Sacramento, wine city

How four local ‘hidden winemakers’ embody the region’s national clout

Stuart Spoto, pictured left with wife Christy Spoto, turned his father’s decades-old home winemaking business into a successful commercial venture.

Stuart Spoto, pictured left with wife Christy Spoto, turned his father’s decades-old home winemaking business into a successful commercial venture.

photo by lisa baetz

As Sacramento’s food, beer, cocktail and coffee cultures continue to gain stride, it can be easy to forget what a wine city this is, too. Just like with farms and ranches, there’s no city in America more centrally located for good vineyards and wineries. The Sacramento Home Winemakers Club is considered one of America’s best.

But oddly enough, there aren’t many familiar local wine names, beyond national figures David Berkeley, former sommelier to the White House, and Darrell Corti, a Vintners Hall of Fame member.

That’s partly because there are only two wineries in town—Revolution Wines, whose winemaker, Craig Haarmeyer, has serious cred in the wine industry, and Rail Bridge Cellars, which is overseen by longtime Sacramento wine figure Michael Chandler.

But four other local winemaking professionals have major impacts on the regional, and national, scenes: Peter Franus, Sean Minor, Rod Moniz and Stuart Spoto. Let’s call them the Hidden Winemakers of Sacramento.

The Napa insider

In the national-class wine culture of Napa Valley, Peter Franus is an insider’s secret, one of the more respected, if unheralded, Napa winemakers, with three-decades-plus of experience and connections. The Peter Franus Wine Company is acclaimed and sold internationally.

But in Sacramento, where Franus has lived for a decade with his wife, Deanne, he is simply a secret, in part because he works hard traveling and selling in those places.

“It’s a slow process,” Franus said by phone recently from the Dallas airport. He’d just visited restaurants and shops in Arizona and Texas and was headed to Louisville. “We just want people to taste our wine.”

His Facebook is plastered with posts from adoring fans in places like Tokyo or Prague, and he often asks them what they want from wine. “They want it to be delicious,” Franus said. “Imagine that.”

Franus is a wry guy with a casual, seen-it-all confidence. When it comes to California wine, he almost has seen it all.

Franus started in Napa in 1979 after a Fresno State viticulture and enology degree, then took over the winemaking at Mount Veeder Winery in Napa in 1981. He also worked with Franciscan Estate Winery, then launched his own label in 1987.

His years in the valley and his easy disposition helped him find vineyards that, he says, “speak to him.” His most prized is the Brandlin Vineyard on Mount Veeder that has 90-year-old zinfandel vines. Franus’ Brandlin zin is another Napa-insider treasure.

Franus leases winemaking space at Laird Vineyards in Napa and produces 5,000-plus cases a year. Besides his well-regarded cabernet and merlot, he makes some highly praised but less-common-for-Napa varietals like Albariño and the Brandlin zinfandel.

Franus and his wife, like many successful vintners, spend lots of time traveling, meeting trade and regular wine drinkers, and seeing the sights.

“We were just in Amarillo,” Franus said. “We saw Cadillac Ranch and the painted Caddys buried nose first in the ground. There’s got to be some metaphor in that for selling wine on the road.”

The national figure

In mid-March, Sean Minor was on the East Coast, tending relationships and rolling the dice on the region’s brutal winter storms. After a tasting in Manhattan for restaurant and wine shop buyers, he drove to Manchester, New Hampshire, for another tasting, then headed to Portland, Maine, for a kickoff celebration. (That made the 50th state where his wines are sold.)

Winemaker Sean Minor travels extensively to bring his selections to sommeliers and shop owners.

Photo courtesy of Sean Minor

Temperatures were solidly below freezing and snow piled in drifts. Minor’s trip was what he jokingly calls “pick and shovel” work—calling on some of the 8,000 restaurants and stores that carry Sean Minor Wines. That’s how he’s grown into a successful national brand, by pouring for sommeliers and shop owners one relationship at a time.

Minor makes nine wines and sells more than 100,000 cases a year. That makes him a serious success, especially for someone operating on such a personal scale.

That also makes him a romantic, working out of the limelight and connecting his wine business back to his family in Sacramento. He started with an unromantic finance degree at Arizona State (where he met his wife, Nicole), got on with Beaulieu Vineyards in Napa and fell for wine. He was general manager at King Estate, Oregon’s largest wineries, then returned to California to manage Renwood Winery in Amador County. He launched his own brand in 2005.

“I saw an opportunity to produce wines that could exceed expectations,” he said. “At that time, to find a varietally correct wine for Tuesday or Wednesday night, you had to spend $30 to $35.”

Critics and restaurant people praise his wine. “I have to make approachable wine,” he said. “I’m selling to restaurants that don’t have cellars to age them.”

