Turning Carneros Fruit Into World-Class Wine
One of the few wineries dotting the fertile Carneros landscape that straddles Napa and Solano counties, Mont St. John Cellars can trace its roots to the Tuscan countryside where founder Andrea (Andy) Bartolucci was born.
Immigrating from Italy in 1913, the young Bartolucci came to work as a brick mason on France's pavilion at the Pan Pacific Exposition. It seems his sister was married to the Frenchman in charge of the project and a job in a new home proved no problem.
During the First World War, Bartolucci crossed the Bay, eventually settling in St. Helena where he worked in nearby magnesium mines.
With the signing of the Armistice in 1919, Bartolucci sent for his wife and son, Louis, to join him in the small midvalley community of Oakville.
The family operated a boarding house and restaurant, supplementing their income from Bartolucci's odd jobs at area wineries, such as Charles Krug.
By 1922, Bartolucci was able to purchase a 24-acre vineyard and winery near his home. For the ensuing decade, a period of Prohibition in the United States, the Bartolucci family made sacramental wines at the family's Oakville Crossroad/Highway 29 facility, and sold fresh grapes to home winemakers, particularly in the Italian community of San Francisco's North Beach.
One of Andy's three sons, Louis, planned on a career in aviation. But his love for the soil and viticulture eventually led to enology courses at UC Davis. Louis helped his father build a small stone cellar in Oakville the family named Madonna Winery.
With Repeal in 1933, Andy Bartolucci and son Louis began making wine in earnest. "They made 5,000 gallons the first year, sold it for five cents a gallon and were glad to get that," says Andrea (Buck) Bartolucci, the grandson who today operated Mont St. John Cellars.
World War II put Louis Bartolucci's winemaking career on hold. The young vintner could have served his country as a naval aviator. During the five years he was based at Mare Island, Louis married and had a son, Andrea Louis.
Following the war, Louis returned to the family homestead in Oakville, eager to enlarge the family's winemaking operation.
The name of the winery was changed to Mont St. John - in deference to the hilltop peak of the same name located just to the west - and went on to become California's 12th largest facility.
Louis Bartolucci pioneered some of the first premium varietal grapes in the Napa Valley, and, by 1960, his wines were offered nationwide and the family vineyards spread over 300 acres in the Yountville and Oakville areas.
However, as Louis prepared to launch a new wine campaign, one of his brothers decided to retire. Upshot was a decision to sell the business, including the family homestead, Mont St. John Cellars and the 300 acres of vines.
But the 1971 sale of the family business didn't set well with Louis' son Buck. He had grown up in the wine business, had worked in both vineyards and winery and trained in enology at Fresno State.
Father and son had a number of discussions about the future of the wine industry here. Louis recommended his son concentrate on growing grapes, pointing to the then unknown Carneros region as a good possibility.
Formally trained as both enologist and viticulturist, Buck saw the potential in Carneros and purchased 160 acres of bare land along the Sonoma Highway.
Borrowing the name from his grandfather's winery, Buck began planting Madonna Vineyards with a mix of varietals he expected would do well in Carneros.
While the primary focus of Mont St. John Cellars today is pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay - planted in 22, 12 and 74 acre blocks, respectively - Buck also has eight acres of riesling, nine each of gewurztraminer, and sauvignon blanc. And two acres of muscat canelli - for a total of 136 acres of vines on the 160-acre tract.
Considering the shallow soils of Carneros and the cool breezes and fog borne by the Bay, Buck decided to dry farm the vineyards. He is one of the few Carneros growers who uses no sprays or pesticides on his vines.
The vines aren't trellised, but rather are tied to the stake in a shape of a basket. With a lower crop yield, trellises aren't needed to support the weight of the grapes.
Dry farming on shallow soil stresses the vines, producing small berries with concentrated flavors and intense aromas, Buck points out.
"I've been here a long time," he continues. "Because I purchased the land nearly two decades ago the debt on it it nil. So I can farm the way I want."
"The only water I use Mother Nature gives me. I work the soil well to get rid of the weeds. You don't want don't want them using up any of the water in the soil."
"Dry farming forces the vine to spread its roots out. That stress makes for more intense fruit and lower crop tonnage."
"During the summer, the lingering fog makes for cooler growing conditions. During the winter months, it doesn't get as cold. SO, we generally have earlier bud break."
"This allows for a longer, cooler growing season which produces a wonderful concentration of flavors."
"There's a high demand for Carneros fruit. If I had double the fruit, believe me, I could sell it."
Plans for the new Mont St. John Cellars came when father tired of retirement, and son wanted to make wine from his own grapes.
Louis Bartolucci spotted a pie-shaped piece of property that has been created by a 1978 highway project. It was a short distance from Madonna Vineyard.
He told his son of the property at the intersection of Old Sonoma Road and Highway 121/12 and proceeded to buy it as site of the new winery.
It wasn't long before father and son were busy discussing production figures and the like for a modest-sized winery. As a former contractor, Louis Bartolucci drew up the plans for the Tuscan style facility. A functional, 12,000 square foot winery with a daily crush capacity of 5,000 gallons, Mont St. John was designed so it can be handled by three workers, including the winemaker.
It took Louis and Buck Bartolucci nearly three years to complete the project as they built most of it themselves. When the facility opened in 1981, the first vintages offered to the public were the 1979 pinot noir (only 500 cases were made of this very first vintage) and the 1980 chardonnay, Riesling, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
Today, Mont St. John Cellars produces 15,000 cases of wine. Bartolucci says his eventual goal is 35,000 cases annually.
"We've experienced constant growth over the past decade," he points out.
"Now that dad is semi-retired, I'm running the whole business, but with the help of the family, including my wife, Susan who is active in promoting not only Mont St John, but also the entire Carneros grape growing region."
Buck also points out that his father drops by at least once a day and he also gets a great deal of support from his mother, Kathryn.
The viticulturist/vintner said he had recently formed a new marketing company with Ron Arata, another Napa Valley native. Their firm markets not only the premium Mont St. John varietals, but also the wines of Poppy Hill, Mont St. John's second, or "fighting varietals," label.
A rare feature of the relatively small winery - yet one that might be expected in a tightly knit family operation - is that kitchen and attendant hospitality room that can accommodate wine-related partied of up to 45. There's also an outdoor picnic grove that backs on Los Carneros Creek. It can handle groups of up to 50.
The popular tasting room is open from 10 am to 5 pm daily. The winery also has a 12-minute video that is shown to large groups, showing how grapes are grown and wine is made, as well as showing what the area looks like during all four seasons of the year.
Buck says that whole idea of the tasting room is to introduce visitors not only to the Carneros and Mont St. John Cellars, but also to the wines that aren't available outside of the tasting room - Riesling, gewurztraminer, Muscat and, on occasion, a little zinfandel and petite syrah.
"We wanted people to have the opportunity to buy wines in all price ranges if they so desire," says Buck. "But, most of all, we want them to have a good experience so that when they think back on their trip to the Napa Valley they'll recall their pleasant visit to Mont St. John and encourage their friends to stop by when they visit the valley."