Pietro Buttitta of Prima Materia Brings Italian Soulfulness to Lake County

Winemaker Pietro Buttitta had reached what he calls a “meltdown point” working as a chef in Portland, Oregon. Years of long nights inside windowless kitchens had finally taken their toll. Childhood memories of playing and working in the fields of his grandfather’s farm would flood back to him, making him long for a renewed connection to agriculture.

Buttitta missed being out in the sun, carrying irrigation pipes and driving a tractor through fields that were full of grapes, plums and apples. And so, coming full circle, he converted his father's 12-acre vineyard in Lake County, California to mostly Italian varieties, drawing inspiration from great nebbiolo wines, and began using his culinary palate to figure out what would work in the location.

He named the winery Prima Materia after choosing a theme of alchemy, a seemingly magical process of transformation, as in making 'gold' out of raw materials. “Since we grow our own grapes, the name Prima Materia made the most sense without being too esoteric,” says Buttitta who strives to capture a distinctive, old world style within the parameters of California’s Lake County terroir.

The Lake County appellation is situated next door to the Napa Valley yet has a very different climate. It is much warmer and lacks the coastal influence that its more famous neighbor basks in. Lake County has mostly been known in the past for its bulk wine production, yet a new generation of winegrowers are beginning to figure out what the area’s different microclimates are capable of. These quality-minded producers are making smaller volumes of elegant wines, like those of Prima Materia.

Buttitta’s vineyard is located in the Kelsey Bench AVA at 1500 foot elevation; its red volcanic soils are mixed with rock and fine sand and are planted with 13 varieties, mostly red, including Sangiovese, Aglianico, Negro Amaro and Nebbiolo. Here, the warm days are moderated by cool nights which preserve the acidity of the grapes, slowing the ripening process and enhancing the flavor and complexity of the wine. The cold winters and dry summers enable Buttitta to farm his vineyards without the use of synthetic chemicals.

We caught up with Buttitta during lunch at Tessa, an Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, to taste the wines and learn more about this up-and-coming winery.

Lisa Denning: Can you give me a brief history of your winery?

Pietro Buttitta: Yes, it starts with a vineyard. We have a small family piece of property. It was purchased in 1990. I was living up in Portland at the time. When I grew up, my family was in farming, sort of on and off. My most formative years, ages 4 to 12, we had a 42-acre piece of property that my grandfather had purchased, 20 acres of grapes on it. Prunes, apples, all sorts of other stuff, but wine was the important thing. Of course, back then it was the '70s, so it was red or white. We had French Colombard, Carignan, some 80-year-old Golden Chasselas vines. Even as a seven year old kid, I was fascinated by these incredibly gnarled, grizzled, old vines out the back. I didn't realize until later in life, I actually like the agricultural yearly cycle. There were a couple of times that I'd start school late because harvest was running late. Things were a little different back then. But I really liked being out in the sun, working, carrying irrigation pipes, learning how to drive a tractor, stuff like that. That cycle sort of clicked with me.

But I didn't think about it for a long time, went to Portland, did various things, went to school, had a growing urge to start cooking. Eventually in 2002, I found my way into kitchens. I was racing bicycles, been going to Portland State for philosophy and history and just needed to start some adulting stuff. I had always wanted to cook. I don't know why but for some reason I was fascinated by, I can't remember the series at that time, Life Great Chefs or something like that—it was all French galantines and aspics and truffled eggs. I had never eaten them. We didn't travel. I've not been to France, but as a child, I was mesmerized by that artisanal, classy sort of stuff. I can now understand it kind of in the same way that agriculture has the same sort of hands-on, here's the product, here's the development, sort of thing. So, eventually I got into kitchens, started cooking and climbing that ladder. In some ways, a beautiful environment in some ways a terrible job.

Eventually, waiting for an executive chef position, I hit the meltdown point and decided I needed a break. Then catching up to that 10-acre piece of property. My father had moved up to it in 1990 or '91 and he had planted a couple of acres of grapes. I think he had the same sort of comforting connection to agriculture that I have, so it’s a peculiar family circle there. So I took a break in 2007. He had started making a little bit of wine. I went up there during harvest time and was able to use my culinary palate to start figuring out, something's wrong with this barrel or something's really good. Why is that? I helped with harvest and in 2008 actually hands-on making the wine. I was back and forth from Portland a little bit at that point. And taken my first wine retail job, so I was tasting and developing a palate and starting to understand that Pinot Gris from Alsace is not the same as Pinot Gris from Oregon which was really exciting to be able to start plugging that into the product.

