Pietro Buttitta, Prima Materia Wines
Day Job: Archestratus Food & Wine Consulting, San Francisco
Well where to begin. Pietro is, despite his hesitation, an artist. He is a philosopher, a ruminator, an analyzer, a thinker. While being in the outdoors and being physical may fill his soul, it is the (a)lone act that allows his brain to process the way it naturally wants to.
One of things we talked about at length in our interview was the idea that because there is such an information overload these days, curiosity is being lost. Having all the answers at our fingertips has numbed our social questioning and instead produced a new kind of antipathy that feels less angry and more lazy than the ecclesiastical antipathy of my gen X youth. This makes me truly sad and wonder if that is true, what the next step of the journey is. For Pietro’s tasting room, but also, for all of us.
Maybe in all our efforts to take the fancy out of wine and make it “accessible” what we have also done is remove some of the wonder from it. Maybe we have said too many times, “Hey, if you like it, drink it, wine should not be snobby.” And it shouldn’t. But it should be respected and marveled about and inspire discourse and wonder. I mean, Pietro farms his ten thousand vines by hand and crushes using an old hand press. This is not just a labor of love but an experiment, a testament.
If we have lost our interest in asking questions and learning more we will also lose our belief in magic, and our desire for connection. Well not me. Not today. And not with these wines, or this guy. Pietro makes me want to ask a million questions and dig deeper and connect more. I hope he, or someone, or something, inspires you in a similar way.
I grew up on a vineyard, so I have an agricultural connection to Sonoma County. My grandfather liked to buy properties and resell them. I grew up on 40 acres, half of which were planted to grapes for bulk wine in the 70’s. We had Carignan and French Colombard. I was in the Russian River Valley before it was the Russian River Valley. As a kid, I had a lame home life so I actually liked being outside. My father taught me how to prune, and sometimes I could go to school late when harvest ran long. I liked that.
Living on the farm only lasted about six years, then there were divorces, bankruptcy, and splitting apart. Bla bla bla, I finished high school. I was always into food. Even as a kid I liked cooking. I liked growing vegetables. I didn’t realize these two things would converge in parallel. I had a broken leg three times in high school, so no PE. They would just stick me in the library and for some reason I would sit and read the Great Chefs of the World Compendium. I remember the first time I opened the French one and it featured Provence and classical recipes like aspics in eggs with truffles. I was hooked. My parents were not great cooks, and we never went out to eat due to money. After reading all the steps I would get home and occasionally do little baking projects, but I didn’t realize that cooking was any sort of pursuit, otherwise I would have done it earlier.
I bumbled around into my late 20’s. I did a lot of politically/socially motivated stuff. I am still pretty anti-capitalist, but that’s a whole other thing. I was briefly a philosophy and history double major at Portland State University, but you can only go so far with it. I tried living off the land, trying to stay off the grid and not be part of the problem. It was pretty clear that it wasn’t leading to anywhere good. I’m not really creative enough to write the next great American novel.
Still, when I was living in these group households of like 12 Marxists or whatever, I would still do most of the cooking and most of the cleaning. They would procure the food, and then I would cook it, and they would clean up. In my early 30s I got married and eventually started paying for a house, which is terrible, because that was right when I started cooking. I was making $11 an hour as a line cook, which does not pay a mortgage very well.
In my fourth year of college I realized I was not enjoying it. Maybe half my brain was enjoying it half wasn’t, I am a very 50/50 split. I like the analytical stuff, but I need to get out and go for a run. I like the artistic stuff, but I like to know the chemistry. I always have that kind of tension.