Minor’s finance background helped him figure out how to do that, along with years of connections. He found very good vineyards, and avoided owning a winery.

“The brick-and-mortar costs kill you,” he said. “A bottling line is very expensive and you use it 80 to 90 days a year.”

So he rents space in Napa, stays out of the big retailers—which often require large marketing expenses—and visits restaurants and shops around the U.S. For him, that’s the scale where wine still has romance.

“That’s how you connect to the people who drink it, and connections are part of what makes wine special,” he said.

The négociant

Rod Moniz says one reason he’s survived the wine business—without getting too touchy-feely about this—is that he knows himself.

“I’m a control freak,” he said. “I’ve learned not to do anything I can’t have my hands on.”

That’s also why Moniz Family Wines, which are sold around California restaurants and in markets like Nugget, Taylor’s and the Sacramento Co-op, don’t have a tasting room.

“I’d want to be there constantly,” he said. “I already work long hours. I promised my family, ’No more.’”

Moniz is what’s called a négociant. He buys wine from wineries he trusts, or has wines made from vineyards he knows, then tastes and blends to get what he wants.

“I’m like a chef,” he says. “I don’t grow the spinach or the beef, but it’s my recipe.”

He did help grow California’s wine business. He got a business administration degree from San Jose State in 1978 and ended up managing Jerry’s Liquor & Deli in Los Altos. The owner got sick and said, “You want this place?” At age 22, Moniz was a business owner. And although people weren’t drinking much fine wine then, Moniz made it a wine shop.

Rod Moniz got his start managing a liquor store in Los Altos. These days, his Moniz Family Wines can be found in many California markets.

photo by lisa baetz

“That was the time of Blue Nun, Lancers and Mateus,” he said. “I couldn’t give chardonnay away.”

When the wine industry started growing, he became a wine distributor—the store hours were killing him—then worked the same hours. But he also learned wine.

“To understand good wine, you have to taste a lot of bad wine,” Moniz said.

In 1991, Moniz and his wife, Cindy, moved to Rocklin to escape Bay Area costs and pace. He worked as a distributor until he launched Moniz Family Wines in 2007.

“I mapped it out on paper and convinced Cindy it could work at 1,000 cases,” Moniz said. “I hired a consultant and tasted with him. He said, ’You don’t need me. Your palate is good,’ so all those years paid off.”

Moniz’ flagship wines are two cabernet blends named after his daughters Olivia, 9, and Alexandra, who’s at Cal Poly and turns 21 in September. She might also be headed into the wine industry.

These days Moniz makes about 1,800 cases a year and wants to stay that size.

“If you grow,” Moniz said, “you have to take on more people expenses. I like where we are. I like everything I make and everyone I call on.”

The winemaking legacy

Stuart Spoto started making wine with his father, Henry, more than 30 years ago when Henry was becoming one of California’s most respected home winemakers—one of the very few to earn a Wine Spectator magazine spread.

So in 2004 when Spoto decided to start commercial winemaking, he had a top-notch resource. And what did Henry tell him?

“Don’t do it,” Spoto said. “He said it’s a really tough business.”

That was the only wine advice Spoto didn’t take from Henry, who at age 83, still helps with crush. (So does his mom, Lenore, his wife, Christy, and both daughters, Alexi, 27, and Ari, 24.)

“I tried to be smart and not borrow money,” Spoto said. “I kept my job (as a chemical engineer) the first five years. But things started clicking when I did this full-time, hitting the streets and selling.”

He also got some help from the alphabet. At the Oakville Winegrowers annual trade and media tasting, Spoto Wines (which come largely from vineyards in that prized Napa region), sets up in alphabetical order next to Screaming Eagle, one of the world’s most expensive wines. Spoto gets noticed by the spillover traffic.

“People go, ’Wow, your stuff is good,’” Spoto said. “And it’s one-seventh the price of your neighbor.”

Spoto is a small producer—about 500 cases a year—but he makes big-time wine. His showcase Oakville cabernet goes for $125 a bottle and sells out to restaurants and fans in a couple of months. His “winery” is a small facility connected to his house in Arden Oaks, where he also does tastings and events.

Spoto’s grapes come from prime wine country. He has a long-term lease on specific rows in a vineyard shared by some of California’s most storied wineries, including Paradigm, Far Niente and Opus One.

Spoto also is also a regular at Oakville Winegrowers meetings, when some of the best-known winemakers and vintners in California bring a bottle of their wine to share and talk shop.

“I can’t tell you how nervous I was sitting at the table with that group the first couple of meetings,” Spoto said. “Now they’re asking me questions, so I gotta be doing something right.”