LONG BEFORE HE BUILT HIS TUSCAN-STYLE WINERY IN CARLTON, and before he lost the winery in a series of practically Biblical events, Gino Cuneo was struck by inspiration one night while lying in bed with his wife, Pam. It was 1990, and the Cuneos and their four children were living in a working-class section of Kent, Washington. Gino was forty-three and basically selling fish for a living, but his every thought had turned to making wine. What had started as a hobby now felt like a calling. Their three daughters asleep in the next room, their son downstairs in his, Gino rolled over and said to Pam, “We’ll call the best wine ‘Cana’s Feast.’”
It made sense on several levels. The Cuneos were devoted to Scripture. Gino and Pam had met at the Grace and Truth Gospel Hall in San Mateo, California, and both had been raised in religious homes. Cuneo knew from his childhood Bible lessons that Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding celebration at Cana, in Galilee, by turning water into wine. And not just any wine—Our best is in these pots, the master of the banquet said. For Cuneo, calling his finest wines Cana’s Feast would pay homage to the miracle without bludgeoning anyone with Christian doctrine; he would let his achievements do the proselytizing. “He who has ears, let him hear,” he liked to quote from Matthew 11:15, meaning don’t force yourself on people who aren’t ready to receive the Word. Naming these wines Cana’s Feast also spoke to Cuneo’s belief that wine is from God, and represents joy, and that being a Christian winemaker is no contradiction.
For nearly eighteen years, Cana’s Feast was the name of Cuneo Cellars’ ultrapremium wines. They won high marks from the likes of Wine Spectator, and Northwest oenophiles adored the wines for their deep-ruby color, their smoothness, and their bursting, red and black fruit flavors.
Then the brand came to represent more. In 2006, Cuneo’s financial partners—who came on board largely because of their shared devotion to the Christian faith—decided to renounce his name, first on the bottles and then on the business. “Cuneo Cellars” was quietly dropped; “Cana’s Feast” became the name of the winery. And in 2007, Gino Cuneo was asked to step down as the winemaker of his own winery. Wine blogs lit up with questions and speculation. Here was a vintner wine lovers had followed for more than a decade; who was making wines many other domestic vintners dared not attempt; who was known, and loved, for his commitment to quality and his emphasis on pairing wine with food—making wine-tasting a festive, social family event before wine tastings were en vogue. “If he’s bitter about what happened … he’s not willing to share it,” one person wrote last April on The Wine Knows, a Wine Press Northwest blog. “He’s not that kind of a guy.” Meanwhile, the winery, on its website, reported that Cuneo “stepped away from direct winemaking and production duties … to pursue his winemaking passion on a smaller and more focused scale.”
Well, yes. And no.
No one ever really got the whole story, because, until now, Cuneo never told it.
A Simple Wooden Table
At The Filling Station, a coffee shop in Carlton, forty miles southwest of Portland, Gino Cuneo nurses an espresso macchiato and chooses his words carefully. It is mid-October and the grapes still aren’t ready to pick in this unusually late, 2008-vintage season. The winemaker is wearing old blue trousers, New Balance sneakers, and a green long-sleeved shirt beneath a faded blue Joel Palmer House T-shirt. Gino is sixty-one but could pass for forty-five. He is trim and handsome, with long, wavy, silver hair, bright brown eyes, red cheeks, and small, almost delicate hands and fingers. He has a quick, easy laugh and a sonorous, pleasing voice. He inquires about my family and Italian heritage, and when he mentions Italian places or wines, names like Barolo, Veneto, and Liguria are inflected and given Italian pronunciations.
“Not everybody should be a partner; not everybody should be married,” he is saying. Cuneo makes it clear he doesn’t want to speak ill or name names, saying only, “There was one partner who I had serious issues with. He should have never been a partner.” He studies his coffee cup and finds the positive note he’s searching for. “What this whole experience taught me is that there can be great partnerships. That’s the redemptive point of all this. Partnerships can be tremendous. But you have to be very, very selective.”
