Most Viewed Stories
Sutter Buttes vintner wins top wine award
Reece Cordi smiles like a kid who has a secret.
During the past three years, the former banker and farmer has transformed 15 acres of old almond orchards north of the Sutter Buttes into his own personal experiment in art, science and commerce.
In October, he oversaw the harvesting of what he believes to be the first wine grapes grown commercially in Sutter County.
That fruit's destiny is still a couple months away. But Cordi, 58, goes about making necessary chemical tests and barrel transfers with the air of a vintner who has already tasted success.
Last week, one of his first attempts at winemaking — a Primativo made from Yolo County grapes — was awarded a 2012 gold medal at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle wine competition.
The contest, which this year attracted 5,500 entries in dozens of varietal and winemaking categories, effectively announced Cordi Winery, Sutter County and the Sutter Buttes' successful entry into the world of fine wine.
"I'm the new kid on the block," Cordi says. "To have this happen just three years into winemaking — it's thrilling."
Diego Barison, Cordi's primary adviser and mentor in matters of grapes and grapevines, had been the one to choose a grower for his fledgling trials in alchemy. The vintage was 2010 Primativo fruit from a Yolo County vineyard. The plants had been grown from the same root stock as the ones Cordi recently planted at the foot of the Buttes.
"If you start with good grapes, you're going to have a good result," says Barison.
Barison's own apprenticeship began in his family's vineyards in Northern Italy, continued through formal university training, and took him to management jobs at grapevine nurseries in Italy, France and eventually California wine country.
He had been mingling with winery owners and other industry professionals at a large viticulture trade show in Sacramento a few months ago when his new Sutter County apprentice uncorked a bottle of the stuff that eventually took gold.
"It was very good," Barison says, with that same hint of a secret. "Everyone was surprised. Everybody was very impressed."
Old farmers, old politics
The earliest stages of Cordi's venture went far afield of his intentions. Changing crops, it turned out, would be the easy part. Getting the necessary permits for a new use of his land — including construction of a laboratory/storage facility and a wine tasting room — was a more difficult matter in a county full of conservative farmers.
Neighbors and their supporters, led by former Yuba City Councilman and Sutter County Supervisor Dennis Nelson, opposed Cordi's plan.
They feared they would have to make changes to their own methods of farming to accommodate the sensitive crop nearby. Pest control chemicals, for instance, would become an issue.
And a steady stream of commercial truck traffic and tourists, they believed, would become part of having a winery in their midst. This would alter their way of life in the tiny settlement of Pennington, nestled between Gray Lodge Wildlife Area and the Buttes.
"They didn't want a different crop in there among them. They said we were incompatible," Cordi says. "They're opposed to any change."
But changing from almonds to wine grapes on his land, he argued, would, in fact, have little or no impact on surrounding nut and rice farms.
And with only 30 acres to work with — five tons of grapes produced per acre, maximum, and 160 gallons of wine made per ton — Cordi says his operation will always be a small one — a fact, he says, that suits his level of commercial ambition.
The decision ultimately fell to the county supervisors. With the exception of Supervisor Jim Whiteaker, who opposed the wine-making plan, they agreed to let Cordi proceed.
The lanky, clean-cut, bespectacled banker hardly looks the part of a rebel.
But one town's entrepreneur is another town's upstart.
"I feel like I'm a real maverick out here," he says, jokingly.
'Farming is farming'
Cordi, who comes from a farming family, bought his property in 1990 and managed its almond crops for 19 years.
Once he knew what he wanted in the way of grapes — he has Primitivo, a close relative of Zinfandel, as well as five other varietals — and was happy with the set up of vines on his property, he did what was familiar to him.
"Farming is farming," he says. "A tractor is a tractor."
But the culture of wine grapes is a world apart from regular crop farming.
Wine people must be meticulous about every detail.
Even pickers of wine grapes have to be, well, picky.
A skilled harvesting crew was brought in from Esparto.
"They have to know just what they are looking for. They have to know what to drop and what to take," Condi says, "And they have to work very quickly. When a grape is ready, a grape is ready."
The learning curve has been steep, he says. But he has had plenty of help, and says he enjoys the company and education.
"I have not found one person in the wine industry that has not been helpful," he says. "And after coming out of the almond industry, that surprises me a lot."
When it came time to take on the artistry part of his operation, Barison paired his new friend Cordi with a wine-making expert he trusted.
Ruggero Mastroserio, also originally from Italy, is chief winemaker at Latcham Vineyards & Granite Springs Winery.
Cordi says he and the master craftsman have developed a mutually beneficial relationship.
"I help him with his paperwork, and he helps me make wine," he says.
Putting it on the map
Mastroserio and Barison watch over Cordi's operation as if they are waiting for the birth of a child.
They know the volcanic soils of the Sutter Buttes are rich with potential, and that Cordi's work could lead to a new source of grapes with distinctive properties.
Barison explains this in terms of areas about which he is most familiar, the wine-growing regions around Mount Vesuvio and Mount Aetna.
"The volcanic soil is more acidic and always has very nice mineral components," he says. "The type of soil and the climactic conditions are very good."
The Sutter Buttes may have the right loam. But the extreme heat of the Central Valley can be destructive.
Cordi says the breeze he gets at night on his property, even in the dead of summer, helps counter the heat of the day.
"They like the change in temperature," he says of his grapes.
He believes the special properties of his and surrounding properties could eventually lead to an official designation for the Buttes as a wine-growing region.
Currently, there are 17 AVAs — American Viticultural Areas — in the Central Wine Growing Region. The region encompasses an area that begins south of Fresno and extends up through Amador, El Dorado and Yolo counties.
Yuba County has parts of two AVAs that are within the Sierra Foothills region.
But for now, Sutter County is, literally, not on the map for wine.
Cordi's small production of wines currently has but one customer: New Earth Market in Yuba City.
But with the appearance of Sutter County on the Gold Medal list for the Chronicle's well-known competition, things could change quickly.
Cordi did not expect to be asking so soon about the business of affixing the gold medal to his labels.
He can hardly contain his glee about the recent vote of confidence for his winemaking, and what it bodes for the future of his little operation in the Buttes.
"We've already increased the value of this land," he says. "And if we produce good grapes, it will be a real boon to the county."
CONTACT reporter Nancy Pasternack at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4781. Find her on Facebook at/ADnpasternack or