Cana's Feast, formerly Cuneo Cellars
Aims for North/South,
International Wine Offerings”
By Christina Kelly Avalon Editor/Writer
Gino Cuneo of Cuneo Cellars doesn’t want to be labeled only an Oregon winemaker, even though he produces Pinot Noir in a new winery in Carlton, OR.
In recent years, Cuneo, who spent 25 years in the restaurant and seafood industries, has turned his attention to producing Northwest wines, Bordeaux blends and Italian varietals. His Northwest wines blend fruit from Southern Oregon (Del Rio Vineyards) with grapes grown in Eastern Washington (Ciel du Cheval and Taptiel vineyards from the Red Mountain area).
As a result of his new focus, Cuneo wines are turning out to be tasty, stylish blends with backbone at terrific prices for consumers.
The key, says Cuneo, is blending grapes from the North and South.
“We get great color and extraction from the Red Mountain (Washington) fruit,” Cuneo said. “We have to watch the tannins—we don’t want to bury the fruit.
More About Cana's Feast formerly Cuneo Cellars
“With Southern Oregon fruit, we get big, plush and beautiful wines, but we have to make certain we get the structure, the acid levels and the right extraction level. We don’t want a flabby wine—we want a wine with a strong core and backbone that is luscious.”
His regional blends have “the bones and flesh” of good wines, he added. For that reason, Cuneo says he thinks of himself as a Northwest winemaker, taking the best of both Washington and Oregon.
Cuneo’s family comes from Liguria, Italy, one of the smallest regions stretching west in a narrow ribbon along the coast from France. Ironically, the name Cuneo is a large province in Italy, famous for red wines such as Barbera, Barbaresco, Barolo and Nebbiolo to name a few.
Andrea Cuneo, Gino’s grandfather, made homemade wine for the family. It eventually prompted the younger Cuneo to make wine as an amateur in the mid-1980s. When the seafood industry took Cuneo, his wife Pam and their four children to the Seattle area, Cuneo turned his homemade wine operation into a commercial venture, producing 125 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon.
It was 1989, and Cuneo was drawn to commercial winemaking like a thirsty horse to water. His children were growing up and he had discovered a career that suited his culinary interests and scientific curiosity.
His speech is peppered with the enthusiasm of those bitten by the wine bug. Gregarious and outgoing, the winemaker talks with intensity about wine and his search for Cuneo Cellars’ place in the wine world. He is drawn to the industry by the process, and the artistry, using left and right brain skills.
And, in the early years, he sought winemakers who would share techniques and skills with the hungry beginner.
The late Cliff Blanchette, then owner of Hood River Vineyards, mentored Cuneo for four years before the Cuneos purchased a winery facility (the old Hidden Springs Winery) and 5 acres in the Eola Hills, near Hopewell, OR.
“I had access to some incredible fruit in the Northwest,” Cuneo recalled. “It began the whole genesis of being a Northwest wine producer. I began making wines that had a Northwest expression—expressing the land, the climate and the latitude, everything.”
Those who have worked with Cuneo see a change in the quality of his wines over the years. Rob Wallace, owner/manager of Del Rio Vineyards in Southern Oregon, said Cuneo purchased grapes during Del Rio’s first harvest in 2000.
“I think his wines have improved every year,” said Wallace. “He’s very serious about winemaking. He spends a lot of time in our vineyards. He enjoys the viticulture practices and likes to research. When it comes to the vineyards, he is very focused.”
Jim Holmes, owner of Ciel du Cheval Vineyards in Eastern Washington, said he has two acres dedicated to Cuneo Cellars for Sangiovese. Altogether, Cuneo has about seven or eight acres of fruit at Ciel du Cheval, including the first certified commercial Brunello clone for Sangiovese in the United States. Holmes and Cuneo are experimenting with different clones of the Sangiovese grape.
“He has been surprisingly successful with those varietals,” Holmes said. “The fruit is dark, dense, black and thick. It’s been fun working with him.”
Cuneo Cellars owns no acreages, but has long-term contracts with growers in both states.
Cuneo Cellars produces red wines under two labels, Cuneo and Cana’s Feast. Under the Cuneo label, the wines are approachable and ready to drink, although can be cellared for a few years. The varietals include a Two Rivers Bordeaux style wine, Two Rivers Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Nebbiolo.
The Two Rivers blends come from the Rogue River in Southern Oregon, and the Columbia River that borders Oregon and Washington. Cana’s Feast is reserved for the best of each vintage. The name refers to the wedding feast in Cana, where Jesus was reported to have turned water into wine. These wines include a Red Mountain Bordeaux blend, a Del Rio Bordeaux blend and a Pinot Noir Cuvee G.
In a recent tasting of Cana’s Feast 2000 Del Rio Vineyard Bordeaux blend, and the 2000 Red Mountain Bordeaux blend (neither out on the market yet), the terroir of each region shines in the wine. As expected, the Red Mountain blend is beefy, more angular, bolder and dense. It is a big wine that could easily cellar for five to seven years
The Del Rio Bordeaux blend has plenty of fruit—plum, black cherry and blueberry notes in the mouth. It is plush and juicy but again, a big wine that could be cellared for a few years. Both wines carry a high alcoholic content, at 15 percent, but the wines don’t taste highly alcoholic, just very structured and balanced.
“For years I made wine that worked well with food and did not overwhelm,” Cuneo said. “However, I’ve had to keep an eye out on the market, and it dictated the (desire) toward bigger, more extracted wines. That’s what these are.”
