Winery Industry

Napa Native

Scholarship Winners: Where Are They Now?

By Greg Risling

If you grew up in an area known for producing some of the finest wine in the world, are you pre-destined to work in that industry?

Being raised in the Napa Valley can definitely be a blessing for burgeoning oenophiles. For Gabriel Altamura, 35, he saw all the hard work that went into making a stellar wine time and again.

“I always was part of the workforce, growing up lower-to-middle income,” Altamura said. “To me, wine making is a testament to hard work. It forces you to be present in your environment.”

Altamura’s first passion was cooking. He was able to live and work in Melbourne as a chef for a year before returning back to the United States where he enrolled at Napa Valley College. While taking classes, he got his introduction into winemaking as a cellar worker at Laird Family Estate.

He then learned the trade and his interest grew while working part-time at Groth Vineyards & Winery. Imagine getting to walk among rows of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes – what some might say is an embarrassment of riches right at your fingertips.

“I felt a greater connection when I did my first harvest,” Altamura said. “You don’t need to be a super intelligent person to make wine. You just have to put in the hard work.”

Altamura eventually took courses at the University of California, Davis, one of the premier universities in the winemaking world. Taking classes at UC Davis afforded him the ability to be resourceful and answers to what seemed like complex questions were readily attainable.

It was at UC Davis where Altamura received a scholarship from the Orange County Wine Society. Getting the financial help alleviated the stress and allowed him to focus on his studies, he said.

“It was a really special moment for me and I will always be grateful,” Altamura said. “It’s nice to see people who you don’t know, rooting for you.”

In 2022, Altamura received his degree from UC Davis in enology and viticulture. Since then, he’s been busy working at JH Wine Consulting in the Bay Area. Founded by esteemed winemaker Jean Hoefliger of Alpha Omega fame, the company does a little bit of everything – managing vineyards, sourcing grapes for certain labels and helping build a brand.

Altamura’s days are definitely busy. He oversees five satellite locations, sampling and analyzing the grapes and controlling inventory to ensure JH customers get the best results. He said a year’s worth of experience at JH Wine Consulting feels like it would take three years somewhere else.

Altamura knows the stereotypes that comes with the Napa tag. He is somewhat conflicted because while Napa is so alluring for wine enthusiasts, as a native is can be somewhat constricting.

“It’s like if you grew up in Bordeaux – it’s all you know,” he said. “You need to put out a good Napa cab or what else are you doing here?”

He hopes to one day to run his own operation. He believes that his generation – and the generations who follow – will have to deal with the challenges of climate change and how to best grow grapes under those conditions.

For now, Altamura is focused on producing exemplary wine that is served in restaurants and homes across California and abroad.

“There is no shortage of good wine,” he said. “I think one of the big challenges is how do you get noticed?”

One of Our Own… Gone Commercial

Big Nose Winery is an offspring from one of our very own home winemakers. I am sure you know him. Roger Mattar.

He and his wife Janice have been making home wine in Orange County since 2012. It became a passion that arose from traveling around wine country. Every vacation involved wineries and wine tasting. Intrigued with the concept, they decided to try it for themselves.

From the beginning, though, they sought out experienced assistance. They discovered OCWS and encountered some great mentors along the way. For Roger, making wine was like raising children. He nurtured them during fermentation. At night, he couldn’t sleep, thinking about them. And, like well-cared-for children, the Mattars’ wines were excellent.

Deciding to enter his ‘progeny’ in the Orange County Home Wine Competition, he earned a Double Gold for his Merlot. They continued to produce award-wining wines, garnering multiple medals from various competitions.

But Roger wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to know more about winemaking. Whereupon he completed a three-year enology program at Missouri State University in 2018 (fellow winemakers take note)!

Immediately, they took the plunge. They took their winemaking skills commercial, obtaining their commercial license and creating Big Nose Winery that same year. And you gotta love their simple silhouette-like logo.

It wasn’t until 2021 that they found their new home. Janice liked the Temecula area so when a place came available, they went for it in October that year.

Today, the Mattars make Bordeaux-style wines focusing on red varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. They also produce some wonderful whites such as Viognier and Pinot Grigio.

They purchase grapes as they cannot grow their own. Of course, that works in their favor. Roger is able to pick and choose the grapes he wants to use, thus getting the best from all parts of California. They acquire grapes from as far south as San Diego to up north from Sonoma. And, of course, he does get some varietals locally in Temecula.

Already, he has expanded his production to include Petit Sirah, Petit Verdot and, coming either this year or next, Tannat. They produce a rosé and a dessert wine as well.

Additionally, he and Janice are experimenting with blends. It’s a team effort that includes experience, planning and the necessary tasting trials. Big Nose Meritage is one such mastered blend, but their latest, a quite superb blend, is Sumptuous.

