John and Terri Balletto were recognized as some of Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2018 and on that occasion John shared some of his thoughts on growing grapes and running a family wine business in Sonoma County.
What are some of the challenges you see facing grape growers and wineries today?
I think a big challenge is the price of land. Vineyard property values have gone way up in the last three years, so it’s going to be hard for any new people to come in and buy land in the Russian river valley and make it pencil out. Prices now are $150k plus, so that’s going to be a challenge for anyone coming in.
The other challenge is labor. Labor is going to be the number one issue for any grower of any significant size with the rules changing on immigration. We’re going into the H2A program, so we’re able to bring in workers and have them work here for us for 10 months, that’s why we’re investing in worker housing; we just got permits, so we’re building housing for 35 more people. Housing is a big deal, especially in Sonoma County. The cannabis industry is also going to have an effect on labor; they can gross a lot of money on a small parcel of land and afford to pay their workers more.
It’s important for us, to take care of our employees, especially in today’s environment when competition is tough for good employees. We currently house 18 families that work for us on different ranches. A lot of them are our key people, some who now have their kids working here too.
Then, there’s environmental regulation in California; there’s a lot of new rules and laws coming into place in fact, they just put in a brand new rule effective January first; if you’re farming within so many hundred feet of a school, there’s a whole new set of regulations. We’re hoping the California legislature doesn’t put us out of business that way, but it can be tough for business.
Are these regulations necessary to protect the environment?
When you talk about what the definition of an environmentalist is, I think 99% of the farmers in the United States are environmentalists. We’re the ones that own the property, we’re the ones that want to make sure our property is producing, so we can pay our property taxes and can pay our bills. You have a small percentage that might break the rules, and sometimes the lawmakers take those small examples and apply it to all of us.
In agriculture we want to be able to have a voice and be able to talk about those things. We grow our crops, keep our buffer zones on the creeks, and are very careful in what we do. That’s not only environmentally friendly, but also sustainable. So yes, some of the environmental regulations are really necessary, but some of them are beyond reasonable.
What is Balletto Vineyards doing to be sustainable?
Our Vineyards have been certified Lodi Rules sustainable for 8 years, and now we’re moving toward getting our winery certified sustainable also. One of the wineries we sell grapes to asked us to get our grapes certified 8 years ago, so we did it, and it keeps improving our operation.
Sustainability, what does that really mean? Well, you try to protect the environment, along with trying to be successful in business; otherwise you’re not sustainable at all. For us, we’ve become better farmers, because we pay more attention to what we do on the soil, how many times we go over the vineyards, how much fuel we use; we use solar energy here now at our winery. I believe It makes us better stewards of the land and better employers.
We take it full circle; the business has to be sustainable, which allows us to care for the land and environment, but also our employees, and the community. That’s my definition of sustainability, anything we can do to save money, save cost, but also do things better, and help the environment at the same time.
Tell us about how Balletto Vineyards works as a family business?
On the family business side, a challenge is making sure the family is together and focused on what we have to do. Both of our girls didn’t start at the top, they learned how to drive the fork lifts, and how to run errands, and work hard, because they have to be in the trenches with our staff in order for them to respect what it takes to actually to grow the grapes, get the grapes to the winery and process them. You have to respect all aspects of the business.
And again, sometimes that’s not the easiest thing. As a family member you don’t say ‘it’s five o’clock I’m out of here, you say,’ it’s what else do we need to do before we’re done for the day?’ That’s important. Terri and I have always lived by example for our kids. If you let the next generation come in without understanding what it takes to grow the product, that is the first downturn of the family business.
Jacqueline, our oldest daughter, is a natural leader and just jumped right in there and took over the tasting room. We meet 2-3 times a week to talk about different personnel issues, but one of the hardest things for her was disciplining the employees. In the tasting room we have a lot of part time employees who are retirees, and she was always taught to respect her elders, so she’d ask, ‘how do I discipline someone who’s 70 years old? How do I do that?’ The good thing is she’s always asked advice on how to do those things and she’s a natural. We let her make a lot of decisions now, because she’s making good decisions. It’s important that the girls respect the employees and staff and what they do, because if there’s something that needs to get done, they need to go out and help do it. I don’t believe in sitting there with their arms crossed watching the other people work. That doesn’t work for me and this is the way I was taught by my mom who started with nothing.
Have you considered buying vineyards outside Sonoma County?
We have no desire to do that. We like to keep everything close for total control, and we have the ability because we own so many acres of vineyards. Everything we do is estate grown and estate bottled, we don’t buy grapes from anybody. So, we have the ability to grow our wine production whenever we want to; we have the supply. Some day that might run out, but it won’t run out in my lifetime.
There are other opportunities in Oregon and different parts of California, but for us, we’re still finding opportunities here in Sonoma County. We’ve added a couple of new vineyards and new properties in the last few years. We’re not looking to go to Oregon or other parts of the state; we just think this is one of the most chosen places on earth for growing chardonnay and pinot and other varieties.
Being a local, having grown up here, people come to me a lot with different kinds of opportunities. We turn down maybe one opportunity a month for small parcels, different things, but if it’s the right opportunity though, we’ll take advantage of it.
What new projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
A month ago, we were approved by Sonoma County for a 10,000 square foot hospitality center. The building is already built, but we’re going to remodel it, and it’s going to be great, we’ll be able to have 25 events a year. That’s a big project for us.
We’re also adding a beautiful entryway from Occidental Road leading up to the winery in 2018. We have a new vineyard coming online, the Palleti ranch, and we’ll have a vineyard designate Pinot Noir; from our first harvest off that farm. We’re also planting 100 acres of Chardonnay also on a new property; it’s an exciting time and we’ve got lots going on.
By Kim Badenfort