The coffee shop sits practically at the epicenter of Oregon’s winemaking region. There are more than two hundred wineries in the Willamette Valley—the long, fertile expanse that begins near the Washington border and stretches south to Eugene—and at least twenty-four of them are based in or around Carlton, population 1,582. Ken Wright, who opened his winery here in 1994 after experiencing problems with his own partner in McMinnville, is just down the street. Scott Paul is on the corner, and Andrew Rich makes his wines at the Carlton Winemakers Studio, just below Cuneo’s old winery, where, beneath the big, oval sign reading “Cana’s Feast Winery,” hangs a smaller sign: “Cuneo Cellars.” Less easy to downplay is the “Cuneo” etched in glass over the winery’s main entrance. “That’s the entrance that I still use,” he jokes.
The big, ocher-colored stucco building, which Cuneo designed and built in 2001, was the culmination of years of making award-winning pinot noirs along with big, rich Bordeaux-style blends and Italian varietals—but red wines only; Cuneo doesn’t drink whites and doesn’t care to make them. He had been making wine professionally since 1989 under the name Cuneo Cellars, and by the time he built his winery, he had three principal investors and business partners. First came Martin Barrett, a businessman from a prosperous Salem manufacturing family, who became a minority partner in 1995 and later would become a principal investor. John Hall, executive vice president of Portland’s EthicsPoint, which designs fraud- and incident-reporting software for corporations, met Cuneo shortly thereafter and volunteered his time and wealth to Cuneo Cellars’ growth. Ken Knight, a retired dean of Seattle Pacific University’s School of Business and Economics, signed on soon afterward. Hall and Barrett were involved with Young Life, the Christian ministry that reaches out to adolescents through camps and prayer groups. The three men and Cuneo shared one strong passion: God. In their operating agreement for Cuneo Cellars, the partners even chose a Biblical arbitration service to mediate disputes, should that ever become necessary.
Their two and a half acres overlooked a sweeping stretch of the western hills; the land cost $127,000, and the partners spent another $750,000 on the building and development. Their plan was to focus Cuneo Cellars around its winemaker: Cuneo. “Gino would say, ‘I want the tasting room to look like this picture in this Italian cookbook,’” Hall recalls. “It was the essence of Gino, the whole Italian thing. We were going to focus on Gino’s heritage.”
Retail sales, or selling wine directly to the visiting public, became a major part of the business plan. Cuneo hired Jody Christensen, now director of the McMinnville Economic Development Partnership, to run the tasting room. She remembers the space, with its stucco walls and washed concrete floor, as simple and quiet—elegant. “It was a warm room bathed in sunlight, with a heavy wood table at the center,” she says. “We didn’t stand behind a counter pouring wine. You need a story to sell stuff, and the table becomes part of the story. Gino wants you to sit at his table. It wasn’t spit and shine; it wasn’t fabricated. Very authentic. Very famiglia.”
Cuneo had purchased the ten-foot wooden table in Seattle; it fit his concept of a spare, almost monastic space where the wine, not the décor, conveyed the message. The partners stayed in the background, as advisers and investors, while Cuneo oversaw operations and served as general manager. At first they opened the tasting room only part time, and then, as business picked up, the room was always open. No matter how busy they got, the family atmosphere remained. “It was so casual,” says Christensen. “They didn’t even count the money at the end of the day when I started there.” When invitations were to be ordered for a wine club event, Cuneo would weigh in with an opinion on which type of paper to use. When a customer said he’d buy a case of wine if Cuneo sang, the winemaker dropped what he was doing and belted out an aria. For wine pickup parties—when customers came to fetch their new orders—he filled the long table with Italian foodstuffs: prosciutto, a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, olives and different olive oils and fresh loaves of crusty bread. On trips to Italy, Cuneo found hand-painted ceramic platters that he liked and brought them back to the winery to sell to customers, who snapped them up in minutes along with olive oil and pasta and balsamic vinegar.
