Diversity is the Fabric: A Chat with Winemaker Enrico Maria Bertoz

Winemaker Enrico Bertoz made his way to the United States from his homeland of Friuli in 1999. “I got here with a guitar on my back. I took a shuttle bus from the Los Angeles airport and got off the bus near Pico Blvd. Through some family contacts, I was put in touch with Piero Selvaggio, who owns Valentino Restaurant in Santa Monica. I was told this later: when Piero saw me get off the bus – my hair was this wild orange color – he told his restaurant manager, who was with him, ‘I’m leaving.’ And he left!” Bertoz recounts, laughing. “His restaurant manager, Donato, was a very kind soul. He stuck around and put me in touch with a friend of his who had a room for rent. My wife came from Friuli about a month and a half later. It was a very inspiring, beautiful time. The possibilities blew my mind. My wife and I had a lot of fun. We explored Los Angeles…the Sunset Blvd.…”

When I meet Bertoz on a sunny day in St. Helena, California I’m immediately put at ease by his affable, genteel manner. His wild orange hair is now brunette, but it’s still somewhat of a wild mop and adds a sense of whimsy to his tall, lean frame.

“I’ve always been in love with this country. My dad was an Italian hippie. I read his books…Kerouac and others, and I listened to his records. And I had an aunt who, after World War II, after the United States liberated us, fell in love with an American soldier and moved to New York to be with him. When I was about nine years old, my mother and father saved all their money and we went to visit my aunt in Queens. For me, coming from this little town of Friuli and coming to New York and seeing things I had only seen on television…the majestic openness of New York…just blew me away. That impression stayed with me for a long time.”

I’ve come searching for Bertoz, as I’m told he makes a great Charbono – a variety I first fell in love with when I tasted the 1968 Inglenook Napa Valley Charbono many years ago. Bertoz and his wife, Letizia, produce a Charbono under their Benandants label. Benandants or Benandanti (Good Walkers) are mythical creatures from Friulian lore said to wander the land, protecting crops from malevolent witches. The couple also produces Italian variety white blends under their other label, Arbe Garbe, or “bad weeds.” The artwork for both labels is fanciful and old-timey in an inviting way. The Bertozes designed the labels themselves. “When I was a little boy, if I got scared at night and could not sleep, I would look at these botanical woodcuts my family had hanging on the wall. They relaxed me and helped me get back to sleep.  We brought them with us and now they are in our house in the U.S. These woodcuts were the inspiration for our labels.”

I ask Bertoz how he went from being a guitar-toting son of an “Italian Hippie” in 1999, to an esteemed winemaker in the Napa Valley these 17-some years later. “Back when I was working at Valentino Restaurant, I was there for maybe six months before Piero started to take notice of me. I think he liked my work because he started to give me more chores. He had me help his sommelier unpack boxes, stack wines. Then one day I came across these really strange looking bottles. I was amazed by them. This was maybe 2003? They were visually fascinating. So I asked Piero about them and he told me they were made by “this Austrian guy in Ventura.” So, I thought, I’m going to bug this guy and see what this is all about. So I wrote Manfred Krankl, ‘the Austrian guy’, an email, offering to help with harvest. I got an answer back; he was basically trying to say ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ But I went ahead a visited anyway. The Sine Qua Non winery was in a freaking junk yard! Somebody was out in the front making tombstones! I thought I was lost until I saw a wine press covered with a tarp, so I figured I must be there. I ended up doing a little stint at Sine Qua Non, and that’s what really opened up my mind. It really showed me something – that this guy, out of a warehouse, could turn out the kinds of wines he was turning out. His attention to detail and precision was everything for me then. He showed me that where there’s a will, there’s a way. He’s the one who convinced me to ‘give it a shot.’ So I talked to my wife about moving to Napa and maybe pursuing this crazy little dream of making wine in the United States.”

By 2005 Bertoz was working harvest at Joseph Phelps Winery. In 2006 he was hired on as a Cellar Hand at Girard, up on Pritchard Hill. He was there for three harvests, before moving on to Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards, where to this day he remains Assistant Winemaker.

