Sonoma County region

91 Points Robert Parker, Gold Medal Sonoma County Harvest Fair

Baton is unique in that it does not have a winery or vineyards designation on its name line. What it does have, however, is an incredible reputation and record despite being only five years old. Baton’s owners are Bill and Cathy Vyenielo (pronounced Vie-en ell-o), a name that is of Swiss-Italian origin. Its existence is a tribute to the fact that long time wine industry employees were willing to take a chance and venture into something that was both risky and financially strapping.

Bill Vyenielo is a Sonoma County native that grew up just outside picturesque Petaluma with a deep appreciation for the outdoors and for farming in particular. He attended and graduated from prestigious UC Davis, but with a degree in Animal Science as opposed to the standard wine industry enology degree. Upon graduation in 1981, Bill joined the St. Helena office for Farm Credit and began a job of helping farmers and wineries with any problems that might arise in their operations.

“I literally worked with just about everyone in the wine industry in just about every type of situation,” recalled Vyenielo during a recent interview. “I was able to accumulate a great deal of knowledge about specific wine operations and to also develop a group of true friends that I was always able to count on.” Vyenielo was lured to help run Monticello’s Vineyards’ Napa winery and vineyards and was later given the reins as general manager of the celebrated Peter Michael super winery in Calistoga, recognized as one of California truly respected luxury estate wineries.

“I was lucky to experience what it was like to make premium and ultra premium wines and then sell them,” Vyenielo continued. “I also learned that there was a tremendous market for great wines at the super premium level, and that what made Cathy and I take the step with Baton.” The “step” in mention was the creation of the Vyenielos’ own wine brand, Baton, in 2005.

“As a family decision, Baton was something of a high-risk venture. If you don’t have deep pockets, you can’t make any mistakes. But life is full of risks, and we decided we would always regret it if we didn’t make the effort,” Vyenielo related. As for factual notation, Baton is an ancient French wine term that refers to the batonnage, or process of stirring the lees in the barrels that result in the release of yeast compounds into the developing wine. The baton is the longish instrument that actually stirs the lees and is often the winemaker’s best friend. The first release of Baton came in 2006, a paltry 500-plus cases that proved to be instantly successful. High scores and gold medals followed in quick succession and Baton became a buzz word in its lofty category.

“We chose to focus on two Burgundian varietals (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) even though we knew they would be difficult to grow correctly. Since I knew every inch of Sonoma County from the time I was a kid,” Vyenielo smiled, “I felt I had a leg up on choosing the right growing areas. I was looking for places with an extra long (two to three weeks) growing season and we found some growers who were willing to work with us. It has all worked out marvelously, and we have long term contracts with certain top growers. Some have even planted vines to our specifications, a fact I find rewarding and a little remarkable.” Baton’s production level has only grown slightly since 2006, with a tad over 700 cases being produced this year. The philosophy of slow growth stems from Bill Vyenielo’s many years of expertise in the wine business, where he has seen a number of winery ventures come and go.

“Right now is really tough time for winery expansion,” he added, referring to the current recession-led wine industry business climate. “I learned at Peter Michael that there is always a significant high end market for incredibly made wines, and that’s what we have aspired to at Baton. Hopefully, we can continue our success.” Wife Cathy Vyenielo cares for the business aspects of the operation and helps with the marketing. Son Danny, 18, is enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and will take an enology path with the specific desire of following his Mom and Dad into the family wine business.

Bill Vyenielo literally beams with pride at that suggestion, since he considers Baton a family endeavor above all else.

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