Each of Oregon’s 393 wineries produce, on average, five thousand cases of wine per year. Like many boutique wineries, Cuneo Cellars had been producing about fifteen hundred cases each year. To make their winery profitable, Cuneo and his partners needed to produce at least six thousand cases every year and sell most through the tasting room rather than through wholesalers. Cuneo began to ramp up production. He expanded his contracts with notable vineyards like Meredith Mitchell, near McMinnville, which produces first-rate pinot noir grapes, and Ciel du Cheval in eastern Washington for the cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc that went into his Bordeaux-style blends.
Most Oregon wineries bottle a pinot noir and a pinot gris, but Cuneo had a larger concept. “I always intended to be a Northwest winery, not just an Oregon winery,” he says, referring not only to the grapes he used but also to the scope of his vision. Just as Oregon winemaking pioneer David Lett was convinced that pinot noir grapes could grow in the Willamette Valley—he started the Oregon wine business in the 1960s under just that premise—Cuneo was convinced that he could make Italian varietal wines in the Northwest that would rival the great Chiantis and Barberas of Italy. Such a franchise could be worth a fortune, and others had tried. California winemakers had grown and used the sangiovese grapes that make Chianti, with what some felt were mixed results; the nebbiolo that is the base of Barolo apparently had never been successfully grown outside of northern Italy. The wet Oregon climate wouldn’t sustain crops of either grape, but in eastern Washington Cuneo saw the kind of hot, sunny conditions that existed in Italy. In 1993, he got his hands on nebbiolo grapes that were being grown experimentally in Washington. Two of the three clones produced weak juice. The third, however, grew just the kind of sweet, small grapes Cuneo needed; his first barrel of nebbiolo came out tasting and smelling like Barbaresco, one of the great wines of Italy’s Piedmont region. “That told me that this could be done,” he says. “I just charged forward.”
With his partners’ money, Cuneo commenced an eight-year project in the late 1990s to acquire a clone stock of Brunello from Italy and bring the first plants to the Northwest. (Brunello is the magnificent sangiovese grape clone that produces expensive Brunello di Montalcino wines.) Cuneo certified the plants as the first Brunello clones in North America; after they cleared federal quarantine, he planted five acres of vines at Ciel du Cheval.
That was in 2002. The first fruit was harvested two years later and became the basis for Cuneo Cellars’ sangiovese bottlings. Other winemakers watched the program from a distance, some in awe. “Gino was a bit of a maverick, to use an overworked term,” says Patrick Taylor, the young winemaker who apprenticed under Cuneo and replaced him at Cana’s Feast. Demand for sangiovese has slowly grown and now is a unique staple of the Cana’s Feast lineup. Other wineries have begun to experiment with the grape, too.
But Cuneo wasn’t finished. On another trip to Italy, he discovered the amarone wines from the Veneto region. For these wines, grapes must be picked before they are fully ripe and then dried on racks for months, a process that draws out complexities of flavor and character. The drying, and the wines made from it, are called appassimento. Few, if any, winemakers in America were known to be making them commercially. “It’s an accountant’s nightmare,” says Cuneo, referring to the slow, labor-intensive process. “Costs just blow out the window, and rot can take it all away.” Nevertheless, he was intrigued, and began to experiment with drying nebbiolo, syrah, and grenache grapes. In 2003, he bottled his first appassimento wines and sold out, at thirty dollars a bottle, to his wine club members.
The winery was a success. Reviews poured in for Cuneo’s “meaty and rock-solid” wines, as Wine Enthusiast referred to a 1999-vintage pinot noir that was released in 2001. “A superb wine!” Oregon Wine Report said of the 2000-vintage Red Mountain Bordeaux. Cuneo Cellars was lauded for its pastoral setting, its reasonable retail prices, and its ambitious product line. At the same time, Carlton was becoming known as a place to taste and buy good wine. Cuneo Cellars became a must-stop spot on the tourist trail. “By the end of ’04 we were making really good money out of the tasting room,” says Christensen. “Sales had gone up 30 percent a year. The Cuneo label was liquid gold; we couldn’t keep that puppy in stock.”
