John and Terri Balletto

Balletto Vineyards

From growing vegetables, to growing grapes and making wine, the Balletto family have learned the ropes of farming from the ground-up and have been champions of Sonoma County sustainable agriculture for decades.

When John Balletto started growing vegetables in 1977, he could not have known he was building an enterprise that would eventually become the largest vegetable produce grower north of the Golden Gate Bridge. After all, he was only 17, setting out on the venture with his mother, Hazel, following his father’s untimely death.

In 1981, John was looking for more cropland and space for a packing facility to accommodate his fast-growing vegetable business, which led to the purchase of his first ranch in Santa Rosa. Another milestone followed in 1988 when John married Teresa (Terri) and they expanded the vegetable business even further by purchasing more land. In 1996 they built a bigger packing and shipping facility at their property on Occidental Road (this special property would eventually become the Balletto’s family winery). Over those years, the variety of vegetables brought to market by the Ballettos 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 Niño storms destroyed three successive plantings in 1998.”

“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 the Russian River Valley and Petaluma Gap AVAs.

Paramount to John and Terri Balletto is preserving the land and continuing their farming legacy for future generations. Balletto Vineyards has been certified sustainable for five years under Lodi Rules, first introduced in 2005 by the Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission to implement environmentally sustainable 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.

“In the long run, certification saves you money”

“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. The Balletto family, mindful of social sustainability and stewardship sold 50 acres to Sonoma County Open Space District to serve as a buffer between their property and the adjacent Laguna de Santa Rosa. They also created a four-acre, regulation-size baseball field on its property to be enjoyed by farmworkers at Balletto Vineyards. This “Field of Dreams” is beloved by the family and employees. During spring and summer at the winery, you can hear the sounds of bats cracking, children laughing, and families and friends cheering on their team. In 2001, the Ballettos released the first vintage of their own wine, making just 689 cases of Pinot Noir and 391 cases of Chardonnay. Today, the wine offering has expanded to include several single vineyard offerings of these two varietals as well as Syrah, Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and sparkling wine.

“Our business philosophy includes balance and elegance in our wines along with a keep respect for the land. ”

“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,” John 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.”

John and Terri have two daughters, Jacqueline and Catarina, who grew up in the world of Sonoma County agriculture and are passionate about the family business. Today, Jacqueline works at the winery as the Tasting Room and DTC Manager.

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.

We asked Brad a few fun questions during our chat with him!

What is your favorite part of farming and why?

Every year is different. To grow the best quality year after year a farmer must take everything they’ve learned over the years and apply it to what’s happening in the vineyard right now and make their best guess at what might work for tomorrow.  What didn’t work last year may be perfect this year or may be worse. Every day you have to evaluate what is working, what mother nature has thrown at you and where you are along the path to delivering excellent fruit to the winery.

If you weren’t in farming, what other career would you choose?

I’d be restoring something, somewhere. It might be a vehicle, a house, equipment. I’ve always had a passion for the history of the area and preserving it.

What is your favorite type of wine?

While I like Cabernet and have spent the past 20 years helping produce it for Silver Oak, my favorite has always been Zinfandel. The majority of the grapes that my grandfather grew in Dry Creek were head-trained Zin. I prefer the fruit forward wines that were made back in the 80’s and 90’s before the trend toward over ripe, jammy, high alcohol wines took over.