In 2009 I started talking to some other growers. I didn't go to Davis or anything like that but I'm okay with a little bit of chemistry and understanding tannin and acid. And then just how do we get from point A with the vineyard to point B in the bottle? Because I was involved in both sides equally, that started making sense to me. So I started changing up vineyard practices, started planting a little bit more. Eventually I put in from 2013 and up, Nebbiolo, Sagrantino, Refosco, all the Sangiovese, things that I had developed a palate for. Not everything works in the climate but like the Sangiovese, I planted five different types, sort of envisioning it as a constructed piece where it had some tannin, acidity, floral aspects, things like that. And then the Nebbiolo I did the opposite way. Like I randomized all the clones so that, I wouldn't know. I wish I hadn't done that now, because it's one of the ones to be harvested about 10 days before the other ones, but that’s how you learn.

Sort of just plugging in my understanding and by being hands-on, and that's been full-time now for 11 years. I took a one-year break in 2014 and went back to kitchens and did restaurant consulting. Right before I started Prima Materia I had to decide what the future could be and this whole venture and how I could create something viable. So I'm still learning the business in real time, all the time, of course. For me, I wouldn't be able to do this in the same way if I was buying grapes. I like being in the vineyard. Don't get me wrong, I buy grapes from many locations, but it makes me insane to buy other people's grapes. There are things I want, like I really wish I had some Schioppettino in the lineup or something like that and there's no way I could grow that in the county. So that will never happen. It's just part of the full circle of learning that keeps me so fascinated.

If it was just the winemaking, which I mean a day when I can get to barrels and do blends and things like that, that's amazing. But it's sort of like a right brain left brain thing where they compliment each other. Someday I'd like to have another vineyard in another location, different climate, more hillside, rocky type stuff. Of course like most winemakers would, but it's hard for me to envision it without growing grapes. A little bit old world in that style, which ends up being part of the overall je ne sais quoi of the label, which is a little bit traditionalist, but also in my own tradition.

So for the most part, I’m a one man operation. My father lives next door and helps with the vineyard management, but I do all the canopy management and there’s nobody to help with the wine work. I have people working in the tasting room in Oakland and pickers to help pick since I’m on the tractor and physically running things to the winery. Last year with the labor crisis we picked a lot of grapes ourselves and some friends came and helped me.

Can you tell me a little bit about Lake County, where your vineyards are located and the terroir of the place in terms of its natural environment?

Lake County is really interesting and it's starting to really expand. It's basically a continuation of Napa Valley. So it’s the same two mountain ranges, but Napa Valley is actually larger and goes over the Vaca range right down to the back and that's where you plant a lot of grapes on the backside because they're cheaper to grow there, and the real estate is much cheaper. So Pope Valley is one of those famous areas, but it's basically two mountain ranges running as California does, sort of northwest.

And so there’s Napa Valley and then Lake County is immediately on the border, right there continuing north—literally a continuation. The difference is that the main driver in Napa Valley is that you have the San Francisco Bay, which keeps the southern end of Napa Valley cool, and then it gets hotter as you go north. So it's sort of backwards that way. Calistoga is the hotter place. So Lake County being a continuation of that does not have coastal influence. It's just too far from the bay to really suck in and get the sort of effects that Napa Valley does. So it is a warm area. It's a young soil area, it's all volcanic, all geologically recent uplift. In the middle of those two mountain ranges is the Mount Konocti volcano, which last erupted 19,000 years ago, which is not that long ago. It's still classified as a high danger and to geologists it's active. Most of Sonoma County's electrical power comes from geothermal all along the mountain range there and you can see steam rising up all over the place. It's cracks in the earth. Underground, it's very active. It's not Mount Etna fortunately, but it's alive for sure.

