Gino Cuneo

Winemaker Gino Cuneo

LONG BEFORE HE BUILT HIS TUSCAN-STYLE WINERY IN CARLTON, and before he lost the winery in a series of practically Biblical events, Gino Cuneo was struck by inspiration one night while lying in bed with his wife, Pam. It was 1990, and the Cuneos and their four children were living in a working-class section of Kent, Washington. Gino was forty-three and basically selling fish for a living, but his every thought had turned to making wine. What had started as a hobby now felt like a calling. Their three daughters asleep in the next room, their son downstairs in his, Gino rolled over and said to Pam, “We’ll call the best wine ‘Cana’s Feast.’”

It made sense on several levels. The Cuneos were devoted to Scripture. Gino and Pam had met at the Grace and Truth Gospel Hall in San Mateo, California, and both had been raised in religious homes. Cuneo knew from his childhood Bible lessons that Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding celebration at Cana, in Galilee, by turning water into wine. And not just any wine—Our best is in these pots, the master of the banquet said. For Cuneo, calling his finest wines Cana’s Feast would pay homage to the miracle without bludgeoning anyone with Christian doctrine; he would let his achievements do the proselytizing. “He who has ears, let him hear,” he liked to quote from Matthew 11:15, meaning don’t force yourself on people who aren’t ready to receive the Word. Naming these wines Cana’s Feast also spoke to Cuneo’s belief that wine is from God, and represents joy, and that being a Christian winemaker is no contradiction.

For nearly eighteen years, Cana’s Feast was the name of Cuneo Cellars’ ultrapremium wines. They won high marks from the likes of Wine Spectator, and Northwest oenophiles adored the wines for their deep-ruby color, their smoothness, and their bursting, red and black fruit flavors.

Then the brand came to represent more. In 2006, Cuneo’s financial partners—who came on board largely because of their shared devotion to the Christian faith—decided to renounce his name, first on the bottles and then on the business. “Cuneo Cellars” was quietly dropped; “Cana’s Feast” became the name of the winery. And in 2007, Gino Cuneo was asked to step down as the winemaker of his own winery. Wine blogs lit up with questions and speculation. Here was a vintner wine lovers had followed for more than a decade; who was making wines many other domestic vintners dared not attempt; who was known, and loved, for his commitment to quality and his emphasis on pairing wine with food—making wine-tasting a festive, social family event before wine tastings were en vogue. “If he’s bitter about what happened … he’s not willing to share it,” one person wrote last April on The Wine Knows, a Wine Press Northwest blog. “He’s not that kind of a guy.” Meanwhile, the winery, on its website, reported that Cuneo “stepped away from direct winemaking and production duties … to pursue his winemaking passion on a smaller and more focused scale.”

Well, yes. And no.

No one ever really got the whole story, because, until now, Cuneo never told it.