Chiarito Vineyard

Chiarito Vineyard: Reverence for the Old Ways

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

I won’t say that John Chiarito should have been born in another time or place, even though he could have been. When I met Chiarito (pronounced kee-a-ree-tow) at his winery in Talmage, I was immediately struck by love of the best of the old Italian ways.

“My family came to this country from southern Italy. When I was a kid, we would spend every Sunday with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, eating great food and drinking homemade wine,” says Chiarito on his website introduction. “So, when I bought my land and decided to build my own home and create my own winery, I really felt it was a tribute to my grandparents and their way of life.”

Fatto a mano (everything by hand) is Chiarito’s motto. His orange and green label features a watermark of a hand. The original was drawn by his brother and the lithograph hangs over his fireplace. “Everything here is touched by hand,” he explains, the vineyard, the wine, the olives, the house and the bread.

On his windowsill is a photo of Larry Pacini, a grape grower and icon in Mendocino wine lore who lived up the road. “I love it,” he says, speaking with his hands as much as his voice, explaining how he learned to bake bread by watching Pacini, when he finally agreed to tutor him. Chiarito remembers being at a job site where he was building a house in Redwood Valley one day when Pacini called him and said he was about to make some bread. If he wanted to see how to do it, he had to come now. Chiarito stopped everything and zoomed back to Talmage for what he considered the most important lesson he was about to learn. It took more than three months of weekly baking and bringing his sample loaves to Pacini, who tasted and critiqued his products. Then one day, Chiarito’s olive green eyes light up as he says, “Larry told me ‘you got it.’”

Pacini passed away in the mid 1990s, but his bread lives on. Chiarito helps out at his friend Ari Rosen’s restaurant Scopa in Healdsburg and shared the bread recipe, which is listed on the menu as “Larry Pacini’s Housemade Ciabatta.” When Chiarito sliced a loaf still warm from the oven with its thick crust and airy crumb, I have to say it was one of the best breads I’ve ever tasted. With the bread, Chiarito served olives he cured from the trees he planted along the east side of his property.

He kept a border of walnut trees from the old orchard that was on this five-acre property he purchased in 1988. Chiarito worked 34 years in construction and still does a little building as he grows his wine business. In 1989 he started digging the foundation for the charming craftsman house that occupies what could be a contemporary Italian setting somewhere outside Naples, where it so happens his grandparents on his mother’s side were born. His father’s family was from an inland province, Basilicata. Chiarito’s 95-year-old dad, Americo, has corked every bottle and worked every harvest since the beginning.

Chiarito currently makes a total of about 600 cases of zinfandel, petite sirah and a couple of Italian varietals—Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola--. The grapes come from the acreage in Talmage and another five acres he manages off Lovers Lane in Ukiah.

Dressed in a sage shirt and blue jeans, the lean Italian-American looks much younger than his 56 years. As he shows me around his property I am constantly struck by his pointing out some antique piece of equipment like the 1930s plow he still uses to till between the vines, he dry farms on this benchland. Most of the three acres of vines here is in zinfandel with about two-thirds of an acre of Nero D’Avola, an Italian grape often described as the black grape of Sicily.

He buys Nero D’Avola grapes from other growers like Lowell Stone to make enough wine to bottle. Chiarito was the first to get permission to use the varietals Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola on a wine label in the United States. At a recent tasting of the Talmage Tasters, a 30-or so year old wine tasting group (of which I am a member), Chiarito’s Nero d’Avola beat out 10 Italian versions of the varietal as the favorite of the tasters, which includes winemakers and grape growers. “I was stunned and very proud,” he remembers.

It’s a slim harvest this year as the frost knocked off a nearly half of his zinfandel grapes on this sloping valley location. “I go through the vineyard a lot looking at every bunch for any rot or botrytis and toss those that aren’t perfect out,” he says.

We stop to check out the brick ovens he built, an upper one for pizza and the lower one for roasting whole pigs. He cooked pounds of Italian sausage and a porchetta—roasted whole pig stuffed with pork, rosemary, garlic, sage and fennel—for his wine club’s harvest party in September. A garden next to the vineyard sports squash, fennel, sunflowers and the last of the tomatoes.

We walk under a vine covered pergola, the Italian arbor that covers outdoor eating areas at many Italian and Italian American homes. A few steps away is the wine cellar where wine is aged in barrels and hanging prosciutto cures from the rafters. Arched iron doors open to the crush pad.

Keeping his love of all things Italian current, Chiarito travels to Italy every couple of years and meets grape growers and others who share their food and wine. He’s developed long lasting relationships with chefs and wine makers who trek to this side of the world and most likely feel right at home.

Chiarito has tools his grandfather used to make wine including an old adze for barrel making and pruning shears from Sicily. He shows me a well used old funnel saying, “when I was a kid I remember making sausages. All the meat was hand-cut not ground and we used the funnel to stuff the casings.”

Visiting Chiarito Vineyard is a travel back in time to the good things of life, to the hand made and the reverence for a quality so often ignored in the fast paced lives of most of us. As he puts it in his website introduction, “I like to think I’ve created a little bit of southern Italy right here in Ukiah.”

Tasting notes: Chiarito’s 2006 zinfandel is a lovely table wine, with an almost black color. Slightly peppery with blackberry aromas in its blend with petite sirah, it went perfectly with a homegrown tomato topped pizza rustica.

For more information on Chiarito Vineyard, contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission or

Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Ukiah Daily Journal on behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission.

Next week’s Wine Notes: Claudia Springs Winery

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