The lowest grape growing area, for the most part, and the main area is about 1,200 feet and 3,200 feet is the highest vineyard, which is where you get some moderation from the heat. We're kind of in the middle. So we're a combination of the Mayacamas mountain range, which is the more, well, not the more famous one in Napa, it's the sexier of the two. And then the Vaca range, which are slightly different geologically. I don't know exactly how the ages differ. But we're at sort of the collision point of those two things, and then with this third effect of the volcano, which is two miles away.

When I was digging out walnut routes, I would take out an acre of walnut trees and plant grapes; there are gravel stream beds that would bisect all of this clay that was pretty clearly washed down from explosions in the past. And you can kind of tell when you dig down that there was actual activity, which was amazing. The type of soil is forbesville, which is not very common, but it's basically one third volcanic sand, which is super fine, one third clay of different sorts, and then one third rock. So it's sort of a mix of the three. We don't have any limestone. We just don't have a seabed uplift. I guess a little bit in the Sierra Foothills closer to the coast, but we don't have any. So it's more similar to the Sierra Foothills with all the granite there and very rocky with very hot summers. Snow is not uncommon. We've actually lost a lot of vines due to winter freeze over the years.

Do you have much diurnal temperature change during the growing season?

Yes. Right now is a bad case cause we've been in this heat bubble. So it's 105 degrees in the day and 75 degrees at night, which is a little warmer than we would like. Normally we get a good 40 to 50 degrees when we get into fall, near harvest. When we're picking Barbera, we'll pick it at 40 degrees and it will get up to 95 during the day. So we get big shifts part of the year. Weather is changing all over. Now I'm wishing we had a little more coastal influence to cool things down, but it is what it is.

The lake doesn't provide any moderating effect?

No, the lake is interesting. We're at about 1,500 feet. If we were a hundred feet downhill, closer to the lake, we would be probably eight degrees cooler in day and then actually a little warmer at night. It's a very shallow lake and it sits on a solid rock bed which absorbs all the sunlight during the day and will actually radiate it back at night. It's a lot of Sauvignon Blanc from that area and you pick it nice and early and get all those exotic aromatics from it. It works really well for that, for Muscat, and bigger, rounder Zinfandel can work. There’s some good Cabernet, Merlot too. It's more blending than like hillside leaner, more structured kind of thing. But that's the thing about Lake County. If you go half a mile away, you can start getting hillside fruit, that's serious long lived ageable, lower alcohol, higher acid. All those things.

So Lake County is quite diverse that way. A lot of things and we're still just exploring. It used to be Kendall Jackson, Constellation, a lot of bulk wine production. And we're only starting to figure out now with all these little micro pockets and soil types and what these things are capable of.

Can you tell me about the grapes you grow? Are they all Italian varieties?

Not all Italian. Mostly though. So oddly enough, Chardonnay was the first thing planted in 1993, just because. It wasn't really envisioned as being like a big producer venture at that point in time. Primitivo and Barbera followed in 1999 to 2003. I would come down in the summer sometimes for a couple of weeks and help plant lines as well, just to take a break from Portland and get out in the sunshine, since kitchens are just like, no sunshine.

Aglianico was planted in 2003, which is important for us because this is one of those terroir matches that produces a big dark ageable wine. I knew for Nebbiolo (photo at left) it was not a perfect terroir. It's a little too warm. But I love Nebbiolo like most Italian wine drinkers do so I put in 400 vines of it and then I caught the Sangiovese bug. So I did Sangiovese, and also Refosco out of historical interest, and Sagrantino which has actually been, as it grows, another good terroir match, a little on the warm side, but it can take it. Negroamaro has done surprisingly well. Working at a wine shop, we sold Negroamaro for $13 a bottle. It was all over the board. Some of it was remarkably interesting. And a lot of it was like, molasses cough syrup. It was hard to tell if it really had much potential on its own. And it's actually our highest rated wine right now. Wine Enthusiast gave it the highest score of a new winery seen yet.

I've been just trying to keep it fresh and lively; once I tried doing your normal longer aging regimen, and I was like, oh, this is not the grape to be doing that with here. So the Negroamaro has actually been doing quite well. I added some more Barbera. And then there's a little bit of Petite Sirah, Grenache and Cab Franc. The Cab Franc just kind of disappears into other things. The Grenache, I actually really enjoy. It's our lightest red, some whole cluster. I planted it for rosé, so it's a very light clone. It's a Tablas Creek clone. We’ve got lots of heavier reds in Lake County because it needs thicker skinned reds. There's a lot of sunlight too. But the Grenache, which does well in the climate and takes the heat just fine, it's actually become one of my favorites. I only make two barrels out of the year but it's a nice compliment on the lineup.

