I've heard many times that vines have to struggle to produce quality wine. This bit of French country wisdom must have lost something in its eventual translation to the florid prose of wine-marketing gothic. A Washington State winery's recent full-page ad in a magazine takes it up a notch, bragging that their vines "are made to strain under extreme conditions and strict training. It is by teetering on this precipice between life and death [italics mine] that the best attributes are coaxed from our grapes." It's as if the love of good dead grape teeters toward a kind of leering sadism. Must the tastiest glass be squeezed from weather-beaten little vines clinging to a bare rock cliff face, their dry, cracked roots straining to lap up the last micron of water, while the taunting, firm hand of the vine-master dangles the hard, plastic nipple of drip-irrigation just out of reach? Must one always suffer to be beautiful?
The vineyards that surround Balletto and Dutton-Goldfield look to be anything but struggling. I see irrigated vine rows thick with green leaves along Occidental Road, sloping down in alternating ribbons of rich soil to the Laguna de Santa Rosa. These grapevines seem tidily managed and abundant. I don't know, but they're making some good stuff over at Dutton-Goldfield and Balletto. Between them, they farm 1,500 acres, but release their own wine from only a fraction of that acreage. They're separate operations, but share a winemaking facility and tasting room, open since 2006. You can find it by the little clapboard sign, with some balloons most days, at the entrance to a long, pitted gravel vineyard road. In the midst of stacks of half-ton picking bins, loading docks and farm machinery, there's a well-tended patio with seating, a fountain and adjacent tasting room. Being out of the touring loop, it's generally a low-key place that picks up a bit on weekends.The Dutton-Goldfield 2006 Shop Blanc Pinot Blanc ($25) is barrel-fermented in old oak, so it's rich and full on the tongue, while remaining buoyant and refreshing. Both fairly nice Chardonnays, the 2005 Balletto Estate Chardonnay ($18) has picked up a roasted hazelnut and hard cheese aromas, while the 2005 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay ($35) has more mineral notes, as well as citrus and apple-pear with light oak treatment.
Both Pinots are light or medium-bodied, flavorful, with gentle tannin and a hint of depth. I got cherry, vanilla and smoke out of the 2006 Balletto Estate Pinot Noir ($24), while finding that the highest priced 2005 Freestone Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir ($58) is unsurprisingly the finest, with candied cherry aromas, liqueur and lingering softness. For a pure expression of Russian River Zinfandel, one would do well to try the 2005 Balletto Zinfandel ($21), a juicy but not simple pot of brambleberry fruit and black pepper.
As for picking up a bottle to bring home? My wallet came out without a struggle.
Balletto & Dutton-Goldfield, 5700 Occidental Road, Santa Rosa. Tasting room open daily, 10am to 4pm. $5 tasting fee waived with purchase. 707.568.2455.