January 27, 2015 – Let’s skip all the unpleasantness of this particular journey and focus on the reward. John Benedetti, after years of wandering in the weeds and distractions of beer and betrayed brotherhood and languishing in the land of llamas, has finally landed in his happy place. It happens to be in Aromas.
In a humble, but well-maintained, warehouse, tucked behind a chain-link fence and hidden in a neighborhood of horticulture buildings reminiscent of a county fair, you will find a simple sign announcing Sante Arcangeli winery. With a name like that one expects seraphim and cherubim heralding your arrival. But there’s nothing more than the occasionally jarring sound of the break bell, a hangover from the time when this place hustled and bustled as a major chrysanthemum packager.
Owner of the complex, a charming Japanese gent named Tad, and his wife, Junko, grew chrysanthemums here for 30 years before retiring in 2014.
Tad offered the place for lease to Four Winds Growers and happily for Benedetti, the perfect situation presented itself just before harvest 2014. There was just enough space in one of the warehouses for John to set up his winemaking equipment and store his barrels. The arduous move took place at the end of July, giving him a mere three days before his first pinot grapes came in from Lester Family vineyard. But, he was home, at last! And he had built-in help: during harvest, Tad busied himself by shoveling grapes from the bins into the press, delighted to be an integral part of the process. John is equally delighted by the warm friendship they’ve developed.
Benedetti, whose great grandfather, Sante Arcangeli, founded Arcangeli Grocery/Norm’s Market, a gourmet bakery and grocery in Pescadero decades ago, had been looking for a place to land since he’d started the brewpub that ended up in the hands of a partner with whom he parted company. Meanwhile, Benedetti had been making wine at Beauregard, then on Summit Road, where the conditions were much more suitable for raising llamas than making wine, especially given the lack of climate control—pretty much a death sentence for pinot and chard. But all is now well in the cool chill of Aromas.
“I wasn’t looking for fancy,” says Benedetti. “I was just looking for functional. This place is clean, tidy and temperature controlled, and I can’t beat the rent. My money goes into barrels and grapes.”
Benedetti sources most of his fruit from Corralitos, where he lives with his family. The Split Rail vineyard, planted by David Bruce in 1986 with Champagne Clone 32, 115 and heritage clones known as “the David Bruce selection,” has become his home grapeland. Part of the now abandoned Clos la Chance backyard vineyard program, this ridgetop 4-acre vineyard has been in the expert care of viticulturist Matt Partridge since 2010. For Benedetti, it was a miracle to meet the owners Carl and Kelsey Taussig, who asked him to caretake they vineyard and make them wine. It’s a complicated relationship, but it works. In addition to getting all the fruit, both pinot and chardonnay, from Split Rail, Benedetti gets some pinot from Lester Family and Hicks, courtesy of vineyard goddess, Prudy Foxx, who manages both.
In 2014, the crop was really light at Split Rail and he found himself a bit short on fruit, especially on chardonnay. So he turned to Ian Brand for a chardonnay source. Peter Figge’s Pelio vineyard in Carmel Valley came to the fore, and Benedetti was so impressed with this totally white limestone strewn vineyard, that he was happy to obtain some fruit. Some is resting in stainless and some in barrel: Benedetti will choose whether to bottle it separately or to blend.
In the warehouse, there are two chilled lockers where flowers once rested before jetting off to places unknown. It turns out they are perfect for making Burgundian wines, and rosé, one of Benedetti’s absolute faves. He admits he’s guilty of drinking a lot of his own juice, as he prefers it with food. The 2014, currently resting in two neutral barrels, is nothing short of delicious, welcoming you with aromas of tangerine peel, sherry and rose petals, and dancing on the tongue with red grapefruit, currant, pomegranate and a hint of chestnut. This may well be the perfect breakfast wine. Benedetti refers to it as the perfect “gateway drug.”
This past season, he made rosé from pinot at the Aromas facility, and also up at James MacPhail’s place in Healdsburg. Long a fan of MacPhail’s eminently approachable yet somehow ethereal pinots, Benedetti sought advice from the master and was rewarded beyond his expectation with an invitation to make wine from one of the most coveted vineyards on the Sonoma Coast, Mardikian Vineyard. Planted in 2008, in one of the coolest reaches of the West Sonoma Coast, this vineyard also features heritage clones. They are already making a great showing in the 2014 barrel sample, where the raspberry chocolate truffle flavors are remarkable.
In fact, all the 2014s show immense promise: every single wine is on its way to brilliance, with standouts being the 2014 Split Rail pinot: the combination of heritage clones, including Martini, Wädenswil, Mt. Eden, Swan, 32 and Pommard 4, yields a highly floral aroma, and energetic flavors of red grapefruit, strawberries, red currant and baking spice. It’s a simply unstoppable pinot. He feels this latest vintage is even better than 2013, which he feels has 2012, a much-heralded year in winedom, easily trumped.
Acclaim for the current release of 2012s keeps rolling in for Sante Arcangeli. The 2012 Split Rail pinot was recently named to Wine & Spirits Top 100 list, and The Prince Of Pinot, just scored the 2013 Split Rail a whopping 94 points, calling it, “A delightful wine that is deep on the palate with an impressive attack of fleshy dark cherry, black raspberry and spice flavors complimented by a subtle vein of savory herbs in the background.”
Our tasting of the 2013 Split Rail pinot concurred with The Prince’s findings, as the beautiful structure and assertive viscosity were captivating. We also popped a 2013 Clone 32 pinot, a gorgeous electric raspberry color, and redolent of sour cherry pie. This fruity, lively wine grabs you by the throat with its amazing orange peel and pomegranate flavors, and every silky sip is layered with sumptuous spice and a backnote of basil, all balanced on a beam of acidity.
Benedetti hopes to obtain the necessary permits from the county by mid-year so that he can be open four times yearly for SCMWA Passport events. Meanwhile, his tasting room in Pescadero, at 216-A Stage Road, is open weekends, noon til 5 p.m., and Thurs – Sunday, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. There’s nothing quite like his awesome Split Rail chardonnay with the artichoke and chile soup next door at Duarte’s. Worth a trip!
Currently, tours of the Aromas property can be arranged with one week’s notice, by contacting John at email@example.com or 831.406.1262.
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.