Napa Valley AVA
A unique collaboration between two winemakers to produce a wine range of premium quality wines from key wine growing regions
When Richard Bruno and Chris Condos first met at winemaker paradise, UC Davis, in the early 1990’s, neither suspected their relationship would exist for the rest of their lives. The pair came from varying backgrounds and wound up in classes at the exceptional California College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. This path to explore viticulture and enology was followed after graduation with the formation of Vinum Cellars in 1997.
“We started quite small and only produced 966 cases of a white blend,” informed Richard Bruno during a recent interview. “Chris and I shared some important feelings about the types of wines we wanted to produce that were outside the proverbial box, so to speak.”
The duo searched for a name for their new enterprise and Bruno finally settled on a historical go-to, Webster’s New World College Dictionary. After searching for catchy wine-oriented names, he settled on the Latin word for wine, and Vinum Cellars was born.
To accomplish the winery’s funding, both partners maxed out their credit cards - not the easiest or safest method of funding a new business. “We both believed in what we were doing,” recalled Bruno. “It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, and we were both quite young when we started.”
Time has been good to Vinum Cellars and its co-owners. Vinum Cellars will produce around 25,000 cases during the current year and is geared up for even larger numbers in the future. “We have a three-tier business plan for our winery’s future. Our portfolio will consist of value-driven wines that could easily reach fifty to sixty thousand cases. Our premium level can reach about twenty thousand cases and our super premium (this month’s Gold Wine Club selections) will top off between five thousand and seven thousand cases. This won’t happen overnight; the competition is simply too intense. If everything goes well, we could grow to these numbers in the next three to five years,” stated Bruno.
Richard Bruno had some inside help in developing the Vinum Cellars label. His wife Anya possesses two college majors, including one for graphic design. Her distinctive design graces each bottle Vinum Cellars produces and is a stand out whenever appearing on off-premise shelves around the country.
Speaking of on/off premise, the current Vinum Cellars ratio is about 60-40 in favor of restaurants and the like. “We have been able to develop an excellent distribution network,” Richard Bruno added. “Our wines can be found in 42 states and that’s a plus for a winery of our size. But it has taken us years to develop the relationships that make it work.”
Vinum Cellars is a collaboration between two friends that makes perfect sense. It is our pleasure to introduce our Gold Wine Club members to this fascinating winery. Enjoy!
Map of the area
Richard Bruno & Chris Condos - Winemakers
It is something of a rarity in wineries for both co-owners of a winery to also be winemakers. Since both owners of Vinum Cellars are UC Davis graduates, this aspect seemed to be a forlorn conclusion when the company was first formed.
“Besides being good friends, we both brought something different to the table,” offered Richard Bruno. “Our careers in the wine business were different and we had worked in completely different settings. What we did have in common was the desire to make wines that we’re so mainstream, like Cabernet Sauvignon. Our outlook was more European in nature and our wines tended to be somewhat esoteric. We both agreed there was a need for the type of wines we enjoyed drinking and our efforts in establishing our portfolio at Vinum Cellars always kept that concept in mind.”
Bruno stated that both he and Chris Condos have developed a sixth sense for each other. If someone posed a particular question, each one would give the exact same answer.
“People think we are connected at the seam,” added Bruno, “and that’s okay with us. All blending decisions are a mutual effort and that’s the reason our wines are so consistent. We both hope that result continues for a long, long time.”
Chris condos & Richard Bruno - In the Spotlight
It is a rarity when our In the Spotlight section features two individuals, but in the case of Vinum Cellars, it is necessary. Vinum Cellars is an operation that thrives when both co-owners and co-winemakers think alike on most matters.
For Richard Bruno, 49, his path toward ‘winedom’ began in high school when he was a bus-boy, and then a waiter in restaurants around the San Francisco area. He was attracted to wine and soon realized that the better the restaurant, the better the wine list, and hence the larger tips that followed. By the time he reached college, Bruno knew that wine was definitely in his future.
He enrolled in UC Davis’ agricultural school and wound up with a degree in fermentation science. At Davis, Bruno met another student, Chris Condos, and struck up a lasting friendship that eventually evolved into the establishment of Vinum Cellars.
Between graduation from UC Davis and Vinum Cellars’ founding in 1997, Richard Bruno had several important roles in the wine industry. His first job was with Randall Graham at iconic Bonny Doon Vineyards, where Graham became his friend and mentor. “Randall taught me a lot of what to do and not to do,” recalled Bruno. “We have remained great friends and talk to each other on a consistent basis.”
After Bonny Doon Vineyards, Bruno worked at Alexander Valley Vineyards and Napa Valley’s Folie á Deux Winery. He also joined the staff at Don Sebastiani and Sons where he was Director of Winemaking for eight years.
But his real love during that time was Vinum Cellars and its mission of producing wines that he felt were esoteric and sometimes overlooked. “When we started Vinum, hardly anyone in California was making Chenin Blanc. I love the grape and what you can do with it,” confessed Bruno. “We have made it a priority for our winery, and a number of other wineries have jumped on the bandwagon. It is gratifying to see the varietal succeed and having a part in its achievement.”
Chris Condos’ involvement with Vinum Cellars was decided before he was born. As a third-generation product of a large Greek family, Condos, 48 was destined to follow his grandfather and father into the wine business. He met Richard Bruno at UC Davis and found they shared similar outlooks and approaches to varietals, particularly those infrequently used or grown in California.
Condos agreed to team up with Bruno when Vinum Cellars was developed. His own career had flourished after graduation with stints at Napa Valley’s Pine Ridge Winery and Santa Cruz’s popular Kathryn Kennedy Winery. These jobs helped pay the bills at Vinum Cellars during its early development period.
Chris Condos remains a winemaking consultant and has been a driving force in the organic and biodynamic farming process that has swept throughout California, and much of the wine-growing world. His time at Pine Ridge Winery allowed him to see the benefits of organic farming and has carried through to his most recent project, Horse & Plow. Along with his wife Suzanne, Horse & Plow produces an excellent cider and a number of certified organic wines. “These (organic) farming practices allow us to craft wines with greater complexity and sense of place, while caring for worker health and the environment,” Condos remarked. “Our organic practices don’t stop when the grapes get to the winery - our wines are made naturally with no synthetic nutrients or additives, no GMO’s, are vegan, and contain low, sometimes no, sulfites. I’m all about natural wine, natural farming, always.”
It is easy to see why both of the above individuals occupy this In The Spotlight section. Both are independent, forward-thinking individuals that aren’t afraid to tackle new vistas or established mores.
When you have the entirety of California’s numerous grape growing regions to choose from, it is easy to understand why Vinum Cellars’ owners have chosen to utilize a great many of the existing areas.
“We firmly believe that certain varietals thrive in certain microclimates,” Co-owner Chris Condos advised. “We do our best to match the varietal we intend to use with the best possible soils and climate to accentuate the vine’s development. I guess you can say that we source by microclimate, but it all seems to work for us.”
Grapes from growing areas such as the Central Coast’s Paso Robles AVA, Sonoma Valley AVA, Sierra Foothills AVA, Napa Valley AVA, and the huge Sacramento Delta growing area are all included in Vinum Cellars’ long-term plans.
“It is vital to our development to have agreements with first-class growers that can provide us with the specific fruit we need for our portfolio,” added Chris Condos. “We watch each grower closely for the first few years to insure they meet our standards. When we feel their fruit is uniform, then we sign long-term contracts. It’s a win-win for both sides and it works for us.”
Few California wineries source their fruit from such varied locales. The success of Vinum Cellars might easily provide the impetus for more wineries to consider this form of sourcing for their products.