The wines are truly excellent. They continue to earn Double Golds and other awards at the OCWS competitions, but this time in the Commercial Competition.

Roger told me he does not have a favorite. Says Roger, “they are all my babies. I like them all. But some are easier than others.”

I think we know where he’s going with that.

When I asked Roger if he had any advice for the newbies to winemaking, he suggests, “Find a mentor. There are a lot in the Orange County Wine Society.”

As we finished our tasting experience, I asked him what his family thought about his new career path. He said they were a family-oriented group and he was fully supported. He added that food is family. “We share the same passion,” he told me. As concerns the Big Nose wines, his closing remark, “Aroma comes first.”

As it turns out, this is where the Big Nose Winery name derives from: “the name was chosen with the wines’ aroma in mind taking special note of your senses while indulging in your wine tasting experience.”

Having visited Big Nose Winery a few times now, we are starting to encounter repeat customers, a true sign of producing a successful product. One such return customer told me that the wines from Big Nose Winery are some of the best in the Temecula Valley. I’d say that’s a great endorsement.

Go see Roger and Janice and try the wines. You will find their quaint, rustic and charming tasting room in The Hotel Temecula. It is part of a structure dating back to 1883, in Old Town Temecula on Main Street. They’re open Thursday through Sunday. Check out their website – – for more complete information.

By W. Scott Harral

Committed to Quality By Greg Risling

Tucked in a business park off Alicia Parkway in Mission Viejo, Chuck and Sheri Bellante have established one of the most reputable and welcoming wineries in Orange County.

While it still may stun some residents that they can visit a top-flight winery just a few miles from their home, Bellante Family Winery has made a name for itself by producing a stupendous slate of age-worthy, single-vineyard wines that has netted 90+ scores for roughly 85 percent of their offerings.

“Watching wines develop over time is part of the satisfaction of making wine,” says proprietor Chuck Bellante. “They are like my newborn children. I can’t pick a favorite.”

Chuck has spent nearly the last quarter century making wine. Once a garagiste who partnered with others to explore the world of wine, he and Sheri decided to open a tasting room in 2017 as a way to move into retirement doing something they love.

The retired chemical engineer credits his job for his meticulous approach. He knew he wanted his grapes to come from Santa Barbara County that has east-west coastal mountains that form valleys and balance the climate to help nurture the fruit to its maximum potential.

“It’s kind of intuitive; I let the fruit talk to me,” Chuck says. “I have the science background to do what needs to be done. I taste it as it matures to see what more needs to be done.”

He also wanted to provide his clients solely with single vineyard varietals, giving them the opportunity to experience the terroir and the nuances of that particular location.

Chuck prides his wine being single vineyard and racking up top scores by the likes of Wine Enthusiast. His wines have consistently medaled at the OC Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

“Scores mean you are meeting a standard. You might not like the wine but it’s good from a technical standpoint,” he said.

His first vintage – circa 2000 – was a Syrah he calls “bullet-proof” because of the grape’s thick skin. Since then, Chuck has expanded his collection to Pinot Noir, Viognier, Grenache and Mourvedre.

As most wine aficionados know, making the very best wine is a blend of science and art. Chuck recounted a story during harvest one year when a fellow winemaker questioned why he hadn’t picked his fruit and was the last in the area to do so. Clearly, Chuck recalls, the winemaker thought it was too late and the end result would suffer. Waiting did just the opposite.

“I like to pick the fruit later. I’m not trying to be hip or cool,” Chuck said. “I just know what I’m trying to achieve. If everything tastes right, it’s time to pick.”

The winery also offers some unique options and events. First and foremost is their wine club where prospective members actually get to taste the wine before choosing which ones will be part of their allocation. Every month, the Bellantes host a tasting for the older library wines, giving clients the opportunity to sample the crème de la crème.

The winery claims to have the original wine bingo in Orange County. If you don’t have any plans on Halloween, there will be a murder mystery soiree for those novice sleuths. And a few days after Thanksgiving, the winery will host an exquisite lineup of delicious offerings by renowned chef Pascal Olhats.

All in all, Chuck and Sheri are enjoying the fruits of their labor and hope others have the opportunity to swing by and taste some hand-crafted, world-class wines from Santa Barbara County right here in Orange County.

“It’s about making a quality wine,” Chuck says. “The people who appreciate that – they are my kind of people.”

Space Wine Uncorked

Several months ago we published an article regarding a case of wine being taken to space in November 2019 on a SpaceX capsule in an attempt to explore new ways of growing plants.

The wine returned in January of 2021, and the results were analyzed two months after its landing. A 2000 bottle of Chateau Petrus Merlot was uncorked, and the contents were analyzed by a group of French connoisseurs. So, what does “space wine” taste like, you ask? Was a sprinkling of stardust detected?

