California hasn’t always produced the ultra-ripe Cabernet-based blockbusters it’s known for today. Settlers brought a host of grapes from Europe in the 18th century, initially to make everyday wine to quench the thirst of workers during the gold rush. Some of these old vineyards, or their descendants have survived. Patrick Cappiello, inspired by this heritage winemaking in the area, started Monte Rio winery with a vision of creating wines that summon a sense of an “old California”.
Patrick took a scenic route towards winemaking, studying philosophy and working in restaurants on the side, where he tried almost every job available from dishwasher, to chef, to front of house and management. Eventually he settled on wine while working at fine dining restaurants, under the tutelage of the sommeliers and restaurant owners like Daniel Boulud and David Gordon.
He never took the formal wine-education route, instead reading and tasting prodigiously, absorbing as much knowledge as he could, before applying this as a sommelier and consultant at acclaimed restaurants like Veritas and Pearl and Ash. It was here that he began to form his own philosophy about wine:
[At Pearl and Ash] “We became known for the wine-list, with all of this old Burgundy and Bordeaux we’d collected. And alongside that I was catering for the natural wine crowd, which was the crowd I was in- so there were verticals of Beaujolais and Jura wines next to grand cru Burgundy and first-growth Bordeaux. On any given night there’d be a banker with a tie next to a hipster kid drinking natural wine. It was a cool environment”.
Discovering a different side to California
While working as a consultant, Patrick tasted wines that seemed totally distinct from the wine narrative he associated with California, older wines that were made in a restrained, elegant style.
“In my time as a sommelier, I had a chance to drink a lot of old Californian wine, and then a lot of modern Californian wines, often side by side”.
“I was drinking old Louis Martini and Georges de Latour, the reference points for old Californian Cabernets from the 60s. The wines were totally different, and you’re like why is that? Then you start researching and realising the (winemaking) techniques were different, they were harvesting a lot earlier, the planet was cooler and so many things made the wines different that way”.
“In the 90s, the post-Parker era, Zinfandel, and varieties that were so important to California’s heritage, started being manipulated in a way that didn’t make any sense. All that stuff is 16.5% alcohol, the wines don’t age, they’re like really bad port, and they’re sweet. If you understand the history of Zinfandel, any other variety would have been ripped up.”
After his then-employer closed, Patrick found himself at a crossroads, but a call from his good friend and Cali wine superstar Pax Mahle, convinced him to come to California for harvest. There, after a series of parties and great bottles consumed, they decided to launch a winery that paid tribute in equal parts to the early-picked wines of old California, and the juicy, food-friendly Italian wines Patrick associated with his family:
“My grandmother would drink old Chianti from the fiasco bottles, and things like Lambrusco, so those were my reference points. I wanted to do something as an homage. The philosophy behind Monte Rio, our mission statement, is handcrafted wines in the spirit of California”.
The place behind the wines
Patrick started Monte Rio in 2018, a garage-style winery where he acted as a virtual one-man band, with guidance from Pax on winemaking. He wanted the wines to be affordable so he needed to source fruit that didn’t cost a fortune, and looked towards the historic old-vine sites of Lodi.
Lodi AVA is located in the Central Valley of California, between Sacramento and Stockton, seventy kilometres inland from the coast. It’s known for old-vine Zinfandel and often monolithic Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Sirah. Patrick found that the cold nights and high diurnal range meant that, despite the warm daytime growing conditions, they could get fruit with good acidity, particularly when picked early:
“When I started making wine here in 2018, very few young winemakers were interested. A lot of people are making wine in Lodi now who I never thought would be interested in the area”.
“One of the things that makes it so special is the (Mokelumne) river, that brings melted snow from the Sierra Foothills. It’s an irrigation source for the region. Grapes are number two in terms of production here, almonds number one and rice number three, all- these are water hungry products, and the reason why they grow there is because of flood irrigation. Lodi was ahead of its time in terms of sustainable irrigation”.
Going against the grain
Teaming up with local, organic farmers, Monte Rio went against the grain and began picking their grapes weeks before other producers, using only whole clusters in their fermentations, fermenting at warm temperatures, and using no new oak.
“The winemaking across the board is very methodical: the whites are whole-cluster direct pressed, and fermented in either concrete or stainless steel; aged in old wood for around four months, and then put back into stainless steel before we bottle”.
For the reds, again they only use whole cluster, but with pump-overs every morning to wet the cap and prevent VA. Once the fermentation finishes, the wines, like the whites, are aged in old wood and then returned to stainless steel briefly before bottling.
Patrick says this process helps to “enhance the minerality and savoury flavours we want in the wines”.
“I don’t like lots of Californian wine because it’s too fruity. By doing fast warm ferments we amplify the minerality and tame the fruitiness”.
“Then when you move it to the old wood, you give the wine time to relax, and you build richness – and then when you move it back into stainless steel, it adds reduction which is what we want. We want more reductive qualities. It’s the only way to combat too much fruitiness”.
Behind the wines
Monte Rio make a diverse array of wines, from old-vine Petit Sirah and Chardonnay, cornerstones of the Californian wine scene, to bolder, more adventurous styles: the most striking is a deliciously racy, juicy co-ferment of Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc – not the most obvious bedfellows, but Patrick saw a connection between the two grapes:
“I wanted to produce a light-bodied red wine, and it was hard because Pax has every light bodied red-varietal taken care of, so the idea of a co-ferment started coming about”.
“So when I started looking at the Sauvignon vineyard, I asked what was planted on the other side, and it was Syrah, Cabernet and Petit Verdot. Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc: they both come from Bordeaux, that seems like kind of a cool way to make a light bodied red”.
It’s a smashable, vibrant pale red, designed for chilling down and enjoying with friends. Despite a love for old-world wines, Lodi has offered Monte Rio the freedom that strict D.O rules in Europe could never afford them; they could think outside-the-box and work instinctively.
They found the fruit for their Primitivo growing amongst gnarled old Zinfandel vines that had been planted in the 1930s, in the Shergill vineyard at the south end of Lodi’s Mokelumne river, a site managed by their friend who converted it to organics 10 years ago. Patrick wanted to create a vibrant, fresh interpretation of Primitivo and decided to “harvest a month before everyone else does”.
“Farmers think we’re crazy! We’re the only ones I know who are making 12.5% alcohol wines in Lodi, and the only ones making whole-cluster wines here”.
The Primitivo ferments carbonically for nine days, before being pressed into concrete where it ferments to dry. It’s then racked into neutral oak, before being returned to stainless steel briefly before botting, to bring out the savoury, herbal characters.
“We want these wines to have structure, we’re not making nouveau style wines,” so creating balance is key.
It’s a refined but joyous expression of Primitivo, bursting with blackberry and redcurrant fruit flavours, a slightly salty, umami character and a fresh, citrusy finish. Serving with a light chill comes highly recommended, as it does for all of the Monte Rio wines.
The project is a labour of love, blood, sweat and tears, and a lot has gone in to producing these hand-crafted, off-the-wall wines. Patrick works hard, learning from Pax and applying their shared philosophy to the project:
“I’m the only employee in the winery – this isn’t a glamour project for an old sommelier, every bit of my DNA is in these wines”.
“I work every harvest and Pax doesn’t let me get away with not doing things, I have to do them myself. But ultimately it’s great to make wine with someone’s that an awesome person and also your friend”.
This combination of friendship, hard-work and the knitting together of the past and future of Californian wine makes the wines of Monte Rio something quite special. Read more about the project and the wines on the producer page.