Buon giorno amanti di vino!
The psychology of wine appreciation often begins and ends on the palate. Viticulture (science of growing grapes) and enology (science of making wine), which includes fermentation, fining, aging, blending and bottling, are typically reserved for commercial enterprises. Few oenophiles possess the required knowledge, focus and depth of passion to embrace the process with as much fervor as they do for the uncorked bottle. However, Ron Mittino of Claremont is a home winemaker who fully understands that vinification encompasses much more than investment of time, dollars and equipment. It fosters an appreciation for an artisan’s approach to a time honored tradition.
“Winemaking is a celebration of tradition, with gratitude for our ancestors. Their love, care, hard work and habits made us who we are,” said Mittino, whose first memories are helping his Great Uncle Quirino Cinciripini and fellow vintner Alfonso Vagnozzi make wine in the fifties.
“My dad, Pete, sold wine grapes in Detroit each fall, mostly from the vines of Cucamonga. He took me to vineyards, packing sheds and basements filled with barrels of homemade wine, all of which evidenced the beauty of grapes,” said Mittino. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s Alfonso and I made wine a few times from local Zinfandel and Mission. The grapes came from Nino Galleano, John Facciani or Remo Paul. Our wine was always a bit rough. Good with garlic or anchovies.”
Mittino purchased grapes from Bob DeBerard’s ranch at 6th Street and Archibald – a mix of Zinfandel, Sangiovese and a dark skinned Spanish varietal which was added for its deep purple hue. “The wine was excellent until we mixed in an older vintage to top off the barrel. The finished wine was okay, but not great.”
“In 2006 we again harvested from DeBerard’s vineyard. I remember part of the vineyard had been replanted, but then it was sold to be developed,” said Mittino. “Of course the land is still undeveloped, and that beautiful vineyard has been allowed to die. We fermented Zinfandel grapes exclusively that year and the wine actually won a Silver Medal at the 2007 L.A. County Fair Home Winemaking Competition. That was incredibly exciting. My mom, Maria, who upon hearing that we won a Silver Medal said, “If you had listened to me and done it right you would have won a gold medal!”
For the past two years Mittino and Company have procured Napa Valley Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon fruit from Rutherford. “My parents lived in St. Helena for quite a while and the friend of a friend heard about us and wanted to support home winemakers. Last year’s vintage is a blend of the two grapes and once again we entered it into the competition.”
The “Rutherford Bench”, Napa Valley’s most prestigious Cabernet Sauvignon growing area, is approximately 6 square miles, beginning just south of Cakebread Cellars and Beaulieu Vineyards #2, along Highway 29.
Rutherford’s “dust” is as unique as the wine produced. The crème de la crème of Rutherford wine comes from a narrow strip of land between the western mountains and the valley floor. The vines produce grapes with unmatched flavor and intensity.
Just a few days ago Mittino returned from Napa where he examined the full vines, with heavy ripening clusters. “It appears as though there will be a lessened demand this harvest, hence an excellent chance for us to obtain extra Rutherford grapes,” said Mittino. “The vineyards are incredibly beautiful this time of year. We are again hoping for a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, probably arriving the third weekend in September.”
Over the past couple years, Mittino and friends of the vine Don Gardner, Johnny Hendon and Mike Reese have processed approximately 3,000 lbs of grapes, yielding enough finished wine for one full barrel (approx 55 gallons / 300 bottles) for each for the three families and relatives.
They have stomped and crushed with their feet, an old hand crusher, Mittino’s Uncle Quirino’s old motorized crusher from the ‘50s, and a rented crusher/de-stemmer. “We also have the antique wine press that my uncle and Alfonso used. It passed from my uncle, to Alfonso, to Carlo Fusco, a barber in downtown Upland (who did Alfonso’s hair for years), and back to me. It’s a very cool piece,” said Mittino.
“I think winemaking is a wonderful bridge builder – between people themselves and between people and the bounty of the land. It makes for a great celebration of life. Winemaking is very social and connecting. Our winemaking adventure has brought together many people of all ages and our extended family as well. Don Gardner, Johnny Hendon, Mike Reese and I have been the principals. We don’t work alone. There is something magical about it for all generations that transcend age. My cousin Don dipped his granddaughter’s feet into the must (fresh crushed juice, skins and seeds) last year and she loved it. My kids and their friends love to help and it seems that all ages get a kick out of one stage or another.”
It’s not just work for the families involved. “We eat and play as well. Last year’s bocce tournament was almost won by one of our mom’s and her daughter, having whipped most of the men in the family,” said Mittino. “We smile and laugh quite a bit, especially when we do something right.”
Gino L. Filippi can be reached at Ginoffvine@aol.com