It was about that time that Martin Barrett, Cuneo’s initial partner and major investor, began to have a different vision of the business, and a different view of the winemaker himself.
How to Make Wine
As a young man, Gino Cuneo wanted to be a chef. Winemaking was never part of his plan. He grew up in the Richmond district of San Francisco, where his father, Ernie, was a typographer who had grown up in the Marina District as a neighbor of Joe DiMaggio; Gino’s mother, Doris, raised the kids.
Gino’s given name was Eugene and his family called him Gene. But as a waiter in California restaurants, the young Cuneo discovered that if he called himself Gino and inflected his speech slightly—“can not” for “can’t”—the tips were better and customers asked for him by name. After serving in Vietnam, he studied music and religion at UC Berkeley, then worked on fishing boats in Alaska for a year. He married Pam, whose younger sisters he had known growing up. Their son, Mark, was born in 1975.
In 1978, Gino saw a newspaper ad about running a restaurant at a Klamath Falls inn; he liked the sound of that. The family moved to Oregon. Gino was the chef and Pam the hostess. But the landlord was difficult and the business slow, so after one season they returned to San Francisco, where Cuneo began selling seafood, moving tons of Mexican shrimp for a San Diego–based importer. He was good at marketing and forming relationships. In 1983, the family moved to the Seattle area, where Cuneo opened a Pacific Northwest office for Ocean Garden, a major seafood importer. He would stay in the seafood business for the next eleven years. He and Pam had three more children—daughters Angiolina, Grace, and April—and Pam stayed home to raise the children while Gino flew around the country selling seafood.
In 1986, Pam bought her husband a book, How to Make Wine, for ten cents at a thrift store. Cuneo loved food and his Italian heritage, and Pam thought winemaking might interest him. She was right. While visiting his parents in California, Cuneo bought forty-five pounds of cabernet sauvignon grapes from a Lodi vineyard and began to experiment with making wines that would be better than the simple reds his father had drunk. “I was surprised that it was drinkable,” he says of his first vintage. Making wine seemed to reach across the generations to his Italian-born grandparents. “I think in buying wines, people are really looking for authenticity, the real deal,” he says. “Wine ties them to the earth at a moment in time. You can taste the Dundee hills [of] 2004. It’s remarkable. I don’t know anything else that does that.”
Winemaking also supported his view of Christian theology. He loved to argue with fellow students of Scripture that wine represented God’s joy, and that since it came from God it could only be good. Being a vintner allowed him to reach out to a diverse culture of people, too. Cuneo recalls a meeting with a gruff East Coast seafood buyer at a New Jersey bar; all the guy wanted to talk about was the wine Cuneo had been making. “It was a dream that he couldn’t realize,” Cuneo says, “and he lived vicariously through me.”
In 1988, Cuneo bought a used oak barrel and a half ton of cabernet sauvignon fruit, acting on a tip from a winemaker who said Cuneo would never make great wine until he’d made a barrel’s worth. Cuneo made his first wine in his garage; this became his first bottling, with a label designed by his brother. He entered it in the Benton Franklin County fair in Washington, and, to his surprise, won Best in Show. It wasn’t as epochal a winemaking moment as when, say, David Lett’s Oregon pinot noirs placed third at an international wine competition in Paris, but Cuneo felt validated. “The next year,” he says, “I had to go commercial.”
For the next three years he used his vacation time to make small batches of wine at Hood River Vineyards. He worked from Washington fruit and sold directly to wine shops and restaurants. He was ready to leave the seafood business, though, and in 1993 he found a winery he could afford: a small, chilly shed formerly used for prune drying in the Willamette Valley’s Eola Hills, well off the path of the fledgling wine-tourism industry. Martin Barrett estimates Cuneo Cellars to be one of the state’s first hundred wineries. (Today, Oregon wineries produce 0.64 percent of the nation’s wine, ranking fourth behind California, Washington, and New York).
