Friday, April 13, 2007

Winery Watch: Brutocao Cellars

This is the third in a series of posts highlighting California family wineries. You might not be familiar with them--yet--but they produce wines that speak with the voices of this state's people, places, and history. They are worth seeking out. These posts will be longer than most posts on the blog, but I hope you will find them perfect for leisurely weekend reading and internet browsing. Have fun! To read previous posts in the series, click here.

In Renaissance Venice, two things were prized above all else: family and land. (Allegory of Venice by Carpaccio) Venice didn't have much land to speak of, and what little there was seemed constantly at risk of being washed into the Adriatic, but the city's rulers knew that land was important. Most Venetians have a deep yearning to own something --anything -- permanent and lasting to hand down to their descendents. The ghosts of the city must smile every time they think of Brutocao Cellars, where a Venetian family married into a family of Mendocino County farmers and put down deep roots into the California soil. It was Venice's two obsessions--with family, with land--that kept Venice strong, century after century. And its what makes Brutocao Cellars wines so special today.

Len and Marty Brutocao lead a family effort to make wine that is a homage to their Italian heritage and a testament to the hard work started by Marty's father, Irv Bliss, when he bought land in Mendocino County back in the 1940s. (picture of Len and Marty Brutocao courtesy of Brutocao Cellars) Folks were just starting to think about planting and cultivating wine grapes again after Prohibition, but not many were thinking of the remote reaches of the Northern California coast. But Irv Bliss thought this land could yield some fine wine, and he was proven right.

Beginning in 1991 with the help of family and friends, and later with the help of Fresno-native and UC Davis graduate winemaker Fred Nickel, the Brutocaos began putting out some lovely examples of California wines made with Italian and Bordeaux varietals. (picture of Fred among the barrels courtesy of Brutocao Cellars) Farming over 475 acres of choice land and planting more than 12 grape varietals, the Brutocaos paid attention to the best traditions of winemaking. To honor these traditions, they chose the Lion of St. Mark--the symbol of Venice--to mark their wine bottles and name their wine club.

Brutocao Cellars is also interested in starting new traditions, and they are part of a group of Mendocino Winemakers who collaborate on the Coro Mendocino project. Operating under strict production rules like a European DOC, eleven Mendocino wineries (Brutocao Cellars, Dunnewood Vineyards, Eaglepoint Ranch, Fetzer Vineyards, Golden Vineyards, Graziano Family Wines, McDowell Valley Vineyards, McNab Ridge Winery, Oracle Oaks Winery, Pacific Star Winery and Parducci Wine Estate) make a special, ultra-premium wine with Zinfandel at the core and other varietals added in unique proportions that reflect the special characteristics of each particular vineyard. "Coro" means "chorus" in Italian and Spanish, and the name Coro Mendocino reflects winemakers' efforts to harmonize all the individual, strong voices coming out of the county's vineyards these days.

When Jeff Miller took the time to share Brutocao's line of wines with me at the Family Winemakers Event, it was clear to me that they are distinguished not only by the care with which they are made, and the traditions that the family draws upon, and the alliances that the Cellars has with other area producers. What distinguishes Brutocao's New World wines is that they have Old World soul. They are food wines--meant to be opened around a dinner table full of friends and family, with plates of food, good conversation, and lots of laughter. These bottlings contain the stuff that everyday wine culture in American should be based on, with their juicy fruit, complex flavors, and soft elegance.

Here are my brief tasting notes for my favorite Brutocao Cellars wines, with links back to the Brutocao website (soon to be launched in a jazzy new version, but the links will still work) so that you can order some wine for your own collection. My local wine store here on the Sonoma Coast stocks their wines, so ask your retailer if they can get some to have on hand when the yearning for some good wine hits you hard. It's also worth knowing that they have a second, value-oriented label, Bliss Vineyards, so keep your eyes peeled for that line of wines, too.

2004 Brutocao Quadriga Hopland ($24) A yummy Cal-Italian blend of sangiovese, primitivo, dolcetto, and barbera. Lovely red and black fruit aromas, are accompanied by warm, spicy notes and real structure as the flavors unfold and develop. This would be age-worthy, but you may not be able to wait its so good now. Possibly my favorite from the tasting, and there was a lot of competition! Excellent QPR.

2004 Brutocao Zinfandel Hopland Ranches ($22) This was an outstanding example of Mendocino Zinfandel with real complexity and depth. No wonder it won a gold medal at the California State Fair! Jammy blackberry aromas and flavors are complemented with cedary spice. Cracked pepper notes emerge as the fruit fades on the finish. Great value. Excellent QPR

2004 Brutocao Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon ($20; also available in large-format 3L bottle for $100) Made from fruit harvested from the Hopland Ranch's Contento and Feliz vineyards, this outstanding cabernet has rich cassis aromas and flavors with a distinctive whiff of pencil lead shavings that made me think of Bordeaux. This wine is still young, and has a strong grip of tannins, so I'd age it a year or two to give it time for its flavors to shine. I'd save it for the holidays in 2008! Excellent QPR.

2003 Brutocao Merlot Estate Bottled Bliss Vineyard ($20) What a nice merlot. Juicy cherry and blackberry aromas and flavors are woven with spicy cedar notes that extend through the finish. Enough to make Miles turn away from his Pinot Noir, and a marvelous wine to pair with food, whether summer BBQ or autumn stews. Excellent QPR.

2005 Brutocao Chardonnay Bliss Vineyard ($16) The versatility of the Brutocao portfolio is exemplified in this chardonnay, where a touch of oak brings out the apple and pear aromas and flavors characteristic of the varietal. Soft vanilla notes accent this appealing chardonnay. Very good QPR.

2006 Brutocao Sauvignon Blanc Estate Bottled Feliz Vineyard ($14) Yet another find from Brutocao, this time a nicely-balanced, citrusy sauvignon blanc. Aged in stainless steel to preserve the freshness of its aromas and flavors, grapefruit and other citrus flavors dominate a flavor palate that starts out soft with melons and grasses. Very good QPR.

The extended Brutocao vineyard family not only produces great wine, they lead by example in showing us what a great thing it is when European culture (especially wine culture) meets up with American can-do spirit. They have opened cafes and bistros alongside their tasting rooms in Philo and Hopland, because they believe that wine and food are partners. They host bocce tournaments because they know that families and friends who play together, stay together. (photo courtesy of Brutocao Cellars) They hold chili cook-offs for the Tri-County Little League because they believe in the future of the area. And they know deep in their bones that wine, if made with this kind of passion and commitment, is as permanent and lasting as any Venetian could wish.

Next Week: Red Head Ranch

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