Grapes in their veins
The Bertagna family continues to branch out into Butte County wine country
With three wineries and roughly 35 acres of accompanying vineyards, the Bertagna family has one of the biggest winemaking operations in Butte County.
But sitting on picnic benches with Berton Bertagna on a recent early morning and surveying the winemaker’s south Chico property—a small patch of grapes for his Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards dwarfed by the acres of nut orchards surrounding it—it’s apparent that the scope of the Chico farmer’s operation goes far beyond just grapes. All told, Bertagna estimates that he farms about 1,000 acres on properties from Chico to Artois.
Still, the wine operation of Berton and his wife, Carol, is a significant and foundational part of the local wine scene, and that part of the business is growing fast. Already established with their popular Bertagna brand, a few years ago the couple—along with Toby and Jennifer Leonard, who have since sold their interest in the business—purchased retired local winemaker Lou Cecchi’s Long Creek Winery in Oroville. This past January, the Bertagnas opened the Almendra Winery & Distillery in Durham.
“All three are very unique, not only in the property but also the wines,” Bertagna said, explaining that each property has its own characteristic terroir. He also plans on keeping the wineries as separate labels, since doing so contributes that many more unique wineries to the region.
“It shows people what we can do up in the North State,” he said. “It’s becoming a little more of a wine destination. People want to see where their food, where their wine, comes from.”
The experience is a big part of the Bertagnas’ focus. There’s an impressive tasting room at the Long Creek property and the sprawling grounds feature a creek and a maintained pond. “The property is just magical,” he said. And the new Almendra facility, the operation of which is overseen by Carol, is especially geared toward the customer experience. In addition to being the tasting room for both Bertagna and Almendra lines, the gorgeously refurbished Durham property—with handcrafted wood features and chandeliers in each room—hosts live music on the weekends and is available to rent for events and special occasions such as weddings and bridal showers.
With the growth of these kinds of customer-focused wine venues on the rise, Bertagna said the next step in Butte County’s evolution as a wine region would be to get an American Viticultural Area designation, which would put it on the radar of wine publications and even more tourists. He pointed to the surging popularity of the wines of the Lodi area, and he has hopes for the same kind of renaissance for this region.
“We’re getting a lot more people coming through [Butte County wineries], and people are saying, ‘Wow, this is really good.’”
Bertagna is a fourth-generation Chico farmer. His great-grandfather Natalio Bertagna came to the Chico area from Italy in 1918 and started with a 5-acre farm, growing almonds as well as grapes. But any wine made from his modest crop was for pouring at the family table only.
The Bertagna farming operations grew with each successive generation, with Berton’s grandfather Ben starting the family down the road of production farming. It wasn’t until the year 2000, at Carol’s urging, that Bertagna started thinking about adding winemaking to the business.
“[She said], ‘Berton, what the heck, you’re Italian. Why don’t you grow grapes and make wine?’”
So he started teaching himself how to make wine, leaning on fellow local winemakers like Cecchi and Phil LaRocca for guidance. The couple opened Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards in April 2007, and in the beginning, the winery was just the two of them, with Berton making wines and Carol handling the business side.
As the wine business grew, the Bertagnas naturally brought in more people, notably current co-winemaker Connor Vasquez, who started as an intern and now works closely with Bertagna making wines and now spirits with Almendra. The chief product made from distilling wine is of course brandy, which Bertagna will eventually offer once it’s had time to age. In the meantime, this week Almendra will release some other varieties of wine-based spirits, including Frost, a clear unaged distillate as well as two infused varieties, one with local mandarins, Grove, and one called Harvest with toasted farmstead almonds.