The facility cost $125,000; Cuneo bought it with money lent by his father-in-law. With Pam and the girls still living in Kent, Cuneo and his son would drive down to the winery, sleep in a drafty loft, and shower in the winemaking room. “Believe me, it was rustic,” said Alex Pompel, a longtime associate of Cuneo’s who now sells wine for Cana’s Feast. “You could tell how personal the wine was to Gino.”
In 1995, Cuneo needed capital to keep the business going. He sought it in the one environment in which he felt comfortable and had contacts: the church. He began to speak and network at Christian gatherings, where he eventually met Martin Barrett. Barrett belonged to an upper-middle-class Salem family (his childhood home is now the governor’s mansion). He had just sold Supra Products, which manufactured the real-estate lockboxes his grandfather invented, and he was looking for new ventures. Cuneo and Barrett attended Trinity Covenant, a strict evangelical Bible church in Salem, and they clicked, though their early conversations were more about Scripture than business. “For the first few months we spent a lot of time together praying and talking and looking at Scripture,” Barrett told me. “Both of us have the same convictions about who Jesus is and the centrality of Scripture.”
The partnership, he says, did not materialize straight away. He and Cuneo spoke for a good six months before Barrett invested, and initially Barrett wanted only to dispense business advice. But the winemaking business was difficult, the Cuneos were barely getting by, and it was clear that Cuneo Cellars needed an infusion of capital in order to grow. “Like all those little wineries, the costs are always twice what you think it is, and the cash flow is always three times as slow as you think it will come,” Barrett told me. In May 1995, he bought a piece of Cuneo Cellars; neither he nor Cuneo will disclose the amount of the investment. Barrett was neither a winemaker nor a particularly big fan of wine; he just liked Cuneo and wanted to help grow his business. He also loved the fact that the reserve wines were called Cana’s Feast. “So many people see—and rightfully so, unfortunately—people who love Jesus as being kind of stiff,” Barrett says. “Unapproachable. It really is fun to be able to open a bottle of wine with folks and have them go, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’”
Trademarks & Hospitality
Martin Barrett loved entertaining. When he was growing up in Salem, his mother hosted big parties. “We had a big dining room, and that dining room was filled,” he said. “The bedrooms were filled. I grew up with that and loved it. I realized the power of hospitality.” The pickup parties Cuneo threw for people who bought cases of Cuneo Cellars wines were social events—people would come to get their wine and stay for hours. When the new winery in Carlton was being planned and built in the last years of the 1990s—with the added business advice and investment dollars of John Hall and Ken Knight—Barrett began to think about ways to include more hospitality and events in the winery experience.
It was more than a business decision for him. Just as winemaking was an expression of Cuneo’s Christian faith, good food and good cheer expressed Barrett’s. “If you’re really doing hospitality in the name of Jesus, which is how I describe it, it’s not mercenary,” he says. “We do it because we genuinely honor people, and we love people, and it’s not just about the money. We have the privilege of serving people, hopefully the way Jesus would serve people.”
The new winery opened in early September 2001, with production goals quadrupled to more than six thousand cases per year. While Cuneo managed the business and the tasting-room sales grew under Jody Christensen, Barrett made occasional trips south from his Washington home, to Carlton.
By the end of 2004, Cuneo Cellars had reached many of its goals. Production indeed hit or exceeded six thousand cases a year. Sales grew from less than $50,000 in the pre-Carlton years to nearly $1 million. This didn’t make the winery profitable—the partners were still recovering from the expense of moving into the new building, and the price of increasing production fourfold was enormous. The best news was that the winery had become a star on the wine-tasting circuit: Wine Press Northwest named Cuneo Cellars its 2005 Oregon Winery of the Year. New partners with even more capital and business savvy came on board.
