Press veterans Ben Papapietro and Bruce Perry create winning red wine at NCWC 2020
Ben and Bruce
We all dream of turning our hobby into a career, of using our talents and passion to create a successful and fulfilling business. This is the story of two men.
Ben Papapietro and Bruce Perry met in the 1960s when they worked for a San Francisco news agency (then owned by the Chronicle and the Examiner) and its affiliated unions. It was a stressful atmosphere, and they shared an unusual escape.
They all come from families that had produced wine for their own use in previous generations. “My grandparents made wine in their basement in Mission County [San Francisco] during Prohibition and the Great Depression,” says Papapietro, from whose voice his enthusiasm for his journey is clear. “Then it skipped a generation and landed on me.”
“Bruce also comes from a family that made its own wine. It was something we felt connected to.”
A third friend from that era was Bert Williams, who later co-founded California Pinot House Williams Sallim Halbfinale. “He became one of the most influential winemakers in the Russian River Valley,” Papapietro says. “We drank wine together for many years.”
Young Ben and Bruce
He also recalls, “I helped Bert in the 1970s when he was a home winemaker, and I began to think I could do the same. In 1980, I started making wine in my garage in San Francisco. It was a hobby that took a lot of energy, but was satisfying.
He began making small batches of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cab Franc, and experimented with different Bordeaux blends. But from the beginning, the goal was to make Pinot Noir. The problem, according to Papapietro, was supply: “There was very little Pinot in California at the time, and what was grown was by established producers.
Nevertheless, the company flourished and increased production to 60 gallons in 1985. “In 1988 we were looking for new vineyards,” says Papapietro. “By 1990 we had completely switched over and were producing mostly Pinot Noir – and some Zin. We worked up to about nine barrels of Pinot in my garage and six to 10 barrels of Zin in Bruce’s cellar. We lived five minutes apart [in San Francisco].
The jump into the professional wine world took place in the late 1990s. “In 1997, Bruce wanted to go commercial,” Papapietro says. “I was hesitant, but he kept pushing.”
“Eventually, I challenged him: If he could find a place where we could make wine, pay rent and equipment, and our only other expenses were barrels and grapes, I would do it with him. I didn’t think he would find anything. Two weeks later he found the Windsor Oaks [Vineyards and Winery], an old vineyard in Balvern. They just revived it and gave us a little corner in the production hall.
“We made 75 boxes in 1998 to start our first outing. We stayed in Windsor Oaks until 2005 and then moved to Healdsburg.”
In the years that followed, Papapietro Perry “had the good fortune to be found by a number of influential wine publications and writers.” Among them the Wine Spectator, which in 2004 awarded 91-95 points to Papapietro Perry’s seven Pinot Noir releases – elevating the young winery to the rank of leading Pinot producer.
Make their bones
The owners of Papapietro Perry
“Making wine at home and making wine professionally are very different,” he admits. “I had to make the transition.” What helped, he says, was discipline. From the beginning to the present, he writes long notes and keeps all these records for reference (which are eventually digitized by a member of the team). “I started making wine from my gut, observing everything I did and solving problems as they arose,” he says. “But I kept detailed notes of everything I did. I can always go back and look at those notes.
He goes on to say, “One of my main goals as a winemaker was consistency. I wanted the wines from one vintage to taste familiar to the next.”
He describes himself as a non-interferer and attributes this approach, along with a set of standard practices, to his ability to achieve this quality in every vintage. “I use the same system for processing fruit, I use the same yeast and I use the same cooperage,” he says. “It helps me to be very consistent. We want the vineyard to show itself year after year.”
With an established reputation, a full team and a low elimination rate, Papapietro Perry usually doesn’t compete these days – except in special circumstances. “We’ve already proven ourselves,” Papapietro says. “We’ve won a lot of awards and competitions.”
My boss at the Chronicle was Steve Falk, who is now CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Press Democrat,” Papapietro says. “He asked me to participate in the North Coast Press Democrat Wine Challenge (NCWC). I got in only because Steve is a friend of mine.
The Papapietro Perry 2017 Pinot Noir, a 777 clone, won Best Red Wine at the NCWC’s 2020 competition, which is open only to wines made from grapes grown in California’s North Coast AVAs, including Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Marin and parts of Solano counties.
For the love of Pinot.
For Ben Papapietro, there is only one true love, wine. You can hear the emotion in his voice when he says, “Pinot noir is a great wine. It’s seductive and it goes with everything. As a man who loves to cook, it goes with every meal.
“I started with Cabernet Sauvignon, but then I drank a 1957 Hospice du Bon Burgundy that completely blew me away. After that, I was lucky enough to taste most, if not all, of Bert [Williams’] Pinots over the years. I was blown away. I gave up all other wines…. To do something really good.”
This laser focus on pinot allowed him to create his wines with the vision of an artist. A strong believer in the sum of all parts, he keeps all clones and vineyards carefully separated so that he can isolate and blend them at the end. “All our wines are blends of different clones from different vineyards. It offers more complex nuances, textures and characteristics,” he says. “I have tasted many clone wines from the same site, and I find these wines very one-dimensional.”
The NCWC’s award-winning wine, for example, is made entirely from 777 pinot noir clones from four different microclimates and four different soils in Sonoma County. “It has much more depth and interest than a clone from a single vineyard,” says the winemaker, who describes the wine as having “a brilliant fruit with lots of character, lively acidity, cherries and berries and raspberry. It shows very well.
She is beautiful and makes a lot of money. Looking back at the NCWC results, Papapietro is gracious. “I only lost by two votes to the best wine [the 2018 Chardonnay from the Sangiacomo family],” he laughs. “We both scored 99, and then I lost by two votes to the best wine. It suited me perfectly.
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