I got into cycling. I was racing pretty seriously and started going around the US trying to decide if I was going to take out a license to go to Europe. I realized that I was 29, I wasn’t going to be getting much better. Some friends suggested cooking. This also corresponds to the start of the Food Network and chefs are suddenly popular, it was 1999 and 2000. I tried to just apply to kitchen jobs, but I didn’t have any experience. I ended up going to culinary school, that was how I got my first job. Interns get jobs pretty easily. From 2000 to 2007 I was doing kitchens sous chef jobs. Most of the places I worked at are closed now, mostly up in Portland. I worked at Terra in St. Helena in Napa Valley. This was great. The kitchen ran well, it was busy. The plates were good. It wasn’t too overwrought.
I had been promised an executive chef position at a place in Portland and it wasn’t happening, the chef was a burnout, and I was essentially running the place but he wouldn’t leave. I was also veering towards divorce. The house, the hours, I was just feeling a lot of pressure. This vineyard is in Lake County, it’s a family piece of property. My father had planted two acres of grapes on it. He needed help and I needed a break, so I took that opportunity to go up.
Grapes have always been part of what my Sicilian family has done for the last few generations. They like light farming, but made a little money in other ways. They like to work kind of hard and be authentic, but not too hard. They weren’t farmers. My great grandfather migrated out here and set up little import stores. He would make a little bit of money and go to the next town. My grandfather kind of did the same thing except he was maybe a little bit smarter, and worked less. He was good with numbers, but bad with farming, he just wanted to be successful and sit and play cards with the white guys at the golf club someday. So there has always been a link to wine and growing grapes, but nothing high quality, nothing being done with any philosophy or beauty. It’s more like this psychological stability thing over time. We got this property up in Lake County. My grandfather paid for it. He put in a little bit of Barbera and Primitivo. I was helping him out while I was working at Terra in Napa Valley as a cook. We planted some vines and I really liked being out in the sun and being physical. I thought, how can I put this together with the cooking thing. I went back to Portland, did another winter in Portland rain, and decided I needed to learn to be in wine. I went and got a job at a wine shop. It wasn’t a great wine shop, but I would sit and read all day when it was slow. I would sweep the shop and then go through my tasting notes. I started developing a little bit of a palate, and that was awesome.
I didn’t know what my next step in wine could be, and I thought, hey I have this family property. It’s got nine acres we can plant. I know I don’t know much about the wine business. But it seems like we should be able to sell a little bit of wine and pay for things as we go, which is what we all think until the reality hits.. I just jumped in. I was going back and forth from Portland, I’d go down to California for two weeks. I had stable part time prep jobs. I could go to a kitchen and say hey, I’m in town for two weeks. You want me to come in in the morning? I did that for a couple of years until I just decided that I was done with food and going to start the label and trying to get the whole thing going and continue planting because that’s where I’m really learning.
The last 10 years, it’s pretty much been all wine. I started Prima Materia in 2016, but I was still working full time as well. I was doing restaurant consulting. I got the tasting room open in the beginning of 2019.
At the vineyard I do all the canopy management. It is 10,000 vines. We planted Italian varieties because we are Italian, and my aha wine was Nebbiolo. I am committed to Nebbiolo. Plus, I like tannin. I’m a texture guy. Nebbiolo is something that on paper should not work at all. Like it should be an abomination, it has high acid, high tan and low body. It’s all things that are wrong, but somehow the internal metaphysical nature comes out and it is amazing.
We are acid challenged in Lake County, partially because of climate, partially because of very acidic young volcanic soils. We get lots of potassium loading. I planted five different vineyard blocks with four different clones to make an intentionally constructed wine, some aromatics here, tannin here, acid here, and hope that everything kind of comes together which it seems to be doing pretty well.
When I started making wine I read a lot. There were some key people I asked questions too. I think coming from the culinary side, the main element is developing a palette and working backwards. I love walking other people’s vineyards, I learn so much seeing what they’re doing or not doing.
I love vineyards and making wine. I’m kind of an outsider to the wine industry. I come at it from this very sort of bottom up perspective. Now that I’m understanding the business a little better, I’ve got lots of plans, like, how would we scale this into 5000 and then 15,000 cases? And what is the stability point? That would be longevity in a way. I’ve worked for restaurants that are on the verge of closing for years and years. It’s not fun. I lost a lot of hair. I’d like to say we’ll make 5000 cases in three years, but honestly, I’m not sure how to scale it, given that it’s just a bunch of duct tape pieces and moving things by hand.