Wine writer, Jane Anson, “found there was a difference in both color and aromatics and also in taste.” “It felt a bit older, a bit more evolved than the wine that had remained on Earth . . . the cosmic wine’s tannins were more evolved and it had a more floral character,” she added. Ms. Anson concluded “that its adventure above the stratosphere added about two to three years maturity to the drink.”

In case you are wondering, an earth bottle of this vintage costs somewhere around $6,000!

– Linda Mihalik, Editor

A Look Back—Fires Tear through California’s Northern Wine Region

“Wildfires have long been a fact of life in the American West,” said Caroline Beteta, CEO of nonprofit, Visit California. It has been known that harvest season in California’s wine regions are what dream weddings are made of—ripe grapevines and colorful sunsets that provide the perfect backdrop for a wedding ceremony. 

Scientists say warmer temperatures and a lack of rain are leaving plants and trees more flammable, creating the conditions for wildfires to grow quickly and burn with more intensity, with the fire season starting earlier and ending later. Last year’s unprecedented fire season began with a siege of lightning strikes; approximately 9,000.

A small fire that began on September 27, 2020 near the town of St. Helena, pushed by fierce, unrelenting winds across Napa Valley, burned hundreds of homes and burned or destroyed scores of wineries before making its way into Sonoma. The wildfires west of Sonoma and east of Napa were blanketed in thick smoke. Several hotels and resorts were also damaged, including Calistoga Ranch and Meadowood Napa Valley, home to the Restaurant at Meadowood. One week after the Glass Fire began its violent path, it would certainly be the most destructive fire in California’s most famous wine region. More than 30 people lost their lives as a result of fires across the state. We grieve for the lives lost, the people displaced and what was lost in the fires.

Food & Wine produced a documentary titled “Embers & Vines,” featuring members of the local community reflecting on the fires while they were still burning. This approximately 8 minute documentary can be found by a Google search. If you have not viewed the documentary, I highly recommend you do so. As difficult as this clip may be to watch, understand it was important to document what was unfolding in the moment.

The Sunday before Christmas, December 20, 2020, Kevin Donnelly presented the OCWS members an hour long presentation on topics covering terroir, the four seasonal impacts on the vineyard, and effects of smoke taint. All too often a story ends when a fire is contained and media coverage moves on, and we go back to business as usual. Kevin’s presentation closed with a partial list of wineries that were burned or destroyed—it was a sobering moment. During the seminar, Kevin promised this listing would be available for the entire membership to view. Reading through the list below, you will come across many wineries that may be familiar. Remember to support the California wineries, as they have supported the Orange County Wine Society over the years.

– Linda Mihalik, Editor

Wineries burned or destroyed as of October 12, 2020:

· Barnett Family Vineyards, damaged

· Behrens Family Winery, two buildings, including its main winery destroyed

· Burgess Cellars, barrel warehouse and the original winery burned

· Cain Vineyard and Winery, main winery burned

· Castello di Amorosa, farmhouse & buildings destroyed and 120,000 bottles destroyed

· Chateau Boswell, main building destroyed

· Cornell Vineyards, lost three houses

· Dutch Henry Winery, winery burned

· Fairwinds Estate Winery, winery burned

· Fantesca Estate, lost equipment

· Flying Lady Winery, winery building and 2016 and 2017 wines destroyed

· Frey Vineyards Winery Mendocino, largely destroyed

· Hourglass Winery, winery facility and guest house were demolished

· Hunnicutt Wines, offices and the winery’s
crushpad devastated

· Juslyn Vineyards Landscaping, outbuildings and
half of the grapevines gone

· La Borgata Winery, destroyed

· Melka Estates, house burned, most of the vineyard damaged

· Mendocino Oster Cellars, largely destroyed

· Merus Winery, winery damaged

· Newton Vineyard, winery nearly entirely destroyed

· Paradise Ridge Winery Sonoma, burned down

· Phifer Pavitt Winery, home mostly burned and winery damaged

· Ritchie Creek Vineyard, winery and home burned, much of the wine inventory destroyed

· Sarocka Estate, structures burned

· School House Vineyard, one structure destroyed

· Sherwin Family Vineyards, winery burned

· Signorello Estate, completely destroyed

· Soda Rock Winery Healdsburg, consumed by fire

· Spring Mountain Vineyard, home destroyed,
vineyard seriously damaged

· Stags’ Leap Winery Napa, buildings destroyed

· Sterling Vineyards, main winery safe, equipment damaged

· Terra Valentine Winery, house burned

· White Rock Vineyards, damaged significantly,
fire consumed winery 

· York Creek Vineyard, two houses, a barn and
equipment lost