Cuneo was producing up to ten different kinds of wine (depending on the quality and availability of the grapes each season), and he was becoming overwhelmed with the challenge of running what was on track to become a multimillion-dollar business. In January 2005, Cuneo announced in a memo to the staff and partners that there would be some restructuring in the operations of Cuneo Cellars: Barrett was named general manager. He planned to expand the retail operation while Cuneo concentrated on making wine.
Barrett had his own vision for Cuneo Cellars: he wanted to create a lively restaurant and party scene at the winery, with a full-service kitchen serving meals for events. Such a thing had rarely, if ever, been attempted in the Willamette Valley. The costs of running a restaurant were high, and nobody knew if the market—mostly Portlanders driving down for weekend wine tastings—would support both the winery and the food.
Barrett began to drive down to Carlton from his home in Burien every week and stay for three or four days at a time. The winery’s small service kitchen, which had been built for catering the wine pickup events, was built out, and Lisa Lanxon, who had cooked with Caprial and John Pence in Portland, was hired to be Cuneo Cellars’ executive chef. The idea to focus on hospitality “was a complete change in the emphasis of the winery,” Cuneo tells me. “That’s where the thing began to fall apart.”
The spare, simple tasting room was transformed into a restaurant space with tables and chairs; the long wooden table was shunted into a corner, to use for large parties. Tastings were moved to a smaller room. Barrett hired kitchen staff and waiters. The other partners went along with the changes—Barrett was, after all, the principal investor—but Cuneo was exasperated. “It was always a winery,” he says. “We wanted to make the best wine in the world. But that’s not the point of hospitality.”
Budget dollars were shifted from winemaking to the restaurant/hospitality endeavor. Cuneo felt the business losing focus; he and Barrett began to argue about the direction of the winery.
Cuneo wasn’t the only person exasperated by Barrett. Barrett’s operating style quickly clashed with the Cuneo Cellars culture that had been cultivated over several years. “Martin has great vision, but he operates at thirty thousand feet,” says Christensen. “Let’s build a pizza oven in the middle of the piazza. Let’s spend three hours brainstorming what kind of tent to buy. Let’s spend all day driving around Portland sampling coffees. Let’s bring in a grand piano. Let’s talk to an artist about painting a fresco on the wall. We spent a lot of time debunking ideas and satisfying one-offs.” Cuneo puts it another way: “Every country needs a prophet. But they also need priests. Someone they can go to every day and who makes sure the doors open on time. That’s essential; it’s not a luxury.”
Cuneo says Barrett also wanted to incorporate his spiritual beliefs more prominently into the way the business was run, and that Barrett brought in people he knew from Young Life as staff, reminding them of the Biblical underpinnings of Cana’s Feast, the winery’s prestige label. Barrett refutes this. “Our thinking, going back to my dad, is, you live it,” he explains. “You … don’t hide your faith, but don’t go … shoving it down [people’s] throats. But it’s pretty obvious when it’s Cana’s Feast and you have the story of Jesus turning water into wine. We [told the staff], ‘You don’t have to believe this, but you have to explain to customers when they ask, Why’s it called Cana’s Feast?’”
In the middle of 2005, the partners realized they had a potentially large problem: they didn’t own the trademark to the Cuneo brand. Cuneo had never registered it, because he couldn’t.
In California, the huge Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery was run by Richard Cuneo (no relation), who years before had trademarked the name Richard Cuneo for a small amount of sparkling wine that he made from grapes grown in his front yard. Gino Cuneo had visited Richard during his own early years of winemaking, and the two made a handshake agreement that allowed Gino to use the name Cuneo Cellars on his wine. “As far as I was concerned, he was entitled to use the name Cuneo, since that was his name,” Richard told me. “It was never a trademark conflict with us. I shook his hand and said, ‘Go ahead, use your name.’”