In 2007 the Bertozes founded Benandants and Arbe Garbe. Bertoz credits the late Sonoma-based winegrower, Saralee Kunde, who died of cancer in 2014, for much of the success he has had with his two projects. Kunde was the first winegrower to sell the Bertozes Malvasia Bianca from her famed Saralee Vineyard in Sonoma, and she continued to support their efforts after she sold her iconic vineyard and established another one at her Sonoma home site. She continued to sell the Bertozes fruit from her newly established vineyard, working closely with them on the farming of their blocks. “She was a pioneer, a pioneer...,” he says, emotionally. “She believed in us, and when you start from scratch, full of insecurities, it means the world when someone like that believes in you. It pushes you. She was one of a kind – a strong, sweet woman in whom I always sensed a powerful sense of legacy. Her energy was inspiring, and we feel very grateful for having had the chance to briefly know her. Our perspective has certainly broadened. We are now carrying on a project that Saralee believed in and set the basis for. I think this is true for all of us: when we see the larger picture that we are a part of – the road that was there before us and will be there after us – our work takes on a deeper meaning, and we are further driven to hone our craft and pass it on.”

Of late, Bertoz has been delighted to host his countrymen from Friuli during their visits to the Napa Valley. They share information about which barrels to use with which Italian varieties, which cover crops to grow, etc. “It’s a beautiful human network,” Bertoz says of this sharing of information. His wines have been well-received by fellow Friulians, both here and in his native land. “It gives me confidence – a little bit of security – to know my people like my wines.”

It isn’t a wonder that his wines have been well-received by diehard Italian-variety wine fans. His white blends under the Arbe Garbe label are arresting offerings, particularly from more recent vintages which include what Bertoz calls “the holy trinity” of Italian white grapes – Malvasia Bianca, Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano. They possess great vibrancy and acidity, while never sacrificing the lifted fruit and floral notes in these three varieties. All three of the varieties in the Arbe Garbe whites hail from vineyards in the Russian River and Sonoma valleys.  The Benandants Charbono, from Napa Valley’s respected Shypoke Vineyard, is a study in rusticity and elegance, a dynamic dance between these two virtues, creating great tension and interest in the glass. It’s an elevated glass of wine featuring a humble variety, the kind of wine that one doesn’t easily forget.

While they sell their wines through the wholesale market, a majority of their wine is sold DTC, or direct-to-consumer. Bertoz’s wife, Letizia, runs the DTC-side of their business, “It’s intense, particularly when you have a two-year-old crawling all over you.” The Bertoz’s have two boys, aged two and nine. I comment on the relatively wide gap in their ages. Bertoz replies, “It’s Italian…we wait and wait and wait. And, then…boom. Having two boys these ages is like the ancient Roman torture where they tie you between two horses and then tear you apart,” he says with a laugh. They are teaching their children to speak Italian at home. “I wish I had the mental elasticity they have. It’s amazing how quickly they pick up languages.”

His wife also manages their distributor relations, and what Bertoz refers to as the “dark side” of the business – compliance. “Every month, every state, so much paperwork...it’s intense!”  When I comment that it must be great to have his wife’s “support”, Bertoz pushes back a bit and charmingly corrects me. “She’s not just supportive. She pushed me to do this. That is very important, especially during my darkest days. She literally was the one that made this happen.”

I ask Bertoz if he ever feared his wines would not sell, seeing how they are made from somewhat obscure Italian varieties, obscure at least by American standards. “I never really thought about the marketing of my wines. This dream just started taking shape in my head. Maybe later I started to think about it. When you’ve been around for a while, you worry that you will be forgotten, but at the beginning we never really worried about how we would market or sell our wines.”

As the day progresses, I grow fonder and fonder of both the Arbe Garbe and Benandants offerings. I’m noticing that, though I’ve been tasting with Bertoz for a few hours, my palate is still fresh. My thoughts are starting to turn to food. In my book, the mark of a good wine is one that stimulates and whets the appetite. I let Bertoz know that his wines are making me hungry. “My grandmother used to say,” he tells me, “that you should always have a glass of wine before you start cooking. She told me it got her creative juices flowing about what to cook. And she was right; she was a great cook.” To blow off steam, Bertoz himself enjoys cooking. “We have our meat purveyors, our vegetable purveyors. So you could say it’s Italian-style cooking, in that everything is local and fresh; we cook with what is in season. Right now it’s beets, so we cook with beets. At our house, it’s seasonal, seasonal, seasonal. Of course, we always have freshly-made buckets of pasta in the kitchen, too.” Bertoz also likes to pick up his guitar once the kids are in bed. He plays for his wife. “It reminds us of when we were young, when we first came to America.”

Bertoz remains nostalgic about his homeland, but clearly loves the United States. As an immigrant myself, I can relate; once you’ve struggled to established yourself in this great country, it’s hard to feel let down by it. Bertoz sums up the success he’s had thus far making wines inspired by his homeland, in his adopted homeland, “Diversity is the fabric of this nation. It allows for great diversity in its wines and in its people.”