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Brutocao Cellars - Mendocino County

Brutocao continues expansion, adds a vineyard and a new tasting room

Wine of the Month Club Selection - In a small town called Treviso near Venice, Italy, the Lion of St. Mark is prevalent wherever you go. The lion has been a symbolic figure in the cathedral of St. Mark in Venice for generations. So ingrained in the heritage of Venice and the surrounding area, it has become a symbol for the city of Venice itself.

In America that symbol has become synonymous with Brutocao Cellars, a small winery in Mendocino County. Owned and operated by Leonard Brutocao and his wife Marty, the winery’s Lion of St. Mark logo is a perpetual embracement of the Brutocao family’s Italian heritage that originated in Treviso.

We doubt that many of you have heard of Brutocao (pronounced brute´ oh coe) Cellars, even though they’ve been producing wines since 1980. In the early 1940s Marty Brutocao’s father, Irv Bliss, bought the 500-acre property where Brutocao Cellars now sits. It was comprised of 60 acres of grapes and figs back then but the land was used mostly for raising livestock. Irv soon discovered the area was suited for growing grapes and expanded the property’s vineyards. By the 1970s he was harvesting over 100 acres of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.

Irv Bliss retired in 1969 and sold the ranch to Sonoma Vineyards. They in turn planted 100 additional acres of the land to Chardonnay, Petite Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and added to the existing Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon vines. Five years later ownership of the property returned to the family when Sonoma Vineyards ran into financial trouble and sold it to Irv Bliss’ son-in-law Leonard Brutocao and his brother Albert.

The vineyards were not in good shape and the two brothers had never before been involved with grape growing. They recognized the opportunity though, and as with their other entrepreneurial ventures (see Spotlight on page 3), they were determined to make it work. The basic idea was to nurse the vineyards back to health, sell the majority of the crop to other wineries and make a little bit of wine in the process.

By 1980 the plan was well on its way. The vineyards were back in shape, the grapes were being sold to local area wineries such as Beringer, Mondavi and Fetzer, and the Brutocaos made several hundred cases of Cabernet Sauvignon to sell under their own label. For the next decade the operational plan remained unchanged until 1989 when Al Brutocao, who managed the day-to-day activities, suddenly passed away.

Brother Len Brutocao, who up until then had been directing the family’s other enterprises in southern California, became actively involved in the wine business. Len counted on Tony Stephen, who was the grape grower and vineyard manager, to continue handling that aspect of the business. He also decided to get serious about being in the winery business. Starting a winery and making a real impact with their wines was something the two brothers had talked about for years and Len was finally going to make it happen.

One of the first tasks was finding an experienced winemaker. His search didn’t take him far. Tony Stephen’s wife, Nancy Walker, was working as assistant winemaker at Clos du Bois. She was already a veteran in the wine industry having gained previous experience at McDowell and Cresta Blanca wineries. “I had long been aware of the great potential of Brutocao Vineyards,” Nancy tells us. So she jumped at the opportunity to head her own winemaking program for Brutocao Cellars.

The new Brutocao Cellars was off and running with the 1991 harvest. That first year, a mix of 1,200 cases was made of Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The wines hit with immediate critical success. The Wine Spectator rated the 1991 Sauvignon Blanc 90 points, its highest rating of the year. The ensuing years brought steady increases in overall production and more critical success for their wines. Thirty-five hundred cases were made in 1992, 8,000 cases the following year, and 10,000 cases were produced in 1994. “At 15,000 cases or so we would have been at maximum capacity,” says Len Brutocao. “So we knew we had to make plans right then to expand our facilities,” he added.

In 1995 Brutocao Cellars finished construction of a brand new, larger winery. “Our comfort level will eventually reach 25,000 to 35,000 cases,” Len Brutocao reveals. At roughly the same time the new facilities were completed, the Brutocaos purchased an additional 275-acre vineyard on the opposite side of the road from the winery. The property is planted to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, so as Brutocao wine production increases, the additional grapes will secure the luxury of using only the best grapes for their own brand. And in 1999, the winery started development of a new vineyard they call, Contento located adjacent to their Bliss Vineyard. The experts are convinced the site’s red volcanic soil will yield top-of-the line, ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon that will be ready to harvest by the year 2004.

Continuing their expansion mode, the Brutocaos recently purchased the defunct Hopland High School and have turned the property into a fabulous visitor destination center called Schoolhouse Plaza. In the old school building, a huge new tasting room was constructed along with an Italian restaurant. Next door in the old school gymnasium, plans are underway to house several small retail shops, along with offices, and a conference center. On the grounds, the Brutocaos have completed six regulation Bocce ball courts where official tournaments are held to attract Bocce players from far and wide. The final result is a fabulous, attractive, multi-use complex for both locals and tourists.

To help guide the winery to new heights and well into the next millennium, Len & Marty’s son Steve, directs the winery’s sales and marketing efforts. The winery’s new winemaker, 20-year wine industry veteran, Fred Nickel, arrived in 1997 to handle all aspects of production. Steve Brutocao’s sister, Rene, manages the tasting room merchandise sales and writes the winery newsletter. Len’s daughter-in-law handles sales in the southern California area. Len Jr. recently moved into a ranch house on the vineyard property and manages the facilities and construction projects. And even though Len Brutocao claims he’s retired now, when we ask who runs the show—he just smiles.

Len Brutocao

Times were tough in Italy at the turn of the century and distant lands were calling all comers with the hopes of new prosperity. In 1910, Leonard and Albert Brutocao’s father, Leonard Brutocao Sr., left Italy with his family, at the age of one, to settle in Canada. He and his two brothers, Louie and Angelo, grew up in Ft. Erie, Ontario, across the border from Buffalo, New York.

As adults, the three Brutocao brothers took the opportunities of their new homeland to heart, involving themselves in a myriad of entrepreneurial businesses. They started companies that manufactured everything from grass mats to stove radiators. But at the heart of their enterprises was their construction business that specialized in building houses and apartments.

Leonard’s sons, Albert and Leonard Jr., also grew up in Ft. Erie. In 1949 while the two were still teenagers, the entire Brutocao clan emigrated to the U.S. They moved to the town of Covina, in southern California and continued to prosper in the construction business. Their entrepreneurial spirit persisted, starting new enterprises such as the first modern bowling alley west of the Mississippi. They also dabbled in real estate and chicken farming!

Meanwhile, son Leonard went to college at U.C. Berkeley to obtain an engineering degree. Out of college he worked for the Federal government for a while, then joined brother Al at an engineering company in Merced. In 1967, the two brothers struck out on their own to form Brutocao Engineering. Their company specialized in heavy construction projects, building bridges and highways throughout California and Arizona.

True to the Brutocao tradition, once the engineering company was established as the backbone of their operations they began a hand full of other ventures one of which included running a pasta store! When the opportunity arose to buy back the family vineyard property in Mendocino that Len’s father-in-law had sold years earlier, Al and Len jumped at the chance. They both liked the thought of owning a farm and being outdoors; and someday they hoped to build a couple of houses on the land to retire there with their families.

Al decided he would manage the vineyard while Len continued to run the construction and other businesses in southern California. However, his untimely death in 1989 changed everything and accelerated Len’s timetable to spend his time at the vineyard.

Len is now busy fulfilling both his and Al’s dreams. The winery is making serious inroads as they had both hoped it would someday. Len ‘retired” in 1994 but still directs the strategic direction of the business. He and his wife, Marty recently built a house on the Mendocino vineyard property where they now reside.