That wasn’t good enough, according to John Hall. The legal risks were too great, especially when the Cuneo Cellars partners were trying to raise more capital from new investors. “If you’re building a brand, you’d better own the trademark to your name,” he says. “We could not have ten thousand cases of wine, labeled and in inventory, and get hit by a cease-and-desist order. We had to address any potential risk in advance, and eliminate it.”
Lawyers were consulted, but nobody could determine where a business’s trade name intersected with the trademark on the bottles of wine. The partners considered approaching Richard Cuneo and attempting to negotiate a settlement, but ultimately felt this amounted to waking the sleeping Sebastiani giant, Hall says. “They have more lawyers than we have partners.” Someone then proposed a drastic solution: change the business name from Cuneo Cellars to Cana’s Feast Winery, and with it, the entire brand.
Cuneo was stunned. Patrick Taylor remembers him saying, “I’m not giving up my label. I’m not giving up my name.” The atmosphere at the winery grew tense. “Things between him and Martin were not good,” Taylor says. “There were strained relationships.”
But Hall and the other partners, who saw the rebranding as the only safe course for their investments, leaned on Cuneo to go along with the plan. It was, in their opinion, the lesser of two evils. “Believe me, nobody wanted to do it,” says Hall. “We had so much equity built into the Cuneo Cellars brand. My wife still won’t speak to me about it.”
Cuneo’s opposition wasn’t purely manifested in his ego or pride: he had coined the name Cana’s Feast for the wine, but he thought it was a terrible name for a winery. It was too jarring, too likely to cause reluctance in consumers who were leery of being lectured by overenthusiastic Christians. “I thought it was wrongheaded,” he tells me. “We had a long theological discussion about it. This is a community business, and people expect a business to be run in a secular way. If you want to put a fish over the door, that’s fine.” As a compromise, he suggested changing the name to Cana Cellars. But Barrett was adamant.
Cuneo’s spirituality ultimately dictated his actions. He relented. “Martin and the others had put in a lot of money, and you had to respect that,” he says now. “There’s something to be said for the collective wisdom of the group. Nobody has perfect knowledge. I didn’t want to go against the wishes of my brothers. There’s a much greater dynamic than the group. God will do what He will.” At the beginning of 2006, Cana’s Feast Winery LLC became the legal name of the company. Cuneo Cellars was no more.
“It was such a shock,” says Jody Christensen. “We had built the whole foundation on the Cuneo name and Gino’s story…. Here you’ve been building a brand for five years, and then the rug is pulled out from under you.” Citing family commitments, but heartbroken over the changes to the business she had helped grow, Christensen resigned.
That wasn’t the last blow for Cuneo or the winery. In May 2007, the company received word they would be audited by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), part of the US Treasury Department. The agency was created in 2003 to monitor and regulate winemakers, distillers, brewers and tobacco manufacturers. While Cuneo was in Italy leading a food-and-wine tour, a young Vancouver-based TTB investigator named Paul Haller began asking questions about everything from labels to the precise percentages in the blends. “He would ask us, ‘How did you configure this blend? How do I know that this is 23 percent merlot and not 22 percent?’” says Taylor, Cuneo’s assistant winemaker at the time. “‘This tank is supposed to hold 600 gallons and you’re claiming 588.’ And he was totally serious.”
Haller asked to see records that went back years. Violations involved documentation of labeling and the late payment of federal taxes; as more problems surfaced, Haller threatened to shut down the winery. Cuneo admits that record keeping under his watch had been scattered. A succession of employees had been tasked with different record-keeping duties, but the final responsibility, he says, was his. After consulting lawyers, the partners came up with an option: because Cuneo had been in charge of record keeping, they could offer the government his resignation as evidence of their intention to reorganize the company.
Cuneo learned of the audit by phone while in Italy. One of the new partners called him. “He was really serious,” says Cuneo. “He asked me, ‘Gino, what do you have to say for all this? Why did this happen?’ The answer was expediency: there was too much to do in too short a time.”
