Blending Italian heritage with a rural agricultural lifestyle to make some of California’s finest wines
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 for generations, and the image is so ingrained in the heritage of the city and the surrounding area that is has now become a symbol for the city of Venice itself.
In America, that symbol has become synonymous with Brutocao (pronounced Brute-oh-coe) Cellars, a small family winery in Mendocino County. The winery is owned and operated by three brothers - Steve, Lenny, and David Brutocao - who represent the third generation of Brutocaos to carry on the tradition of family grape-growing. The winery’s Lion of St. Mark logo is a perpetual embracing of the Brutocao family’s Italian heritage that originated in Treviso, and it is even a part of the Brutocao Family Crest developed in the 1980’s.
Brutocao Cellars’ history actually dates back to the early 1940’s when the brothers’ grandfather, Irv Bliss, bought the 500-acre property where the winery stands today. It was originally comprised of 60 acres of grapes and figs, but the land was mostly used for raising livestock. Irv soon discovered the area was well suited to growing grapes and expanded the property’s vineyards to include over 100 acres of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.
Irv retired in 1969 and sold the ranch to Sonoma Vineyards. They in turn planted 100 additional acres of the land to Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc, and added to the existing Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon vines. Five years later, the Brutocao family happily repurchased the property and continued the tradition of growing premium wine grapes on their family’s original property.
The new ownership was split between Irv’s son-in-law, Len Brutocao, and Len’s brother Albert. The brothers had been involved with engineering and managed their own construction company in southern California, but they jumped at the chance to buy back the family vineyard. In order to maintain their existing business, Albert decided to manage the vineyard while Len continued to run their construction company in southern California.
Most of the Brutocao family’s grapes were sold to local area wineries (including Beringer and Mondavi), but enough was kept to make a little bit of wine on the side. In 1980, Brutocao Cellars made their first commercial wine release.
When Albert suddenly passed away in 1989, Len immediately stepped in to take over operations at the vineyard. He sought the help of his three sons, Steve, Lenny, and David Brutocao, and decided to get serious about being in the winery business. Building a winery and making a real impact with their wines was something he and Albert had talked about for years and Len was finally going to make it happen.
The ‘new’ Brutocao Cellars was off and running and the ensuing years brought steady increases in overall production and great critical success for their wines. In 1990, the family built a winery on the property (now called Bliss Ranch) to make all the wines Estate Produced. Because of their award-winning wines, customer loyalty, and amazing growth, Brutocao Cellars outgrew that first winery and it has now become an on site wine storage warehouse. A brand new winery was built in 2003 and expanded in 2009.
The Brutocaos also expanded their vineyard acreage over the years, adding the 113-acre Feliz Ranch in 1994, the 10-acre Philo Ranch in Anderson Valley in 1996, and finally the 89-acre Contento Ranch in 1997. Varietals included a range of Bordeaux and Italian varieties, paying homage to their heritage and recognizing the best grapes for their Mendocino County region.
As Brutocao Cellars continues to grow and make a national presence with their premium wines, the Brutocao family, specifically Len’s sons, have become heavily involved. Steve Brutocao is now CEO and President, while his brother Lenny serves as the Director of Vineyard Operations, and his brother David is the Director of Winemaking. Together, they have built Brutocao Cellars into its modern-day sensation with its 450 acres of vineyard property, 15,000 annual cases of wine, three tasting rooms, two stunning event centers, and simply too many wine awards to keep track of. The fourth generation of family, Kevin and Ryan, are now also involved in carrying on the family’s legacy and many other members of the family help out when and where needed.
Brutocao Cellars is quite the success story for this passionate family, who enjoys nothing more than sharing their heritage through a collection of world-class wines.
Map of the area
The Art of Fine Wine
Painted by watercolor artist Janis Porter. After studying with noted artists, Janis moved to Mendocino County to pursue her love of painting in this very inspiring environment.
Her work has been shown at prestigious shows and she’s won several awards for her work.
Hoss Milone - Winemaker
In 2009, the Brutocao family welcomed winemaker Hoss Milone to the team. Hoss is a fourth generation winemaker whose experience growing up in his own family’s vineyards, watching his grandfather and father produce Mendocino wines and even working in a cooperage (barrel production), has made him an integral part of the Brutocao family’s business. Years later, it was discovered that Hoss’s grandfather tilled the land for Irv Bliss (the Brutocaos’ grandfather) - confirming this was a match made in heaven!
