Nunzio Alioto has been my best friend & true wine mentor since the late 1970’s. We met here in Hawaii & our friendship has continued for 40 years since.
During that time, we have done, seen & experienced a lot, including taking the Master Sommelier examination together back in the 80’s.
One of our many adventures included creating wines under the JoMani label, starting with the 2000 vintage. It involved acquiring 1, 2 or 3 tons of grapes from some very interesting vineyard sites & asking winemaker friends to craft the wines for us.
By chance, in 2000, we heard 1 ton of Pinot Noir grapes would be auctioned at a charity event down in the Santa Barbara appellation. The vine selection was “Pommard”, planted in 1973 on its own roots, specifically in the “Q Block” of Bien Nacido Vineyard of Santa Maria Valley, California. While that was news in those days, it would be HUGE news today, because of the clamor & acclaim that truly iconic vineyard parcel has received since & the huge waiting list of winemaking stars hoping to get some fruit.
Who should we get to make the wine was the next big question.
We settled on Chris Whitcraft, a then little known winemaker of, in my opinion, extraordinary single vineyard Pinot Noirs, most notably both “Q” & “N” blocks of Bien Nacido Vineyard. The Whitcraft Pinots, from the 1990’s through 2006, were really like no other. Unlike many of the fruit driven renditions making a name for themselves, the Whitcrafts were earthy, masculine, resoundingly savory, some would say flawed, robust, somewhat alcoholic & VERY idiosyncratic. To me, they represented someone singing a song, maybe not completely pitch perfect, but certainly from the heart & therefore moved me.
The 2000 Chris made for us was very much along these lines, even quite oaky right out of the gates.
But, with time in the bottle, this wine turned out to be quite provocative, wonderfully savory & a fabulous drink. When he passed, we sadly lost a true artist.
With the 2001 vintage, we changed the name of the label to “Girasole”, which Nunzio says means sunflower. Joining the team was long time friend Jeff Figone & we broadened our grape sources & resulting wines.
Through Van Williamson then winemaker of Edmeades, we met Casey Hartlip, who managed Eaglepoint Ranch, located in Mendocino, roughly 1400 & higher feet above the town of Ukiah. We committed to some of the vineyard’s Syrah, in rows adjacent to what both Van & Copain winemaker/owner Wells Gutherie were sourcing. Being “mountain grow”, surly & thick skinned, we then asked Sebastopol Pinot Noir maestro, Fred Scherrer to craft the wine. We felt Fred’s more “gentle”, masterful touch would result in something very unique & memorable. (The resulting wine completely exceeded our expectations!) As a side note, this wine is still drinking beautifully today.
In addition, we went up to the cool confines of the Anderson Valley to meet with Rich Savoy, another of the truly iconic Pinot Noir growers of the day & secured some fruit from his “Upper” Savoy vineyard, roughly 800 to 1000 feet in elevation on bear wallow soils. For this wine, we asked Ken Bernards of Ancien down in southern Napa Valley to work his magic. To this day, I can clearly remember the wonderful perfume & lovely texture this wine displayed.
Through superstar Master Sommelier Fred Dame, we were able to secure a visit with Gary Pisoni of the Santa Lucia Highlands. He is quite a “larger than life”, colorful character with a big, kind heart. He was kind enough to allocate us some Pinot fruit from his oldest vines up on top of the vineyard. What a score! We then asked Bryan Babcock to craft the wine, which turned out to be red colored with a browner edge (reminiscent of old style Burgundy), surly, masculine, savory Pinot beast! OMG.
Lastly we also asked Bryan to craft a Chardonnay for us, which as it turned out was 2/3’s from Mount Carmel vineyard & 1/3 of his estate vineyard on the west side of what is today called Santa Rita Hills. I still feel that these two single vineyards are two of California’s best for Chardonnay! Yes, this was quite a wine.
With the 2002 vintage, we again purchased some Syrah from Eaglepoint Ranch. For this vintage, we first asked Gary Burk of Costa de Oro, another of our favorite Pinot Noir makers to craft one of the Syrah based reds. The resulting wine was very elegant, high toned, refined, suave & captivatingly delicious. What a difference! This wine just gave us another glimpse of what Syrah can be in California.
We also were able to purchased some Cabernet Sauvignon from Tournahou Vineyard in the Napa Valley, which is adjacent to both the Shibumi Knoll & Panek vineyards, just above St. Helena. (Located next to a creek & therefore an abundance of gravel/small, river rocks, today, all 3 vineyards are considered to be “A” quality vineyards & each produced under the masterful, winemaking genius of superstar winemaker, Thomas Brown). Since at the time we were really inspired by the Cabernet-Syrah-Mourvedre red wine of Domaine Grange des Peres of southern France, we decided to have Bryan Babcock blend the Cabernet with the remainder of the Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah. As it turned out, based upon our trial tastings at Babcock, it ended up being 50-50. We were so proud of this wine–50% prime Napa Valley Cabernet, 50% Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah crafted by a Santa Barbara Pinot Noir specialist. We loved how it turned out!
The 2003 proved to be our last vintage & we decided on just working with Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah & winemaker Gary Burk. (At least, part of the reason was the meteoric success & resulting fame & therefore price increases of the other vineyards we had previously worked with.) We also loved this “last hurrah” bottling, as it was so delicious, elegant & classy.
Thank you to all, who helped us live the dream!