PULLMAN, Wash. — Apparently you can take the Italian out of the Piedmont, but you can’t take the Piedmont out of the Italian; at least not in four generations of the Baritelle family.
The Baritelles were successful wool merchants who invested the family fortune in vineyards in the late 19th century — just in time for a devastating grape insect, phylloxera, to ruin them financially.
Augusto Baritelle brought his destitute family to the United States where his grandson, August, eventually bought a small walnut ranch in Walnut Creek. His grandson, John, grew up and acquired many old country values and culinary practices. Wine was served at every dinner and their vegetable oil was walnut or almond oil.
After a career in agricultural economics, John is back on the family farm pursuing a new career in the relatively new food artisans industry. In 1970 John’s father, August, purchased yet another walnut ranch in the Napa Valley. Here he planted 63 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard, which John now farms.
John also owns The California Press, which produces first-pressed, virgin walnut, filbert, pecan, almond and pistachio oils. He and long-time friend, Anthony Bell, are partners in Bell Wine Cellars.
The Baritelle/Bell partnership began in 1991 during an Italian vacation. While enjoying fine Italian terroir wines, they decided to produce them in California. Terroir is a philosophy that wine is grown in the vineyard and that the enologist is merely the steward of what nature put in the grapes.
Baritelle Vineyard and Bell Wine Cellars strive for an old-world balance between fruit, acid, oak and tannins in their hand-crafted wines. It is a concept that Baritelle now is applying to nut oils and vinegar.
“The idea,” Baritelle says, “is not to mess with nature’s flavor too much.”
Most edible oils and vinegar consumed by Americans are highly refined and lose the flavor they started with on the farm. Yes, even vinegar benefits from the delicate flavors obtained from mother nature. Baritelle says a lot of the vinegar Americans consume is actually made out of ethylene, which comes from natural gas.
Baritelle’s vinegar starts out with ripe fruit, such as plums or cherries, which is made into wine and then vinegar. “You’re not just tasting the vinegar,” Baritelle says, “you’re tasting the flavor compounds from the fruit.”
Baritelle and Bell are small operators on a world stage of food conglomerates. “We can’t compete with the mass marketers, and we don’t want to. We would lose touch with the customer and with hands-on quality control.”
Ironically, phylloxera, which drove the Baritelle family from Italy more than a hundred years ago contributed to the success of John’s vineyard today.
John explains that discovery of phylloxera in his Napa Valley vineyard nearly destroyed his fledging business. It cost more than $1 million to replant with resistant root stock. The silver lining was that when he was forced to replant, Baritelle had the opportunity to select new rootstocks of a Cabernet clone perfectly suited to the site of his vineyard. Replanting also allowed Baritelle to implement new strategies for vineyard spacing and management.
John has fond memories of his days at WSU. He and Ken Duft, now a WSU agricultural economist, were masters’ candidates at the University of California, Berkeley. Duft talked him into visiting the WSU agricultural economics department. He was impressed with the faculty and came to Pullman where he obtained his doctorate.
“I’m forever thankful that Ken suggested it,” says Baritelle. “It was a wonderful experience.” It was a diverse faculty with different views of the world that stimulated Baritelle. “Those faculty members turned out to be a great help in surviving in today’s world,” he says. “I think I learned that there are many ways to look at things and solve a problem. That was one of life’s most important lessons.”
Baritelle held a courtesy appointment in the WSU agricultural economics department from 1970-1980 while working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and had a temporary appointment as an assistant professor in ag econ in 1974. He received a doctorate in agricultural economics from WSU in 1973.
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