WINE — Petroni - Peak of Perfection

A Sonoma Vineyard makes the most of its hilltop setting

Petroni Vineyards sits on a hill in the Mayacamas Mountains of Sonoma Valley.



Despite her lack of a pedigree, Emma had a nose for wine. When Lorenzo Petroni gave the dog a berry from his vineyards, if she spit it out, the grapes were not ready to pick; if she ate it, it was harvest time.

Relaying this story makes the owner of Petroni Vineyards chuckle — and emphasizes the affable Italian disposition that allows him to describe his first vintages of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon in less-than-glowing terms.

“We made 15 barrels of vinegar, and I still have it,” says Petroni, explaining that vines need to be five or six years old before they develop “personality.” The fifth year, he “bulked out” the wine. “The first wine we put our name on was 1998,” he says. Now the wines from his organic vineyards regularly garner gold medals in respected wine competitions and 90+ points from venerable ratings panels.

A native of Tuscany, Petroni immigrated to the United States at the age of 19 (“for adventure,” he says). Having grown up in a household where food and wine played a predominant role, he secured employment in a restaurant as a dishwasher and janitor, working his way into the kitchen. On June 1, 1970, he went into business — opening North Beach Restaurant in San Francisco. The “Cucina Toscana” features a wine cellar that has been recognized by Wine Spectator among “America’s Top 100 Wine Lists.” The more than 500 wines in the restaurant’s wine cellar include, of course, Petroni Vineyards wines.

With his foot firmly entrenched in the food aspect of his upbringing, Petroni ventured afield to find its match. “I looked 25 years to find a place,” he says of his search for potential vineyard land. If the time he spent in the hunt makes Petroni sound indecisive, consider this: The day after he and his wife, Maria Elena, spied a steeply sloped parcel in Sonoma’s Mayacamas Range, they purchased it. “Wine has been my passion since I was little,” says Petroni, whose grandfather taught him to taste wine when he was 5.

The 37-acre estate shares the rich volcanic soil that distinguishes the revered Monte Rosso vineyards just above it. But, Petroni says, his property includes four distinct terroirs. The 30- to 40-degree terraced slopes (named Poggio alla Pietra, or “Hill of Rocks”) range from 600 to 850 feet in elevation, and the summit once was a quarry. Petroni grows sangiovese grosso, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and syrah on the property. The winery also owns 14.5 acres on Mount Veeder at 2,000 feet in elevation and with loamy soils. That Trinity Ranch property grows cabernet sauvig-non, syrah, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot noir grapes.

The syrah grapes on both properties are the same French clone, the difference between them being the terroir. The cabernet grapes at Poggio alla Pietra derive from Monte Rosso; those at Trinity Ranch are French clones.

A tribute to Petroni’s Tuscan heritage, the winery’s flagship wine is sangiovese grosso, the source of Italy’s much-lauded Brunellos. “We drop 35 to 40 percent [of the grapes],” Petroni says. “Whatever is left is the best berry and brings out intensity [in the wine].” The best barrels of sangiovese go into the winery’s Brunello di Sonoma. The remainder goes into Rosso di Sonoma, a blend of primarily syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and sangiovese.

Petroni embarked on his winemaking venture with Marco diGiulio, a winemaker who was born in San Francisco but whose great grandfather taught Petroni catechism in Italy. A couple other winemakers filled the gap before current winemaker Martin Mackenzie, a New Zealander who began his career at Stonyridge Vineyard on Waiheke Island.

Petroni Vineyards produces 7,500 cases of wine a year (2,500 of which are sangiovese), 300 cases of grappa made from grape pomace (three varieties: sangiovese, syrah, and cabernet sauvignon), and 500 cases of olive oil.

Petroni expects a 16,500-square-foot cave to be completed around the end of January 2012. Connected to the winery, the cave not only will provide ideal barrel storage, but also will include a kitchen and a place for guests to taste the wines.

This fall, the winery will release its inaugural pinot noir (2010 vintage), of which there are 200 cases. Production was increased to 350 cases for the 2011 vintage. Petroni also plans to introduce a blend of cabernet franc, petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon, and sangiovese — to be called Sonomaia.

“We made it last year, but we want to experiment a little bit more before we release it,” Petroni says. “We will make it this year and see what happens.”

Petroni Vineyards is off the beaten path, down oak-lined Cavedale Road off Sonoma Highway East and a mile up the mountainside, through wrought-iron gates and up a winding drive. Tastings are by appointment only at the Petronis’ country estate, but Lorenzo Petroni understands that wine lovers will seek out the best.

“One day, we are going to be discovered,” he says, chuckling and yet quite serious about the future.

Jensen’s Finest Foods hosts a tasting of Petroni Vineyards wines on Wednesday, Nov. 9 (4-6 p.m.) at its Palm Springs store and on Saturday, Nov. 12 (3-5 p.m.) at its Palm Desert store.

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