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World-Class Wine—In O.B.?

Upstart urban winery Gianni Buonomo wins double-gold in America’s largest wine competition


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Gianni Buonomo on Newport Ave in Ocean Beach.

“If you remember 2008, not a lot of people were hiring,” says Keith Rolle. “I’ve got a masters in International Management, and that’s pretty soft. I needed to get some kind of trade. So I said, OK, I’ll be a winemaker. At least I’ll be able to make $10 an hour. I chose the one in Walla Walla, Washington. I had to go back and take organic chemistry at 47 years old.”

After graduating, Rolle, an O.B. native for 20 years, decided to open a small-dish urban winery on Newport Ave in February 2016. And now his $10/hour is all but guaranteed. Two of his wines just won double gold and bronze medals in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Covering both the Napa and Sonoma wine regions, the Chronicle knows a thing or two about good wines.

Rolle had never entered a competition before. It cost too much money for a small maker. He had to send too much wine for the judges to sample. But a friend convinced him to enter two wines. Both won, including a double gold (the second-highest award, only lower than Best of Class).

I always expect winemakers to be billionaires playing with, and drinking, their excess money. Not a terrible pursuit. Just lacks that scrappy, D.I.Y., artist vibe. When I first saw Gianni Buonomo pop up in O.B., I didn’t like the branding. It has a fedora as its logo. Fedoras are what rich men wear to theme parties. Figured this would be a rich dude making mediocre wine for his friends.

Finally, about a year ago, I ventured in and met Rolle. I tried his wines, and—holy god—they were excellent. Some of the best I’ve tasted in the city. When I heard he’d won these awards, I called to apologize for being the kind of journalist who waited for him to win awards to do a story on him. So I peppered him with some questions.

 

Why O.B.?

I founded the Baja California Language College in Ensenada, and had a good 20-year run with that. It’s still in operation, but then the drug violence turned it into a total shit show down there. I lived in O.B. for 20 years, so it was close to home. We’ve got a pretty good demographic in Sunset Cliffs. So, what the hell.

 

You won double gold with Charbono. What the hell is Charbono?

It came over to the U.S. in the late 1800s to Napa. Big wineries like Inglenook and Parducci planted this stuff outside of their front door. They thought it was Barbera, so they sold it as such. They were winning year after year after year for best Barbera. Then in 1938, UC Davis did genetic testing on it and found out it was actually Charbono. They said, “OK, shit, we’ll call it that." And they sold out. They created a Charbono society. But in Napa, Cabernet is king, and Charbono got jettisoned to the outer regions. There are only 70 acres of Charbono left in the entire country and it’s all in California. I went looking for Barbera, and stumbled on this guy who said, “Hey, I have have some Charbono.” I flew to Sacramento the next day. He had planted it in the early 80s. I was proud to report back to him that his grapes won double gold. He was stoked. He’s like 90 years old. I sent him some of the wine. The wine that won was aged 20 months in French oak and bottle-aged for a year.

 

 

So he sends you grapes and you make the wine?

He’s sending me numbers with the PHs and the sugar content. And I determine the pick date. I go to Placerville. He hires a crew. We pick the grapes, sort through the grapes, and put them on a refrigerator truck to O.B. Double gold was aged 20 months in French oak. And bottle aged for a year. I think it’s all been about that quality.

 

You won bronze for Blaufrankish. Same question. What the hell is it?

A very cool grape. Back in the late 700s, 800s, Charlemagne chose this blue grape for his people so the Huns wouldn’t have access to it. It’s like the Pinot Noir of the east. Low alcohol, thin skinned, light to medium body. I get this grape from south of Yacama in Washington.

 

What’s next?

There are a lot of people on the peninsula who think they have to travel 500 to 1000 miles for wines they don’t even like, but they’re expensive. I want them to know I make world-class wine in their backyard. The business model is to have 500 wine club members. We’re not looking to expand production. The facility can produce 1500 to 2000 cases. Here that’s nothing. But I don’t plan on doing retail or Vons or Costco. I’m selling out the front door. Hoping two years it’ll be wine by subscription.

 

How are you celebrating?

We scheduled a Charbono Fest for the last Saturday of April at the winery. We’ll have tri-tip and chicken and fun.

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