How to Make Wine

As a young man, Gino Cuneo wanted to be a chef. Winemaking was never part of his plan. He grew up in the Richmond district of San Francisco, where his father, Ernie, was a typographer who had grown up in the Marina District as a neighbor of Joe DiMaggio; Gino’s mother, Doris, raised the kids.

Gino’s given name was Eugene and his family called him Gene. But as a waiter in California restaurants, the young Cuneo discovered that if he called himself Gino and inflected his speech slightly—“can not” for “can’t”—the tips were better and customers asked for him by name. After serving in Vietnam, he studied music and religion at UC Berkeley, then worked on fishing boats in Alaska for a year. He married Pam, whose younger sisters he had known growing up. Their son, Mark, was born in 1975.

In 1978, Gino saw a newspaper ad about running a restaurant at a Klamath Falls inn; he liked the sound of that. The family moved to Oregon. Gino was the chef and Pam the hostess. But the landlord was difficult and the business slow, so after one season they returned to San Francisco, where Cuneo began selling seafood, moving tons of Mexican shrimp for a San Diego–based importer. He was good at marketing and forming relationships. In 1983, the family moved to the Seattle area, where Cuneo opened a Pacific Northwest office for Ocean Garden, a major seafood importer. He would stay in the seafood business for the next eleven years. He and Pam had three more children—daughters Angiolina, Grace, and April—and Pam stayed home to raise the children while Gino flew around the country selling seafood.

In 1986, Pam bought her husband a book, How to Make Wine, for ten cents at a thrift store. Cuneo loved food and his Italian heritage, and Pam thought winemaking might interest him. She was right. While visiting his parents in California, Cuneo bought forty-five pounds of cabernet sauvignon grapes from a Lodi vineyard and began to experiment with making wines that would be better than the simple reds his father had drunk. “I was surprised that it was drinkable,” he says of his first vintage. Making wine seemed to reach across the generations to his Italian-born grandparents. “I think in buying wines, people are really looking for authenticity, the real deal,” he says. “Wine ties them to the earth at a moment in time. You can taste the Dundee hills [of] 2004. It’s remarkable. I don’t know anything else that does that.”

Winemaking also supported his view of Christian theology. He loved to argue with fellow students of Scripture that wine represented God’s joy, and that since it came from God it could only be good. Being a vintner allowed him to reach out to a diverse culture of people, too. Cuneo recalls a meeting with a gruff East Coast seafood buyer at a New Jersey bar; all the guy wanted to talk about was the wine Cuneo had been making. “It was a dream that he couldn’t realize,” Cuneo says, “and he lived vicariously through me.”

In 1988, Cuneo bought a used oak barrel and a half ton of cabernet sauvignon fruit, acting on a tip from a winemaker who said Cuneo would never make great wine until he’d made a barrel’s worth. Cuneo made his first wine in his garage; this became his first bottling, with a label designed by his brother. He entered it in the Benton Franklin County fair in Washington, and, to his surprise, won Best in Show. It wasn’t as epochal a winemaking moment as when, say, David Lett’s Oregon pinot noirs placed third at an international wine competition in Paris, but Cuneo felt validated. “The next year,” he says, “I had to go commercial.”