A Lake County Bottle

Prima Materia brings out the hidden county’s wine charms

By Meredith Pakier

Pietro Buttitta tends his Italian-clone vines in Lake County.
Photo courtesy of Pietro Buttitta; map by Cheryl Angelina Koehler

Copious sunlight beats down on obsidian-laced soils between the Mayacamas Mountain Range and volcanic Mount Konocti in Lake County, where Pietro Buttitta tends his grapevines. He’s grafted most of his rootstock with scions of rare native Italian varieties—robust sagrantino, silky refosco, and savory negroamaro—which he tends on 10 acres of shared family land in the Kelsey Bench region south of Clear Lake. From these organically grown grapes, he produces roughly 1800 cases per year, which he sells under his Prima Materia label at his tasting room in Oakland’s Temescal Alley*.

Lake County is home to many vineyards, yet the county has struggled to generate a wine tourism economy comparable to that of nearby Napa, and its wines boast no distinct reputation. This is largely intentional. Because parts of Lake County are essentially north-trending extensions of prized Napa Valley geography, Lake County grapes have been cultivated to serve as lower-cost filler for wines bottled under the Napa designation. (A wine can consist of up to 15% non–Napa Valley grapes and still be labeled Napa Valley.) In other words, it’s often the role of Lake County grapes to demur away from expressing distinct “terroir,” the sense of place often considered paramount when determining a wine’s defining characteristics.

With Prima Materia, Buttitta is looking into whether he might shift this narrative. California’s wine landscape is largely shaped by French design, and this is partly why Buttitta has chosen to work with Italian varieties. For one, Lake County’s elevation, soil type, and hot climate are the prefered growing conditions for these grapes, but there’s also the challenge of working without a template.

Winegrowers, especially those practicing organic farming as Buttitta does, are constantly grappling with the unpredictability of nature and environment. But for him, this is where the fun is. “It’s a puzzle. And when the puzzle is done, it’s on to the next puzzle,” he says.

Buttitta describes his work as “two parallel tracks—varietal correctness and the historical model—but then there’s figuring out how to work with what we have.” For him, that means allowing the low rainfall and dry heat of the area to coax out interesting flavor profiles from the grapes, but it also means focusing largely on the structure—tannins, mouthfeel, and density—of the wine. He explains, “I think I fall into the bracket of tactile winemakers … really focusing on tannic shape … with the intention of it being ageable, but hopefully not overbearing.” When asked if he sees himself as forging a unique Lake County style, he confesses that his pursuit of understanding exactly what that means has only just begun. ♦

*This winter, Prima Materia is joining the collective tasting room at Rigger’s Loft in Richmond, where the cavernous space at 1325 Canal Boulevard allows for effective social distancing. Buttitta’s cozy tasting room at 482 #B 49th Street in Oakland will remain open for outdoor service and retail until a time when a more intimate indoor tasting experience is again permitted.

Meredith Pakier is an Oakland-based wine professional who has managed the beverage programs for bars, restaurants, and retail shops across the Bay Area. When she’s not experimenting in her home kitchen, she’s hiking with her dog, Nico.