About the Vineyard
Mendocino County is one of California’s largest wine growing areas, and is widely recognized for its diversity and quality of wines. With the Pacific Ocean’s cooling effects to the west, the Mayacamus Mountains to the east, and the Russian River flowing through the center, the climate and geography varies considerably across this broad region. The diverse landscape creates countless opportunities for wine grape growers, who can amazingly enough grow anything from Pinot Noir in the cooler areas to Cabernet Sauvignon in the warmers areas.
Although large in size, Mendocino County is relatively small when it comes to the number of local wineries. There may be over 340 grape growers in the region, but only about 60 estates can be found amongst the green river valleys, each offering a diverse and remarkable range of wines. Many of Mendocino County’s grapes are sold to wineries outside the county and made into wine elsewhere.
Brutocao Cellars currently grows and manages about 450 vineyard acres, all within Mendocino County and spread amongst their four estate vineyards. Each of the sites incorporate sustainable vineyard practices, benefiting the environment, the community, and the development of high quality wine grapes.
Brutocao also produces a Sauvignon Blanc from nearby Lake County, where the rugged topography, high elevation, warm climate and clean air make it a prime growing region for the aromatic white varietal. While the Lake County region is also known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah, one could argue that no varietal wine produces more consistent results for the area than Sauvignon Blanc. With its close proximity to Lake County, it’s no wonder Brutocao Cellars is exploring the grape’s potential.
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.
The Brutocao Family
It’s clearly a family affair at Mendocino County’s Brutocao Cellars, this month’s celebrated Gold Wine Club selection! Brothers Steve, Lenny, and David Brutocao represent the family’s third generation of premium wine grape growers, and actively run the small family winery that initially opened its doors back in 1980.
The brothers initially hailed from southern California in West Covina, just outside Los Angeles, where their family owned a successful construction company focused on highways, bridges and airports. As they grew up, each went off to college but returned to Covina to work with their father (Len Brutocao) and grow the family business.
David (the oldest) attended UCLA with a major in business and also earned an MBA from the University of Indiana. Lenny earned a degree in information systems from the University of Northern Colorado, and Steve (the youngest) went to nearby Loyola Marymount to earn a business degree. Each of their educational backgrounds proved beneficial in supporting their family business.
Starting in 1989, their father took on the duel role of running both the family vineyard operations up north in Mendocino County and the family construction company down south in Covina. He yearned to expand the vineyard and winery, but needed more support to make it happen.
That support came in 1995 when Steve decided to move his wife and kids up to the property. He was excited by the opportunity to grow Brutocao Cellars, and thought raising his children on the family’s land would be a truly rewarding experience. He immediately stepped in and took over the sales and marketing side of the winery.
His brother Lenny followed suit the following year and moved up to the property to help his father with vineyard management. The family was then farming nearly 400 acres of premium vineyards in Mendocino County.
“David was the last one to come up,” Steve Brutocao explained. “I think he saw how much fun we were having and wanted to be a part of it. For a while, he went back and forth between running the construction company and helping out with the winemaking, but eventually made the move in 1998.”
Together, the brothers really took Brutocao Cellars to the next level. Over the next few years, they built two tasting rooms - one on their Anderson Valley vineyard property and one at the defunct Hopland High School building, which now doubles as a state-of-the-art event center. They also upped Brutocao’s production to its current level of 15,000 cases per year and added a number of new wine programs to the portfolio.
In 2006, Steve, Lenny, and David took on more substantial roles at Brutocao Cellars - Steve became the CEO and President, Lenny took over as the Director of Vineyard Operations, and David became the Director of Winemaking. Their father remained involved at the winery until he passed away in 2010, and their mother still lives on the original property offering support to her hard working sons.
Steve, Lenny and David Brutocao are also now joined by the fourth generation of family - Kevin and Ryan Brutocao. Kevin grew up with his father, Lenny, in the vineyards, and can be found at the family’s Hopland Tasting Room. He does a bit of everything, from pouring wines to managing the online wine store and creating many of the designs for marketing materials. Ryan, the Director of Custom Label Sales, wears many hats and assists with distribution as well as Brutocao’s non-profit partner, Wine to Water.
The Brutocao family’s passion and commitment to their heritage can be tasted and appreciated in each of their handcrafted wines.