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Va Piano Vineyard

New Walla Walla Winery Producing a Blessed Blend
by Christina Kelly, March 2008

Justin Wylie is a bit like the fairy tale about the tortoise and the hare - he moves slowly, and methodically, but in the end, wins the race, or as with his new Walla Walla winery, wins the appreciation of wine enthusiasts everywhere.

Wylie is the winemaker for Va Piano Vineyards, which literally translates to "go slowly" in Italian. It has taken him seven years to get his Tuscan-style winery off the ground but after years at a steady pace, Wylie released his 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah this year.

"It has only taken me seven years," he says with a laugh. "But I wanted to do it right, and I can finally see light at the end of the tunnel."

In addition to his two new releases, which sold like snow cones on a hot summer day, Wylie has a special project that blends art and winemaking together. Va Piano will introduce a new table wine with a familiar name for the Northwest. "Bruno's Blend" is a collaboration between Wylie and Father Bruno Segatta, a beloved former assistant dean at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, who ran the Spokane-to-Florence, Italy study program for 23 years. Based in Florence, Segatta left the university a few years ago when the administration revamped the study course, but he is well known in Washington, Oregon and California and often returns to the Northwest to marry former students or visit their families..

For the past few yeas, Bruno - as everyone calls him - has traveled to Third World countries, offering assistance by selling his paintings. But living a gypsy lifestyle helping to feed the poor didn't sell throngs of artwork.

Wylie, a marketing graduate of Gonzaga who participated in the one-year Florence program in the late 1990s, never forgot Bruno or the year he studied abroad. The 33-year-old recently visited Florence with his wife Liz, looking for inspiration to make a new red table wine. They hooked up with Bruno immediately.

"We were on a train talking to Bruno when it suddenly dawned on me how I could sell a declassified red table wine and help Bruno sell his art," said Wylie. "I told him we could call the red wine Bruno's Blend, and feature his artwork on the label."

With thousands of people touched by Bruno through the study abroad program, Wylie figured he would have a ready market for the blend, and help the priest fund his charitable causes. A portion of the proceeds from wine sales will help fund Bruno's outreach to needy families.

Through emails, Bruno said he recently took a personal journey to Africa and wound up selling some of his paintings to help a man raising his children and those of his sister and brother (both of whom died of HIV), for a total of 18 children.

"He is a great man and the tragedy is that he has a 13-year-old who is blind and in need of brain surgery," Bruno wrote. "With the money I got from selling my paintings, we bought rice and maize and a little bit of chicken meat and it was a feast for his family.

"Justin and Liz are making it possible for me to sell my paintings so I have the money to help feed a family and help heal a kid."

The wine is a blend of 73 percent Syrah from the Va Piano estate, 18 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 9 percent Merlot from Lewis, Cold Creek, Milbrandt and Seven Hills vineyards. The blends will change from year to year, depending on what is available and the label will change yearly to showcase one of Bruno's paintings of Florence, the Tuscan hills and other Italian cities.

For those who know Bruno, his connection to the Northwest wine industry isn't a surprise. He's been coming back to the states almost every summer to visit the hundreds of people who were touched by the priest.

"A lot of people have Bruno in their hearts," said Wylie. "He looked after a lot of people - kind of a mother hen with an attitude. I've never known a character like him."

Peter O'Connell is a former Gonzaga alumni who spent a year studying in Florence. A teacher in Montana, O'Connell describes Bruno as an inspiration to those who know him.

"There aren't too many people out there who can hop a train at a moment's notice to an unknown locale, befriend an otherwise hostile group of locals, share a meal and some drink with them, sleep on their otherwise private beach, toast the rising sun and still make it back to Florence in time to celebrate mass on the pillar of a bridge," O'Connell said. "Father Bruno's passion for living has been an inspiration for countless individuals over many decades - his unshakable optimism and compassion leave a lasting impact on all who are lucky enough to cross his path."

To this date, Bruno has sent more than 30 paintings to the winery to help fund his causes. Wylie has most of the paintings posted in his barrel and tasting rooms. His paintings fit the Tuscan theme of the winery building and this summer, Wylie hopes to have Bruno paint a fresco on one of the winery walls.

The Wines

Va Piano Bruno's Blend, the first release $21.55/#23.95 is a tasty wine, with black fruits and cherry in the mouth. It's a big wine that will work with beef and lamb dishes, as well as a flavorful pre-dinner drink. This first release is a blend of 74% Syrah, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon & 9% Merlot from Va Piano Vineyard Estate, Cold Creek & Seven Hills Vineyards.

Bruno's Blend is a full bodied red, packed with intense flavors of black fruits such as blueberry, blackberry and plum. Despite its youth this wine is showing well, if you can wait six months you will be amazed. Pair well with beef stew, lamb dish, tenderloin or even a cheeseburger.

Bruno's Blend is a non-vintage red wine. Each Blend will showcase a different piece of art by Bruno Segatta (Florence, Italy) Portion of the proceeds from the sale of this wine will go to Bruno's outreach from Africa to Italy by donating money to orphanages and families with special needs.

Wylie's Va Piano 2 003 Cabernet Sauvignon $35.77/$39.75 is also a beautiful blend of 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Merlot from his own estate vineyards, Seven Hills Vineyard and Lewis Vineyard - a blend between the Walla Walla Valley and the Columbia Valley. The flavors captured are full bodied and dense, with an exceptional mouth feel balanced by a polished tannin structure. This wine has intense fruit characters of black cherry, cassis and black licorice in the nose.

Taking his entry into commercial wines slowly has paid off for Wylie with a gorgeous Va Piano Syrah 04 $35.77/$39.75 as well. With the Bruno Blend added to his portfolio, he has scooted ahead of many new wineries who often put out their news wines on the market too quickly.

To kick off his new red table wine venture, Wylie will bring Bruno to the winery in July to do some painting and introduce the priest to the wine community. He is expecting Bruno to endear himself to the wine industry as he has with everyone he meets. He just doesn't know for certain the exact date Bruno will arrive.

"With Bruno, when you see him is when you see him," Wylie said, shrugging with acceptance. "He is so interested in everyone around him - you never know where it will lead him and where he will end up. And we he gets here, everybody will want to see him. He's like a rock star."

Bruno, Liz, and Justin in the Va Piano Vineyard

Bruno paiting in the winery
Bruno paiting in the winery

Bruno's Palette
Bruno's Palette

Va Piano's Winery Building
Va Piano's Winery Building

The Art for the First Bruno's Blend Label
The Art for the First Bruno's Blend Label

About the Author

Christina Kelly spent more than 20 years as a journalist for West Coast newspapers, covering everything from business to education to the environment. During that same time, she also discovered the joy of wine and food pairing and set out on a journey to learn more.

Six years ago, Christina began writing about wine and left daily journalism to pursue her passion. She has been Avalon's Staff Writer and Wine Columnist since 2000, covering the Northwest wine industry. She is also the Wine Columnist for Seattle Magazine and continues writing about wine for newspapers and magazines.

One of the most knowledgeable writers on Northwest wines, Christina provides insight into the wine industry, conversations with and profiles on Northwest winemakers, tasting notes and funny/touching stories that embrace a glass of wine. In a field crowded with many choices of wine, Christina provides the information consumers can rely on. Don't miss her columns and articles - it's a must read for the wine enthusiast.

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