The Mentor Who Shaped Ben Papapietro’s Winemaking Method

Papapietro Perry Winery in Healdsburg, California is owned by four friends who started the venture decades ago in a garage with a home winemaker. It was a guerilla-style of winemaking —no tasting room, no fancy estate — that had been popularized in Bordeaux, France.

Years later, the Sonoma County Pinot Noir maker is still sticking to its guns, prioritizing its people and staying true to its identity as a family-focused, family-run business.

Co-owner and winemaker Ben Papapietro, who owns the winery with his wife, Yolanda Papapietro and friends Bruce and Renae Perry, will be featured in our January/February issue as our first 2022 Vintner Q&A.

In this online supplement, Ben Papapietro shared who his mentors were, how he got his start in winemaking, what helped Papapietro Perry weather the choppy waters of 2020 and 2021, and why he’s excited about what’s to come.

VINTNER: Who is your mentor in the industry and why? What have you learned from them?

PAPAPIETRO: Burt Williams of Williams Selyem was a friend of mine from the 1960s before he even started making wine. I was fortunate to hang out with him when he transitioned from home to commercial winemaking. Early on, I went to barrel tastings with him. I spent 15 or 16 harvests working alongside Burt. We both worked for the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, and I would take my vacation to observe him and learn from him. He was truly one of the master Pinot Noir winemakers in California, making Pinot from the Russian River region before anyone had an idea that it would take off like it did. Burt had a terrific wine palate, so spending time with him, I had the opportunity to learn from a master Pinot Noir producer. Burt was in the forefront of California Pinot along with others such as Gary Farrell, Dehlinger, Kistler, and Joseph Swan. They really kicked off Pinot Noir of consequence in our region and put it on the map. Joe Rochioli, Howie Allen and Joseph Swan were some of the first guys growing Pinot grapes in those days. Before that it was all Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and pink White Zinfandel.

From Burt, I learned how to really treat Pinot Noir gently and when to properly pick it. People don’t really understand that wine bruises, so we do everything by hand. The style we do, no one else does. All of our fermentation is in one-ton bins. We are unique, very old-school, and make a Burgundian style of Pinot Noir in small batches. Because Burt and I, and my business partner Bruce Perry, worked together in the newspaper business, another mutual friend introduced us in 1965 or ’66. Meeting Burt first as a home winemaker, impressed me and got me interested. Working alongside him gave me the opportunity to see how winemaking was originally done in the old days. 

VINTNER: What was your winery’s greatest accomplishment in 2021, and what are your goals for this year?

PAPAPIETRO: Opening and redoing our outside deck, which is an expansive outdoor room with vineyard views, allowed us to serve outside rather than in the tasting room. This was important as we were not allowed to conduct tastings indoors due to COVID protocols. 

Our online outreach to our members and non-members, with nearly 70 live streaming shows was also a big accomplishment. We invited many outside guests in the industry, such as chefs, cheesemakers, candy and chocolate makers, oyster and caviar purveyors. This opened a new area for us and now consumers can order food and wine packages, then join us online to taste with us along with their friends. We did a live unboxing of our club shipments, so that members not only received the wines, but they can also join a personal discussion and ask questions live. This provides more of a context for the wines. Under difficult circumstances, this will also help us in the future. It certainly helped in 2020 and 2021, and we are now poised for the future. 

We have established long relationships with growers, accounts that carry our wines, consumers and club members. Our mission is to continue making great wines, doing fun events, travels, dinners and hopefully we will get back to hosting cruises. We just opened up slots for cruises in 2023, and then quickly sold out. We are going to continue with those programs. A goal for the future is to keep creating new opportunities to have people participate along with us in wine, and food and travels. That is the goal for 2022 and the coming years. 

For me, my long relationship with our cellar crew is important, my cellar guy has been with me 10 years. Assistant Winemaker Dave Low and our Cellarmaster Tyson Freeman have both been with us for more than 19 years. This helps with consistency, the same team doing the same things. Having a stable workforce in an unstable time has also helped us out a great deal. Many of the Papapietro Perry Winery family members started out as customers and became employees, and they stay for a long time. It’s a fun environment. We take care of our employees and feed them a homemade family meal every day. We have made it a family-oriented business. We are just two families that started our winery, and with the people that have joined us, there are many families that are now part of Papapietro Perry Winery.

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