Right now we make around 1500 cases, for a heavy crop for 10 acres? Probably 1200 is the new normal.
So far this year, I picked everything myself by hand. Getting pickers was really hard because the pear season actually ran into grape harvest and everyone makes more money working less hard in the pear sheds. It’s like restaurant workers. I want all my line cook friends to make $30 an hour. I just don’t know how to make it work.
The marketing shift is hard for me because I’m going to be 50 this year. I’m a traditionalist. I have never been good at marketing. I don’t take pictures. People like the fun side of wine, but I tend to gravitate towards the more serious thing, the more analytical side of things. That isn’t really sellable. I don’t want wine to be this inaccessible thing either, I think that’s wrong. I’m in a quandary as to what would be authentic for me and somehow dovetail with what a certain segment people want within this price range?
The tasting room is in an urban area. It’s shifted a lot in the last two years. We’ve had a lot of gentrified infill in Oakland, big apartment buildings, which on paper was great for sales, but it has been problematic. On paper, I love the area with the shift to younger kids. During harvest, I have to hire people to help in the tasting room. New people need to know everything, learn everything and be able to answer any question. For the last person I hired, it was seven weeks before she got a single question about a wine.
People want to hang out, enjoy the outdoors, they bring cards, which makes me a little crazy . They treat it like a coffee shop. I try to make Negro Amarao or Refosco sound interesting. What I’m seeing is people just don’t care. There’s just no curiosity. That’s really the weirdest part of all this. I used to field questions all day about acreage and how I made the wine. Now it is more like, “Oh, it says sustainable. They’re doing weird grapes. We’ll do our tasting and then leave.”
I haven’t raised wine prices in years but my tasting prices have gone up like 3x. You see these San Francisco Chronicle articles about the price of wine tasting going up but they’re not getting the full picture. Why is this happening? Nobody wants to say I’m not selling wine. So I’m tripling my tasting price. It’s a really interesting moment. I have no idea what’s around the corner.
It’s a postmodern world. There’s so much information everywhere, it’s an overload.
Before this year, despite COVID, sales grew, like most people, there was a bump. Even though the tasting room was closed, and the world was ending, we still grew 20%. And then in 2021 we saw a 32% sales increase. I was actually getting to the point where I thought, maybe it’s time to start looking for a partner if this trajectory is going to continue. The world changed again. Somebody decided to eat a bat from China and the whole world changed. This is the first year ever we are down. I’ve learned there’s only so much planning one can do.
Once you plant a vineyard, you don’t want to walk away from it. Everything is done with the idea that it will be better in 15 years, maybe dry farmed. I do need to find either some outer experience to bring into it or a partner to help shoulder the load, mainly so I can concentrate a little bit more on the things that bring me joy. I am getting better at confronting what the future will possibly be like. I’m definitely not ready to walk away from it. The wines are still getting better. As long as the wines are getting better, I can live with it.
50% Sangiovese and 50% Nebbiolo, this vin gris style wine is palest of pale. There are notes of melon and nectarine. It is this lovely balanced palate that is at once full and linear. A food wine that begs to be gone before dinner.
43 cases produced.
One sip of this wine and I am transported to my apartment in Florence, I just got a pizza. Don’t come over, I am taking my pants off. This wine is a deep love affair with Italy. 4 clones planted in different soils ensure that this wine hits all the notes just perfectly.
240 cases produced.
A righteous testimony, this Nebbiolo blend is made from one barrel from 2017, five from 2018, and four from 2019. There is deep cherry, raspberry and cinnamon. This wine should age 10 years, or at least be allowed to open for an hour or two before enjoying.
200 cases produced.