Newspaper vets Ben Papapietro and Bruce Perry craft the winning red wine at the 2020 NCWC
By Alexandra Russell
We all dream of turning our hobby into the career, of following our talents and passion toward a successful and fulfilling venture. This is the story of two men doing just that.
Ben Papapietro and Bruce Perry met in the 1960s, when they worked for the San Francisco Newspaper Agency (owners, at the time, of both the Chronicle and Examiner) and its affiliated unions. It was a high stress environment, and the two shared an unusual escape.
They each came from families that had, in previous generations, made wine for personal consumption. “My grandparents made wine in their basement in the Mission District [of San Francisco], all through Prohibition and the Great Depression,” says Papapietro, whose voice clearly reveals his enthusiasm for his journey. “It then skipped a generation and landed on me.
“Bruce was also from a family that had made its own wine. It was something we bonded over.”
A third friend from those newspaper days was Burt Williams, who later co-founded seminal California Pinot house Williams Selyem. “He went on the become one of the most influential winemakers in Russian River Valley,” says Papapietro. “We spent many years together drinking wine.”
He further recalls, “I had helped Burt throughout the ’70s when he was a home winemaker, and I began to think I could do the same. In 1980, I began making wine in my garage in San Francisco. It’s a hobby that took a lot of energy, but it was satisfying.”
He started small, making micro-lots of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cab Franc, and experimenting with a few Bordeaux blends. From the beginning, though, the goal was to make Pinot Noir. The problem, says Papapietro, was supply: “There was very little Pinot being grown [in California at the time], and what was there was taken up by established producers.”
Nonetheless, the enterprise thrived and, by 1985, had increased production up to 60 gallons-plus. “By 1988, we were looking for vineyard sources,” says Papapietro. “By 1990, we had completely switched and were making primarily Pinot Noir — and a bit of 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 about 5 minutes apart [in San Francisco].”
The leap to the professional wine world came in the late 1990s. “By 1997, Bruce wanted to begin doing it commercially,” says Papapietro. “I was hesitant, but he kept pushing.
“Eventually, I challenged him: If he could find a place that would let us make wine by paying rent for space and equipment use, and our only other expense was barrels and grapes, then I’d do it with him. I never thought he’d find something. Lo and behold, two weeks later he found Windsor Oaks [Vineyards & Winery], which used to be the old Balverne winery. They were just resuscitating it and let us have a little corner in the production facility.
“We made 75 cases in 1998 to kick off our first release. We stayed at Windsor Oaks until 2005, when we moved to our Healdsburg location.”
In the ensuing years, Papapietro Perry was “lucky to be found by a number of wine publications and influential wine writers.” Among them was Wine Spectator, which, in 2004, gave all seven Papapietro Perry Pinot Noir releases between 91 and 95 points — in effect elevating the young winery into the upper echelon of Pinot producers.
Making Their Bones
“Home winemaking and professional winemaking are very different,” he acknowledges. “I had to make the transition.” What helped, he says, is discipline. From his first forays to today, he writes out notes longhand and saves all that data for reference (it’s eventually digitized by a team member). “I started making wine by the seat of my pants, watching everything I did and correcting problems as they came up,” he says. “But I took detailed notes of everything I did. I could always go back and look at those notes.”
He continues, “One of my main goals as a winemaker was consistency. I wanted the wines to taste familiar from vintage to vintage.”
He describes himself as a non-interventionist and credits that approach, along with a number of standard practices, with his ability to achieve such high-quality in every vintage. “I use the same system for processing the fruit, I use the same yeasts, and I use the same cooper,” he says. “That helps me to be very consistent. We want the vineyard to show through from year-to-year.”
With an established reputation, a full club list, and scant attrition, Papapietro Perry usually foregoes competitions these days — unless it’s a special circumstance. “We’ve already made our bones,” says Papapietro. “We’ve won lots of awards and competitions.”
But in 2020, one such situation occurred. “My boss at the Chronicle was Steve Falk, who is now CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Press Democrat,” Papapietro explains. “He asked me to participate in the Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge (NCWC). I only really entered because Steve is a friend.”
The Papapietro Perry 2017 Pinot Noir, Clone 777, won Best Red Wine at the 2020 NCWC, a competition that’s only open to wines made of grapes sourced from California’s North Coast AVAs, including those in Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Marin, and parts of Solano counties.
For the Love of Pinot
There’s only one true wine love for Ben Papapietro. You can hear the emotion in his voice as he says, “Pinot Noir is an amazing wine. It’s seductive and it goes with anything. As a person who loves to cook, it goes with every food.
“I started out with Cabernet Sauvignon, but then I drank a 1957 Hospice Du Beaune Burgundy that absolutely blew me away. Then I was lucky to taste most — if not all — of Burt [Williams]’s Pinots over the years. I was sold. I gave up all the other wines…to do one thing really well.”
With this laser focus on Pinot, he’s been able to craft his wines with the vision of an artist. As a firm believer in the sum of all parts, he meticulously keeps all clones and vineyard lots separate all the way through so he can isolate and blend at the end. “All our wines are blends of different clones, different vineyards. It offers more complex nuances, textures, and characteristics,” he says. “I’ve tried many people’s single clone wines from a single site, and I find those wines very one-dimensional.”
The NCWC winning wine, as an example, consists of entirely 777 clone Pinot Noir fruit from four different microclimates and four different soils in Sonoma County. “It has a lot more depth and interest than any single clone from a single vineyard,” says the winemaker, who describes the wine as “bright fruit with lots of character, bright acidity, cherries with berry and raspberry. It shows very pretty.”
It shows pretty and it wins big. Reflecting on the NCWC results, Papapietro is gracious. “I only lost by two votes to the top wine [Sangiacomo Family Wines’ 2018 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay],” he chuckles. “We both got 99 points, then I lost by two votes on the Best Overall Wine. I was OK with that.”
The Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge 2021 is now accepting entries. Visit www.pdncwc.com for more information.