Russian River Valley AVA
A Double Gold Medal winning family and much more in Sonoma
With roots firmly planted in Sonoma County, Balletto Vineyards has emerged from what was once the largest produce grower north of San Francisco Bay. Now with over 500 acres planted to premium Russian River Valley fruit, John Balletto and his wife Terri have achieved one of the greatest farming success stories in all of California. John Balletto began farming in 1977, at the tender age of 17. He had just graduated from high school and was working towards a football career, when his father’s untimely death took him down a different path. Instead of going away to college, John stayed put in Sebastopol, California where he helped his mother farm the five acres of zucchini on their family property. Just five years later, John purchased an additional ranch property in Santa Rosa, where he planted lettuce, herbs, and beets that would be sold to Safeway stores and specialty restaurants in the area. All that hard work bred serious success for the Ballettos. Their family farm grew from five acres in 1977 to more than 500 acres in 1985.
By 1990, they were producing more than a million cartons of vegetables annually, had 200 employees and owned their own trucking company and shipping facility. With their passion for farming and smart business sense, the Ballettos had built an incredibly successful farming operation and had became a big name in Sonoma County’s agricultural industry.
John Balletto and his wife Terri (who married in 1988) decided to make a change in 1995 when they agreed to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on their home ranch for neighboring winery DeLoach Vineyards. The site was located in the western hills of Sebastopol (in the Russian River Valley), a region where vintners were quickly discovering the potential of growing cool climate varietals. With competition in the vegetable business becoming extremely tough, John and Terri began converting their vegetable land to wine grapes and felt that in order to stay in the farming business they must make a change. Today, 100 acres of Chardonnay, 60 acres of Pinot Noir and 5 acres of Pinot Gris surround the winery site. “We started by selling the grapes to nearby wineries,” explained Terri Balletto.
“Our main business was farming, and it still is. We sell 90 percent of our grapes to other wineries.” In 2001, John and Terri decided to experiment and make a few hundred cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay themselves. With the help of consulting winemaker Dan Cederquist (formerly of DeLoach Vineyards), the Ballettos had a stunning inaugural vintage and the wines completely sold out before there was a chance to enter them in competitions.
“This was a good change for us,” Terri acknowledged. “From 2001 to 2004, we completely phased out our vegetable growing business and replanted all of our acreage to wine grapes. We now grow six different varietals on our 500 acres, selling most of it to smaller, more ‘boutique’ wineries. We keep enough for ourselves to make about 15,000 cases annually.” Balletto is now a name associated with world class wines, with some of the top vineyard properties in the Sonoma County area. Their grapes are in high demand as well, with over 20 different wineries currently purchasing Balletto fruit. Selling to big-name wineries such as Bogle, Gloria Ferrar, Sonoma-Cutrer, DeLoach, Kenwood, Domain Chandon, and La Crema, Balletto Vineyards has established themselves as a major supplier for premium Russian River Valley fruit. All of the grapes Balletto uses are hand-picked from their various vineyard locations, and then transported to the winery, located in the middle of the 280-acre Balletto family property in the Russian River Valley. The Balletto Winery is actually the former vegetable packing facility from the family’s produce farming days and provides a wonderful home for their award-winning fruit.
Also on the Balletto family property is a piece of land that borders the Laguna de Santa Rosa wildlife preserve, a home to many species of birds and animals. The Ballettos felt that the area of land they owned along the Laguna was so beautiful that it should be shared with others, and they are in the process of putting in a trail that can be enjoyed by the public for hiking and bike rides. John and Terri Balletto have come a long way in the farming world, and today are earning such praises as “Business of the Year” from the Sebastopol Area Chamber of Commerce and “Farm Family of the Year” from the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. With such recognition, we know the Ballettos’ journey is far from over and we invite you to enjoy the incredible fruits of their labor as this month’s Pinot Noir Wine of the Month Club selection.
Despite his life-long passion for food and wine, Anthony Beckman came into the wine industry later in life. In his first career, he worked as a daily newspaperman in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, and later moved into bio-tech website development in San Francisco. While in San Francisco, he spent his free time on trips to Sonoma County wineries and it became evident that this was his real calling. Beckman started his wine career by working a few harvests in Dry Creek Valley, and abroad in New Zealand. He also worked for a gourmet grocery and wine store in Sacramento where he tasted through thousands of wines from around the world. He graduated from UC Davis’ prestigious Enology program and went to work for a number of wineries.
Prior to joining the Balletto Vineyards team in January of 2007, Beckman gained winemaking experience at Peay Vineyards in the Sonoma Coast, Hudson Vineyards in the Napa-Carneros region, Delegats (Oyster Bay) in New Zealand, and Quivira Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley. Balletto Vineyards also continues to work with consulting winemaker Dan Cederquist, who is now president and winemaker for Everett Ridge Vineyards.