THERE WAS CERTAIN POETRY in the moment I arrived at my table at Spago at !e Ritz-Carlton Hotel
in Bachelor Gulch last week to find a bottle of Bonaccorsi Pinot Noir set between stemware, ready for pouring. While Spago’s enthusiastic sommelier, Jason Hunter, had placed it just minutes before our arrival, the appropriateness of it being served on this evening, in this place, had its roots in a story that had begun 20 years before, in a land long ago and far away. Los Angeles, to be precise. In the Bonaccorsi wines are made with passion and precision in Buellton, in Central California, at the small winery operated by Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi. With help from her only employee, Martin Arredondo (“It’s just myself and one other person,” she says almost apologetically when asked about her staff), she crafts some of the most exquisite Central Coast Pinot Noirs using grapes sourced from many of the regions finest and most famed vineyards. The 3,000 or so cases of wine she produces each year also include a generous amount of Chardonnay and “a little Syrah.” That Syrah is something I look forward to trying.
I first became aware of the Bonaccorsi Pinots when her Colorado distributor/evangelist John Salamanski of CS Wine Imports poured me a glass of the Santa Rita Hills bottling
a couple of years ago during a Pinot Posse tasting here in Aspen. He told me a bit about Jenne at that time and her story instantly resonated. She was supposed to join the Posse in their tour of Colorado this year, a spring event that sees great West Coast winemakers gallivant through our state’s boomtowns,
pouring wines and making friends. Unfortunately, a bug picked up on her culinary adventure in San Sebastian, Spain, the week before the Posse convened precluded my saying hey to her in the flesh.
Undeterred, I resolved to pen a piece at a later date. So it was that I arrived to find Jason Hunter’s generous offering in Bachelor Gulch. Coincidence? I think not.
The Bonaccorsi wine story begins in Southern California a couple of decades ago. It was time, Jenne laughs, when “there were no cell phones and the restaurants had three non-smoking tables and 50 smoking ones. You couldn’t give away reservations at the non-smokers.” How times have changed.
It was also a time when there were a plethora of great chefs
and amazing kitchens in Los Angeles. People like Michael McCarty, Ken Frank and Jonathan Sedlar. And, of course, there was a young Austrian who had brought excitement and show business to fine dining in a town that revered both. Wolfgang Puck had started wowing the L.A. glitterati at Ma Maison and took it to another level when he opened Spago, first on Sunset
Boulevard, then in Beverly Hills.
Jenne Lee was born to work in this environment. “I was the kid who watched the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child. I had a subscription to Gourmet from the time I could read,”she remembers. The times and the City of Angels were perfectly suited to her tastes, and she worked in a number of the city’s top restaurants before taking over as maitre d’ at Spago in 1993, one of L.A.’s most powerful positions. It was there she met her future husband, Spago’s wine guy Michael Bonaccorsi.
To call Michael Bonaccorsi a “wine guy” is like calling Sandy
Koufax a “ballplayer.” During his time at Spago Michael was one of the most knowledgeable and well-liked sommeliers in the country. He was just the 20th person in America to pass the
Master Sommelier exam and was well known for generously counseling and mentoring young winemakers.
Jenne and Michael fell in love at Spago and were married in Burgundy. Living the culinary life to the extreme they were determined to produce their own wines. “We went everywhere
looking for just the right place,” Jenne recalls. “The Russian River, Oregon. And then on our way down the coast we stopped and saw the vineyards here. It was perfect. Close enough to our ‘day jobs’ but with great soils and climate. We were so fortunate to find the Central Coast.”
In 1999, the pair made their first wine, a Chardonnay, and they were hooked. !ey began contracting for grapes from vineyards like Melville and Fiddlestick, Cargasacchi and Bien Nacido. Places that are revered today for the quality of their fruit. “Back then we would just try and find the best grapes. People outside of the area didn’t know the names of these great
vineyards like they do now. Again,” she emphasizes, “we were really lucky.”
For four years the couple kept an exhausting lifestyle. Jenne would start her days in the vineyards, seat guests in Beverly Hills in the evening and then return up the Pacific Coast
Highway to wine country in the wee hours of the a.m. “I can remember actually having to pull off the side of the road to nap,” she laughs, as though that were a humorous predicament.
Alas, luck can be a fickle thing. In January 2004, Michael tragically and suddenly passed away. Alone, Jenne was forced to choose a path. “We never went back, Michael and I,” she
says, “we always went forward. I think my choice was simply to follow in the same direction.” While they were partners, Michael was, in fact and action, the “wine guy.” “He was the force” is how Jenne describes him. So to get up to speed she threw herself
into a crash course in the process of making, and the business of selling, wine. “I called everyone, consultants and everyone in the business.”
She cut back production to get a handle on things and make them manageable. Soon she had a plan and began to make better and better wines. Today Bonaccorsi is making some of the top Pinot Noir in a neighborhood that is know for them. And she loves it. “On the Central Coast the wine world is so small. We
all know each other and help each other out.” It is a nurturing place.
While she makes a number of vineyard designates, Jenne is
determined to not get caught up in a names and labels game. Her sole focus is on making the best wines possible with the grapes she has available. “Sure I could a make a single vineyard wine
and sell it at a much higher price,” she says. “But if the fruit blends better with another lot from another vineyard that’s what I’ll make. It’s about making an amount of wine that is great. If
money is the main factor you can get away from that.”
So how would her late husband Michael like the wines his eponymous company is making: “I’m sure he would like some of our wines. But he loved really fruit forward wines. He was as happy with a Ridge Zinfandel as anything,” she laughs.
From my view, Michael would have cherished Jenne’s wines and nothing would have made him happier than to see a challenged winemaker persevere through adversity to succeed beyond all expectations.
I really enjoyed my Bonaccorsi Pinot at Spago in Bachelor Gulch. Thanks to both of them.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soonto-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.