinot Noir from this site. The Cider Ridge we found to be bigger on the palate than on the nose.
2015 BCD Pinot Noir $44
This wine is a vineyard designate from their BCD Vineyard. This wine had more tannins than the other two Pinot Noirs that we tasted, but was still mellow and very nice.
2014 Zinfandel $28
The Zin had a classic Zinfandel nose, but was lighter on the palate due to the cooler climate. It has spice and a bit of vanilla and is bright on the palate, with a long finish. Their Zinfandel comes from the BCD Vineyard where they have about a 6.5 acre block.
2014 Syrah $28
We are finding that there are quite a few cooler climate vineyards that started out exclusively growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, that are starting to grow Syrah and finding that it thrives and creates a lovely elegant expression of this grape. This wine comes from the BCD Vineyard which is a rolling vineyard with sandy soils. These are typically the last grapes picked by Balletto each season and they get maximum skin contact with lots of gentle pump overs. To soften the tannins the wine is aged in French Oak for 22 months. This was indeed a lovely Syrah, with cocoa, coffee and smoke on the nose and smooth tannins, but quite honestly it could not outshine the Pinots on this list.
We will leave you with a virtual tour of our afternoon at Balletto! But a virtual tour is only so good. Get out to Sonoma and visit Balletto for yourself.