When Cuneo returned to Carlton, he says he was greeted by a letter from his partners, basically firing him.
Not surprisingly, Cuneo felt a deep sense of loss. Losing the company felt like the death of a close relative, a sadness deepened by the feeling that he had let his partners down. Equating the partners’ decision with God’s will, he officially stepped down, apologizing to each partner and asking for forgiveness. “I said that I was the one responsible; it happened on my watch,” he says.
The hasty restructuring didn’t really matter in the end. Despite Cuneo’s departure, the TTB investigation continued for more than a year and wound up costing the company nearly $250,000 in lost product, time, legal fees, and, ultimately, in an “offer in compromise,” a $10,000 settlement fine for violations including failure “to notify TTB of certain changes in corporate officers, managing members and trade name.” According to the TTB website, only two other Oregon wineries in the past five years have been in such a situation.
At age sixty, Gino Cuneo had no winery and no direction. “I questioned whether I’d ever make wine again,” he says. “I believe that I was created for a purpose, and that craft that I’d been given is to make wine. When that seemed to be potentially off the table, then all of a sudden, what else is there in me? Is that the sum substance of me? Is it my identity?”
He and his wife did what they always do when trouble hits. “We prayed,” says Pam Cuneo. “‘God really helps,’ I told Gino.”
Cuneo began to write poetry, and published it in the liturgy of the Pearl Church, which the Cuneos attend on Sunday mornings, about an hour’s drive from their McMinnville home. He had never written before. “I looked upon that as a special grace that came in.”
Then he got back to work. He couldn’t use the Brunello-clone grapes that he had planted—they still belonged to Cana’s Feast—so he found sangiovese grapes that other wineries had planted, in Mattawa, Washington, on the Columbia River. Sangiovese was still a novelty, a side product. American winemakers were making money on cabernets and pinot noirs. Cuneo was able to find sangiovese grapes because so few people wanted them.
He pressed and barreled the grapes at a small facility in Carlton, a few blocks from the winery he had built. Then he called on marketing instincts honed during nearly twenty years of making wine in Oregon. With Anton Kimball, a graphic artist in Portland, Cuneo designed a new brand. He called it Tre Nova, for the three premier grapes of Italian wine. He trademarked three new wines, including Bonatello, a rich sangiovese table wine with a screw cap, and Secopassa, an appassimento pressed from the dried sangiovese and nebbiolo grapes Cuneo loves. He bottled a few hundred cases of both wines last year and is testing the market. The Bonatello sells in restaurants and area wine stores in the $17 range, and the Secopassa is a premium wine that sells for $35 a bottle.
This time, Cuneo is pressing and aging his wines in custom lots at a factory in Dundee. He sells almost entirely through wholesalers—no winery, no tasting room, no wine club, no parties. And no restaurant. The name of his new business is Gino Cuneo Cellars.
The new venture excites him. “This is my retirement right here,” he says, referring to the Bonatello. The wine is deep red, fruity, balanced, and delicious. “I want to bring sangiovese to the American market. It’s completely different from what was tried in California and didn’t succeed. I’m really looking to not just have another wine, like another cab or merlo—I want to build another category.”
Cana’s Feast is still operating. In recent months, Cuneo has begun to spend time there again. He is still a minor partner in the business, but when it comes to winemaking, Patrick Taylor is in charge. Cuneo’s path back to Cana’s Feast was smoothed when Barrett unexpectedly resigned as general manager and managing member at the end of 2007, citing stress and failing health and the difficulty of being away from his family. Harve Ballard, the winery’s former finance manager, is now operations manager; John Hall is the managing member. Lisa Lanxon continues to serve Italian-style lunches on weekends. Hall is still a close friend of Cuneo’s; of the conflict that led to Cuneo’s departure he says, “It’s a way that God delivered him to the direction he was supposed to take. Where Gino is today is where God wants him to be.”