And we have Dolcetto which is a mixed bag. We're a little too warm for Dolcetto. So I've actually been co-fermenting that with some of the Chardonnay skins. Actually I did two different styles, one full cluster, very tannic. I think the world of Dolcetto clones is still such a disregarded grape. Like everybody has it, but nobody's really looked at it. I know there's a Peduncolo Rosso bio-type that a friend has over in Mendocino county. It's still definitely Dolcetto, I've looked at it and tasted it. But it grows very differently. Ours is very tannic. I've been splitting it into different winemaking styles over the years, trying to figure out what works best. I'm still not totally sure, but the lighter, brighter, just tank and with a little bit of Chardonnay skin, then pressing it off early, has been a super success. More like a semi-carbonic style. It's actually been working the best for us. I got plenty of other big reds, Sagrantino, Primitivo and Zinfandel. Chardonnay is the only white and we still have two acres to plant. I would love to get some Fiano or Greco. Greco is fascinatingly weird to me. Falanghina would be cool, but that's more of a large production model with that. Otherwise I'd be interested. Have made Tocai Friulano a couple of times, Arneis and a couple of other things from Mendocino County.

Can you tell me your philosophy of winemaking?

Yeah. It's the normal minimalist thing. Minimalist for us means I pick up the lugs. I put them on the back of the tractor and move them to the winery. Very fast, small, basic equipment. When I make rosés and Aglianico and Sagrantino now, I move everything by hand. We don't have fancy equipment. There's no double sorting, but I go out in the vineyard the day before we pick and cut off any bird damage, any sunburn, things like that. I'm pretty committed to low-ish sulfur, preferably none at crush, and then going nine to 10 months without it. I've just found that it sets color. The wine is going to absorb more oxygen. It's sort of that ‘acclimate your children’ rather than protect them from everything philosophy. I'm making a rosé, I've got to be a little more protective, but a big red I'll feed it oxygen, and I see every break that goes in. So yeah, I try to minimize that.

A couple of the wines, like in the Slow Wine guide, I said that they were inoculated. It's because we have had stuck fermentations over the years. It's not, I'm not a fan of cultured yeast. You get very mono-directional stuff. So I'm trying to avoid that whenever possible. I'll use band-aids if I have to, but I really try hard not to.

Wines are all unfined, unfiltered. Aglianico goes 30 months in barrels, Sangiovese is 22, sometimes longer. I've got some five-year experimental barrels I'm still watching. I found that over time things clarify and stabilize. If you're going to have a problem, you're probably going to have it early. So I'm pretty confident without filtration. We bottle everything by hand because we can't get a truck in. We didn't think about this kind of stuff when we were pouring concrete, power wires and all that. So there's no way to actually get it up the driveway, under the wires. This is one of those things since I haven't worked at another winery. I've made wine for other labels, but I haven't thought about like, how do I turn a semi around in this space? It’s more like, oh, the tractor can just make this corner, so that'll work.

So I actually force the wines, at least all the reds into a pretty reductive state. So minimal racking, usually no racking, unless there's an issue. I want them to be oxygen starved when we bottled them, because there's a little bit extra oxygen ingress. Cause we're literally doing it by hand. And we've got a good system. We can do 300 cases a day, which is not bad.

Do you farm the vineyards organically?

We are not CCOF certified organic, so I don’t use the term organic but I don’t use any synthetic chemicals in the vineyards. It is a family piece of vineyard. We’ve sat around the table arguing about it - the vineyard was CCOF certified organic at one time. I would actually love to be biodynamic moving into the future; soil regeneration, organic matter. I would really like to be replanting native things especially since moving toward no till is important because we’re a hot climate and paying more attention to the soil. Minerality is the holy grail to me in a red wine so anything that moves the needle towards that down the road is what I would be doing. It’s just a matter of time and labor and making it happen. Going out and throwing compost under every vine with a shovel is a month long project. At some point we’ll do it but it’s bit by bit and we are getting closer.