Both wines have black fruit flavors with a bit more oak than previous wines. They are well crafted and are priced well below what this wine could sell for.
The winery will release a Syrah under the Cuneo label around Thanksgiving.
Expansion of the Winery/Wines
The next step, said Cuneo, is to produce more Italian varietals from the two Northwest grape-growing regions. He already has small crops of Sangiovese in Washington and Oregon, and Nebbiolo at Del Rio. He also has a small patch of Barbera at Ciel du Cheval and is discussing Barbera with Del Rio.
“This industry is young enough that you can almost do anything you want,” Cuneo said. “You can still be a pioneer in certain areas. Of course, you do so on the shoulders of the guys in Oregon who spent years dedicating themselves to Pinot Noir.
“I think there is a tremendous opportunity for Italian varietals in the Northwest and there is a niche for it.”
In the past few years, Cuneo took on several partners to help expand the winery. He went from 1,500 cases three years ago, to about 6,000 cases today.
Martin Barrett, a partner with Cuneo since 1995, said he liked Cuneo’s food friendly wines, but knew little about the wine industry. He mostly advised Cuneo in business matters.
“We agreed that I would not tell him how to make wine, and he would at least listen to my business counsel,” Barrett said.
In 2001, Cuneo built a new winery just across from the new Carlton Winemaking Studios. The building was inspired by wineries Gino and Pam visited in Tuscany and Piemonte, Italy.
Made of earth-toned stucco, tile and stone, the winery looks as though it was plucked out of an Italian countryside. And, like Old World hospitality, Cuneo puts out a spread every once in a while to die for. The winery currently sponsors a “Tuscan Grill di Cuneo Lunch Al Fresco” monthly, with Italian foods that pair well with Cuneo wines.
Gino Cuneo realizes some industry insiders think he may have lost his mind by producing Italian varietals as the hottest new Northwest wine, but he quickly points to the Pinot Noir pioneers who brought a new industry to Oregon decades ago.
“There were many who told people like David Lett, Dick Erath and Ponzi they were out of their minds to try Pinot Noir in Oregon.
“I feel like I’m right in line with those folks who lost their minds,” he chuckled. “It’s good company.”
Author Christina Kelly worked as a newspaper reporter on the West Coast for more than 20 years covering education, public safety, government, business, environmental issues, entertainment and minority affairs. During the same time, the Washington native began her lifelong interest in wine. After two decades in the news reporting business, Christina decided it was time to concentrate on her passion – the wine industry. She is our indispensable staff writer and columnist.
From the winery:
"Cuneo Cellars is a small, family owned winery dedicated to making exceptional red wine from the Pacific Northwest.
Limiting our production allows us to use traditional handcrafted winemaking, which enhances varietal and regional characteristics.
Producing only small lots also enables us to be extremely selective in vineyard sourcing, which has resulted in contracts with some of the finest vineyards in the Northwest. From the warmth of Eastern Washington and Southern Oregon come Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, all which are selected and combined for our Bordeaux-style blend. The Italian varietals of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are also being produced with fruit from these, our warmest sites. Our Pinot noir is estate-grown from the oldest vineyard in the renowned Eola Hills, located in the Willamette Valley of Western Oregon. This much cooler site has proven to produce world class Pinot noir.
Our wines are produced under the "Cuneo" label. In exceptional years our best wines are given the coveted "Cana’s Feast" label.
Gino was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, and was graduated from U.C. Berkeley. He was in the restaurant business for ten years as a waiter, chef, manager and owner. For the next 15 years he was in the seafood business, primarily the shrimp industry, in marketing and importing.
From an early age Gino had a strong interest in winemaking. His grandfather made wine for many years. After a move to the Northwest, Gino started making wine on an amateur basis, inspired by the prospect of working with first class fruit and the relative newness of the wine industry in the Pacific Northwest.
It didn't take long for Gino to develop a strong interest in professional Winemaking. By 1989 he was making wine on a small commercial scale at Hood River Vineyards in Hood River, Oregon. He worked for four seasons under the tutelage of owner Cliff Blanchette, one of the pioneers of the wine business in Oregon.
In September, 1993, Gino and his wife Pam purchased a winery facility in the Eola Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley and named it Cuneo Cellars.
In 1995 Martin Barrett joined Cuneo Cellars as a partner. Martin is the former president of Supra Products in Salem, Oregon. Martin and his wife Beth live in Seattle, Washington.
In 1998 John Hall, Ken Knight joined the winery. John Hall is a sales and marketing executive in Portland, Oregon. Ken Knight is a real estate developer, business consultant and former Dean of Seattle Pacific University’s School of Business in Seattle, Washington.
Del Rio Vineyards
The goal of Del Rio
Vineyards is to develop an ultra-premium quality vineyard in the
Southern Oregon’s Rogue
Region. The vineyard setting will be beautiful, clean and crisp and
professionally developed, reminiscent of any of the great wine growing
areas of the world.
Varieties planted include cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, sangiovese, malbec, nebbiolo, Grenache, chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot gris. Also under consideration are other Bordeaux, Dijon, Spanish and Italian varieties that will thrive in the Rogue Region.
The first phase includes 2.5 acres of cabernet sauvignon and 1 acre of merlot, established in the Spring of 1997.
The second phase includes 1 acre of cabernet franc, 2 acres of cabernet sauvignon, and 0.5 acre of merlot, established in the Spring of 2000. In addition, 0.5 acre of Malbec will be planted in Fall of 2000 and 1 acres of petit Verdot will be planted in Spring of 2001.