Los Banos Winemaker brings his dad's dream to life

By Thaddeus Miller / tmiller@losbanosenterprise.comJuly 26, 2012 

It's the little things that keep Nathan Cardella up at night.

"The decisions you're making now are felt in a year and a half when you're starting to sell the wine," the 33-year-old said.

Cardella started making wine on the family ranch in 2004, the same year he founded Mendota-based Cardella Winery.

A Cardella employee will attend the Aug. 3 Wine Stroll in downtown Los Banos with the company's moscato, sura and ruby cabernet.

In the middle of 3,000 acres of permanent and row crops sits a little piece of Italy. The winery, a future bed and breakfast, a patio, cobblestone pathways and buildings made in the style of Tuscany, Italy, were Cardella's father ideas. He wanted to bring a piece of his ancestry to the family ranch.

Within the wine industry, San Joaquin Valley grapes are seen as second rate to those of Napa Valley, Cardella said. However, about 75 percent of California wine grapes come from the Valley.

"You've got all these vineyards, all these grapes, yet you got so few wineries," Cardella said.

So, he set out to prove a premium wine can be made with San Joaquin grapes.

Cardella's great-grandfather, Carlo, moved in 1902 from Italy to Firebaugh, where he opened a fruit stand. His grandfather and father, Reno and Ron, combined to buy the family ranch. They first planted grapes in the 1970s.

To be a better businessman, Nathan Cardella studied enology at California State University, Fresno. He wanted to know how to talk to grape buyers, but decided to put his knowledge to work as a vintner.

"My goal, as a winemaker is to make a complex glass of wine," Cardella said, adding that winemaking begins in the vineyard and can be tweaked throughout the process.

Cardella said he approaches growing his grapes in two fashions. There are the high-yield crops, which he sells to big wine producers, the kind of place that churns out 100,000 cases in a year. Then there are the premium grapes he grows for his own wine.

"It costs me probably about 50 percent more to grow the grapes I'm making my wine out of than the stuff that we sell to the big wineries," he said.

The premium grapes get less irrigation, are pruned aggressively and cleared of leaves that may block sunlight. Beginning in August, he tastes the grapes daily as he is first looking for the "absence of green" -- that flavor you find in a still green grape, banana or any fruit -- Cardella said.

Wine grapes in the San Joaquin Valley are typically harvested about three weeks earlier than their counterparts in cooler parts of the state.

The grapes are harvested by hand, Cardella said, so he can leave out the less-than-optimum fruit.

"It's extremely labor intensive and extremely expensive, as you could imagine, but it's necessary," he said.

Harvesting the grapes in two segments two weeks apart, using a variety of yeasts, fermenting at different temperatures, aging in oak barrels from different European countries and filtering as little as possible go into making a wine with a complex flavor, Cardella said.

"I'm trying to make one grape multiple different ways, so that I have multiple different wines," he said, "so when we blend it back, I have all those subtle differences in the final product."

After a crew picks the fruit, Cardella and an assistant handle the rest -- all the way down to bottling by hand.

Cardella said he is up to 3,000 cases a year, and doesn't want to get bigger than 5,000.

Cardella plans to build a new winery, complete with a tasting room and regular business hours, on the family ranch next year.

At times, making all those little decisions can be stressful, Cardella said, but there is a payoff.

"There's no better feeling than producing something that someone enjoys," Cardella said. "Just like cooking, you know, you make a great meal and everyone gawks over it and you feel great."

The Wine Stroll is planned from 6 to 10 p.m. Aug. 3. Ten Sixth Street businesses will offer dessert, hors d'oeuvres and wine.

Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanosenterprise.com.

Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanos enterprise.com.

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