John and Terri Balletto: A Passion for the Land Based on a Philosophy of Balance and Elegance
When John Balletto started growing vegetables in 1977 at age 17, with the help of his mother, Hazel, after his father’s untimely death, he could not have known he was building an enterprise that would become the largest produce grower north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
In 1981, John was looking for more cropland and space for a packing facility to accommodate his growing vegetable business, so he purchased his first ranch in Santa Rosa. John married Terri in 1988 and they expanded the vegetable business even further by purchasing more land and then in 1996 they built a bigger packing and shipping facility at what is today their the winery. In the years that followed the variety of vegetables brought to market expanded to 70 categories grown on 700 acres. At the height of production, shipments totaled more than two million cases.
“Things were going well until a series of El Nino storms destroyed three successive plantings in 1998,” John said. “Natural forces, combined with effects of NAFTA in 1994, made it hard to stay in the vegetable business.”
The Balletto family began a shift to winegrape production in 1995 with the planting of 35 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris on their western Sebastopol property. From 1999 to 2000, they decided to convert all of their farmland from vegetables to grapes.
Today their 14 estate vineyards encompass 600 acres in three regions located in the cool and foggy southern tip of the Russian River Valley: seven vineyards on the Santa Rosa Plains, six in the Sebastopol Hills, and Hazel’s Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap.
What is paramount to John and Terri Balletto is preserving the land and continuing their farming legacy for future generations. The Balletto family sold 50 acres to Sonoma County Open Space District to serve as a buffer between their property and the adjacent Laguna de Santa Rosa. The company also created a four-acre, regulation-size baseball field on its property, in response to employee requests for their own “Field of Dreams.” They also contributed materials, which combined with staff sweat equity, made this recreational facility a reality. During the spring and summer at the winery, you can hear the sounds of bats cracking, children laughing, and families and friends cheering on their team.
Balletto Vineyards has been certified for five years under Lodi Rules, first introduced in 2005 by the Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission to implement environmentallysustainable farming practices. Growers who are certified under this program are also accredited by Protected Harvest, a leading non-profit organization that certifies a farmer’s use of 101 sustainable farming management practice standards in six categories: Business, Human Resources, Ecosystem, Soil, Water and Pest Management.
“Today we are more conscious of our footprint on the land enabling us to do a better job of farming high quality grapes for our clients, and our own wines. In the long run, certification saves you money,” John said.
At Balletto’s vineyards, a growing number of sustainable practices have been implemented. Some examples include: end rows are not disked to serve as a filter when it rains and to minimize erosion; there is no cultivation under the drip line of oaks; irrigation systems are monitored monthly to maintain
consistent pressure and eliminate leaks; only approved fertilizers with no harmful chemicals are used,and soil samples are taken regularly. In addition, a pipeline carrying recycled water from Santa Rosa minimizes the use of Balletto’s own wells.
“Our business philosophy includes balance and elegance in our wines along with a keen respect for the land. We produce wines that are lower in alcohol, with softer tannins and higher in natural acidity that deliver varied, subtle flavors. New oak barrels are used sparingly to enhance our wine, but not dominate it,” he said. “We only harvest the top 10% of everything we grow to maintain our consistent quality and style, while also supplying grapes to 25 other wine producers.”
Sustainable practices have helped Balletto Vineyards and Winery consistently produce award-winning Russian River Valley Estate wines – including seven Gold Medals and two Double Gold Medals at the 2014 Sonoma County Harvest Fair. They also won the Red Wine Sweepstakes Award for their 2013 BCD Vineyard Pinot Noir.
Their hard work over the past 30 years proves that not only does sustainable farming benefit the environment, the community, and the business, it also contributes to better, more distinctive wines.