May 25, 2010 / 5:35 PM / 9 years ago

Vineyard tours show where wine is really made

SANTA ROSA, California (Reuters Life!) - The last thing you would expect to see on a tour of a vineyard is a baseball field.

But there it is - a regulation-size baseball field - hidden down a slope behind the Balletto Vineyards winery and surrounded on three sides by 160 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris vines.

John Balletto, in a move somewhat akin to that of Kevin Costner’s character in the Oscar-nominated, 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” plowed under four acres of vines and turned them into a baseball field because his pickers told him “how they’d like to play baseball when they’re not working.”

The baseball field, which is not visible from the road nor the winery’s tasting room, is on a self-guided tour of the Balletto vineyards.

His is one of at least four vineyards in Sonoma County where visitors are encouraged to get into the fields and see where wine is really made.

The tours are the idea of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, (here) which represents about 1,800 growers. The vineyards in the program are in varying areas of Sonoma, so each has a different soil and grows slightly different varietals.

While Balletto’s Russian River vineyard favors Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, those surrounding the Mauritson Family Winery further north in Dry Creek Valley are filled with vines of brawny, bold Zinfandel and the Bordeaux-blend grapes — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Clay Mauritson, a 35-year-old former linebacker for the University of Oregon’s football team, does a bit of everything at the family’s winery and vineyards — sales, marketing, winemaking.

His philosophy of winemaking is very simple.

“You need really great fruit to make really great wine. And that’s an advantage that I have. My family has been growing great grapes for six generations now,” he explained.

Balletto, like Mauritson, sells about 90 percent of his grapes to other wineries, but keeps 10 percent for his winemaker Anthony Beckman, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter.

“I literally get the pick of the crop,” Beckman said pulling out a topographical map of the Balletto’s holdings.

“What you have is a huge temperature change. It can be 55 or 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) in the morning. The fog burns off and suddenly you’re at 85 or 90 degrees, and then in the evening the sun goes down and you look up at the coastal range and the fog rolls in and you repeat the whole cycle.

“And it is really what makes the Russian River a pretty spectacular place to grow grapes,” he said.

Fog hugs the vines in a cooling grip allowing the grapes a chance to slowly ripen and develop intense flavors.

So far, Beckman has not had much time to play baseball, but there is an occasional game between winemakers and sommeliers from nearby restaurants.

And during the summer the winery crew and the field hands have been known to hit a few balls and pick off a runner every now and then.

Editing by Patricia Reaney

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