I don’t call myself a natural winemaker although I’m all for it, the theory of it. I’m a mile from all the natural wine producers in Berkeley but it’s kind of a different thing but philosophically it’s pretty well aligned, it’s just my model is more classically oriented. I want my Sangiovese to taste like 1986 when they were just discovering it.. this mineral, gritty, particular texture is the goal for me. Whereas bright cartoon characters on the label is not my personality as much as I enjoy that on a label.

And how many cases do you make?

About 1,500, sometimes more. It depends on the vintage. I like doing projects for other people. So I did an off-dry Muscat for a winery in Missouri, some rosé for a famous Napa Valley place that just launched that I can't talk about and it’s going for a crazy amount, like $45. We have bottled wine for other people and then put their label on it. For the most part, we don't do that, but if I can get other projects and they're like, I want to do an oaky thing that's out of my comfort zone. That's how I learn, so I actually like those projects.

What have you noticed since you've started with climate change and how are you dealing with it?

This is the first real year where, at least in California, this is happening; this is a thing. So in 2019 we had premature frost in Lake County, which was not totally unheard of, but you know, Andy Beckstoffer lost a thousand acres of Cabernet that was 12.8% alcohol and he didn't sell it. So things have been afoot for a little while, definitely. But this is just heat-wise. And then of course we've had a couple of vintages with pretty serious fires. 2018 was our first year in Lake County, but last year was tons of smoke. I help manage another piece of property about five miles away and I've got smokey Mourvèdre sitting there in tanks that I don't know what to do with. As a side note, I do help out at a couple other vineyards. I love walking other people's vineyards and seeing what they're doing right, and what they're doing wrong.

So there’s now a lot of weird stuff and new pests in the vineyard and mildew is becoming sulphur resistant. There are now five different types of mildew and our normal treatments are starting to not work. I heard about a mutation of one of the wasp species that there are bad ones and good ones for grapes and one of those is changing. Red blotch is spreading. Anytime you have a monoculture you’re unhinging on the environment around you. The deer are eating all the grapes because there's no water and they’re so thirsty. Lake County does have a lot of water but it’s not a forever thing. We’re just lucky now.

So as far as what are we going to do about climate change, everything I've planted is on drought-tolerant roots with the goal eventually of dry farming. I don't know if that will happen. We've almost been able to do it with the Aglianico. We use pretty minimal water, but if we're going to keep having 115-degree days, there's only so much you can do. People are experimenting with misters and more vineyard infrastructure. Suddenly old California planting of 12 foot by 12 foot where vines have huge root systems. That starts making sense again in drought conditions and with excessive heat the vines can actually protect themselves a little better than all of this Bordeaux and Burgundy style micro-plantings to control regrowth. And I've done both. And the older school stuff seems to be a little bit more resistant. So there might be something to learn for the future there. Obviously picking earlier. It's challenging in Lake County just for me with the more tannic grapes I'm growing, the more serious ones. It's a shorter season. We start about two to three weeks after Napa Valley, because we're colder and higher and we’re trying to get tannin ripeness versus not losing acid versus phenolic development. So you can pick Aglianico at 12% alcohol and make an interesting wine, quick fermentation kind of thing. But you're not going to get a Taurasi that's going to age for 20 years.

So a lot of it's going to be like, how do we pick and choose what our goals are and stylistically. So I'm trying to keep as much acid and have as much tannic ripeness and texture, because I'm a texture person. Mouthfeel is really important to me, without it being rich. I want that Old World presence. So I edge up on tannin more than most people would. But yeah, how those pieces of the puzzle together are going to come together without having crazy alcohol or losing all your acid. That's a sliding scale and that's where every vintage is different right now. This year it's been crazy hot. The 2021, since it has been so hot, I'm not going to be able to go for full tannin development in the same way so these wines will be lighter. In 10 years, this Aglianico will be fantastic. I'm going to have to change the mindset based on what the weather's doing.

So part of the adaptability is on us. Aglianico needs very little water. That's great. You know, Zinfandel is fairly heat resistant. So we have a leg up on some things, but you also need your vines to be over 10 years old, to really start regulating themselves and we're starting to get there with some of these things, but older vines are another key to it. Stop ripping out those young vineyards. They have value as we go into the future.