‘Gino would say, "I want the tasting room to look like this picture in this Italian cookbook,’" Hall recalls. ‘It was the essence of Gino, the whole Italian thing. We were going to focus on Gino’s heritage.’
Cuneo had purchased the ten-foot wooden table in Seattle; it fit his concept of a spare, almost monastic space where the wine, not the décor, conveyed the message. The partners stayed in the background, as advisers and investors, while Cuneo oversaw operations and served as general manager. At first they opened the tasting room only part time, and then, as business picked up, the room was always open. No matter how busy they got, the family atmosphere remained. “It was so casual,” says Christensen. “They didn’t even count the money at the end of the day when I started there.” When invitations were to be ordered for a wine club event, Cuneo would weigh in with an opinion on which type of paper to use. When a customer said he’d buy a case of wine if Cuneo sang, the winemaker dropped what he was doing and belted out an aria. For wine pickup parties—when customers came to fetch their new orders—he filled the long table with Italian foodstuffs: prosciutto, a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, olives and different olive oils and fresh loaves of crusty bread. On trips to Italy, Cuneo found hand-painted ceramic platters that he liked and brought them back to the winery to sell to customers, who snapped them up in minutes along with olive oil and pasta and balsamic vinegar.
Each of Oregon’s 393 wineries produce, on average, five thousand cases of wine per year. Like many boutique wineries, Cuneo Cellars had been producing about fifteen hundred cases each year. To make their winery profitable, Cuneo and his partners needed to produce at least six thousand cases every year and sell most through the tasting room rather than through wholesalers. Cuneo began to ramp up production. He expanded his contracts with notable vineyards like Meredith Mitchell, near McMinnville, which produces first-rate pinot noir grapes, and Ciel du Cheval in eastern Washington for the cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc that went into his Bordeaux-style blends.
Most Oregon wineries bottle a pinot noir and a pinot gris, but Cuneo had a larger concept. “I always intended to be a Northwest winery, not just an Oregon winery,” he says, referring not only to the grapes he used but also to the scope of his vision. Just as Oregon winemaking pioneer David Lett was convinced that pinot noir grapes could grow in the Willamette Valley—he started the Oregon wine business in the 1960s under just that premise—Cuneo was convinced that he could make Italian varietal wines in the Northwest that would rival the great Chiantis and Barberas of Italy. Such a franchise could be worth a fortune, and others had tried. California winemakers had grown and used the sangiovese grapes that make Chianti, with what some felt were mixed results; the nebbiolo that is the base of Barolo apparently had never been successfully grown outside of northern Italy. The wet Oregon climate wouldn’t sustain crops of either grape, but in eastern Washington Cuneo saw the kind of hot, sunny conditions that existed in Italy. In 1993, he got his hands on nebbiolo grapes that were being grown experimentally in Washington. Two of the three clones produced weak juice. The third, however, grew just the kind of sweet, small grapes Cuneo needed; his first barrel of nebbiolo came out tasting and smelling like Barbaresco, one of the great wines of Italy’s Piedmont region. “That told me that this could be done,” he says. “I just charged forward.”
With his partners’ money, Cuneo commenced an eight-year project in the late 1990s to acquire a clone stock of Brunello from Italy and bring the first plants to the Northwest. (Brunello is the magnificent sangiovese grape clone that produces expensive Brunello di Montalcino wines.) Cuneo certified the plants as the first Brunello clones in North America; after they cleared federal quarantine, he planted five acres of vines at Ciel du Cheval.
That was in 2002. The first fruit was harvested two years later and became the basis for Cuneo Cellars’ sangiovese bottlings. Other winemakers watched the program from a distance, some in awe. “Gino was a bit of a maverick, to use an overworked term,” says Patrick Taylor, the young winemaker who apprenticed under Cuneo and replaced him at Cana’s Feast. Demand for sangiovese has slowly grown and now is a unique staple of the Cana’s Feast lineup. Other wineries have begun to experiment with the grape, too.
But Cuneo wasn’t finished. On another trip to Italy, he discovered the amarone wines from the Veneto region. For these wines, grapes must be picked before they are fully ripe and then dried on racks for months, a process that draws out complexities of flavor and character. The drying, and the wines made from it, are called appassimento. Few, if any, winemakers in America were known to be making them commercially. “It’s an accountant’s nightmare,” says Cuneo, referring to the slow, labor-intensive process. “Costs just blow out the window, and rot can take it all away.” Nevertheless, he was intrigued, and began to experiment with drying nebbiolo, syrah, and grenache grapes. In 2003, he bottled his first appassimento wines and sold out, at thirty dollars a bottle, to his wine club members.
The winery was a success. Reviews poured in for Cuneo’s “meaty and rock-solid” wines, as Wine Enthusiast referred to a 1999-vintage pinot noir that was released in 2001. “A superb wine!” Oregon Wine Report said of the 2000-vintage Red Mountain Bordeaux. Cuneo Cellars was lauded for its pastoral setting, its reasonable retail prices, and its ambitious product line. At the same time, Carlton was becoming known as a place to taste and buy good wine. Cuneo Cellars became a must-stop spot on the tourist trail. “By the end of ’04 we were making really good money out of the tasting room,” says Christensen. “Sales had gone up 30 percent a year. The Cuneo label was liquid gold; we couldn’t keep that puppy in stock.”
It was about that time that Martin Barrett, Cuneo’s initial partner and major investor, began to have a different vision of the business, and a different view of the winemaker himself.