When Cuneo returned to Carlton, he says he was greeted by a letter from his partners, basically firing him.
Not surprisingly, Cuneo felt a deep sense of loss. Losing the company felt like the death of a close relative, a sadness deepened by the feeling that he had let his partners down. Equating the partners’ decision with God’s will, he officially stepped down, apologizing to each partner and asking for forgiveness. “I said that I was the one responsible; it happened on my watch,” he says.
The hasty restructuring didn’t really matter in the end. Despite Cuneo’s departure, the TTB investigation continued for more than a year and wound up costing the company nearly $250,000 in lost product, time, legal fees, and, ultimately, in an “offer in compromise,” a $10,000 settlement fine for violations including failure “to notify TTB of certain changes in corporate officers, managing members and trade name.” According to the TTB website, only two other Oregon wineries in the past five years have been in such a situation.
At age sixty, Gino Cuneo had no winery and no direction. “I questioned whether I’d ever make wine again,” he says. “I believe that I was created for a purpose, and that craft that I’d been given is to make wine. When that seemed to be potentially off the table, then all of a sudden, what else is there in me? Is that the sum substance of me? Is it my identity?”
He and his wife did what they always do when trouble hits. “We prayed,” says Pam Cuneo. “‘God really helps,’ I told Gino.”
Cuneo began to write poetry, and published it in the liturgy of the Pearl Church, which the Cuneos attend on Sunday mornings, about an hour’s drive from their McMinnville home. He had never written before. “I looked upon that as a special grace that came in.”
Then he got back to work. He couldn’t use the Brunello-clone grapes that he had planted—they still belonged to Cana’s Feast—so he found sangiovese grapes that other wineries had planted, in Mattawa, Washington, on the Columbia River. Sangiovese was still a novelty, a side product. American winemakers were making money on cabernets and pinot noirs. Cuneo was able to find sangiovese grapes because so few people wanted them.
He pressed and barreled the grapes at a small facility in Carlton, a few blocks from the winery he had built. Then he called on marketing instincts honed during nearly twenty years of making wine in Oregon. With Anton Kimball, a graphic artist in Portland, Cuneo designed a new brand. He called it Tre Nova, for the three premier grapes of Italian wine. He trademarked three new wines, including Bonatello, a rich sangiovese table wine with a screw cap, and Secopassa, an appassimento pressed from the dried sangiovese and nebbiolo grapes Cuneo loves. He bottled a few hundred cases of both wines last year and is testing the market. The Bonatello sells in restaurants and area wine stores in the $17 range, and the Secopassa is a premium wine that sells for $35 a bottle.
This time, Cuneo is pressing and aging his wines in custom lots at a factory in Dundee. He sells almost entirely through wholesalers—no winery, no tasting room, no wine club, no parties. And no restaurant. The name of his new business is Gino Cuneo Cellars.
The new venture excites him. “This is my retirement right here,” he says, referring to the Bonatello. The wine is deep red, fruity, balanced, and delicious. “I want to bring sangiovese to the American market. It’s completely different from what was tried in California and didn’t succeed. I’m really looking to not just have another wine, like another cab or merlo—I want to build another category.”
Cana’s Feast is still operating. In recent months, Cuneo has begun to spend time there again. He is still a minor partner in the business, but when it comes to winemaking, Patrick Taylor is in charge. Cuneo’s path back to Cana’s Feast was smoothed when Barrett unexpectedly resigned as general manager and managing member at the end of 2007, citing stress and failing health and the difficulty of being away from his family. Harve Ballard, the winery’s former finance manager, is now operations manager; John Hall is the managing member. Lisa Lanxon continues to serve Italian-style lunches on weekends. Hall is still a close friend of Cuneo’s; of the conflict that led to Cuneo’s departure he says, “It’s a way that God delivered him to the direction he was supposed to take. Where Gino is today is where God wants him to be.”