Interview with Winemaker Ben Papapietro of Papapietro Perry Winery

Can you share more about your background and how you got into wine? Prior to your wine career, I know that you worked in San Francisco in the paper industry? Tell us more.

Yes, I worked at the San Francisco Newspaper Agency from 1965 to 2003, 37 years. I come from an Italian family. My paternal grandfather always made wine in his basement and when he passed away, I received some of the winemaking equipment, which was outdated but kept me thinking that I would someday take on the responsibility of winemaking for the family. At 18, when I started working at the newspaper, I was making a good salary. By the time I was 21, I could afford to drink some great wines and had friends that enjoyed wine as well. One of my friends worked at the wine shop in the Cannery, down in the Embarcadero, which had a fabulous selection of wines from around the world. We drank many Burgundies from the 50’s and 60’s and that turned my head. At the newspaper, I also worked with a friend, Burt Williams, who started Hacienda del Rio Winery and eventually changed the name of his winery to Williams Selyem Winery. We often tasted wines together and then as he started his winemaking, I was there to taste his trials and his first vintages and eventually help out during crush. That was an exciting time.

How did you know that you wanted to be a winemaker?

Lots changed when I married in 1976. We purchased a home, eventually started our family and had to think of the children’s education. My disposable income was disposed of so I had to come up with a way to continue drinking great wine in a way that was affordable. After helping Burt Williams during harvest in the late 70’s I knew that I would eventually try winemaking on my own and finally decided to start making wine at home in 1980. I purchased some grapes from Wine & The People, in Berkeley and that’s how it all started. In 1981 I purchased a wine press from Burt Williams when he bought a bigger one and each year increased my production.

Can you share how the brand Papapietro Perry Winery got started?

In 1985, another friend from work, Bruce Perry, was trying some of my wines and wanted to join me in my winemaking adventure. I realized it would be much more affordable and lots more fun with a wine partner. We decided to increase production, especially pinot noir, although, there was very little planted in the Russian River at that time so we made different Bordeaux blends and Zinfandel. It wasn’t until the late 80’s that we were able to get our own pinot noir sources. We then focused on Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. In 1997, Bruce kept pushing me to become a bonded winery since we received many accolades and much encouragement from friends and family who loved the wines we were making. 1998 was our first bonded vintage.

What is your winemaking philosophy?

It took me almost 20 years in the basement to perfect my style. I wanted to be consistent every year as much as was possible. I didn’t like that some wineries were trying to recreate themselves every year with mixed results. Consistency is key in my winemaking operation. We work very closely with our growers to get the best results possible from the vineyard. Then inside the winery, we interact carefully and gently with the grapes. Our wines are unique since we do everything by hand. We ferment everything in one-ton food grade bins and “hand punch” at least three times a day. We use the same barrel regiment as well as yeasts each year.

As a winemaker, you taste (and spit) lots of wine, what wine do you feel bad about spitting because you love it so much?

I do lots of tasting and spitting. It’s a necessary step that comes with the job! I never worry about spitting because I am always able to grab a bottle when I am not working.

What was one of the biggest mistakes you have made in your winemaking career?

My biggest mistake was not starting the winery sooner, maybe 10 years prior, although we have been in business going on 23 years this coming harvest.

What is your favorite after-work drink?

My “go to” is mostly wine, which I like to drink while cooking dinner, however, I am not opposed to a cocktail once in a while. Cocktail time usually includes a Negroni.

What is your favorite local spot in Dry Creek or Healdsburg?

We have so many wonderful spots in Dry Creek, Healdsburg and Windsor. We live in an amazing part of the world where food and wine are king. There are so many talented chefs, and my favorite places to go are where the chefs use locally farmed products.

Tell us something that would surprise people about you?

I originally didn’t want to go into the wine business. I was very happy being a bootlegger  sharing wine with friends and family and having my own stash of great wine to drink. In my 37 years of service at the Newspaper, I was active in my union, holding many offices including President and Secretary-Treasurer of The San Francisco Newspaper and Periodical Drivers Union Local 921. Our team negotiated our first contract for a “30 years of service pension regardless of age ”. That was earthshaking at the time and is not so common these days either. I am proud of the fact that I was able to represent hard-working labor union members. Now, in the wine business, I am very conscious of how to treat all our employees with the true respect they deserve.

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