By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Rare grapes and exceptional wines define Gianni Buonomo Vintners
Not long ago, Newport Avenue was the last place on earth where oenophiles flocked to assess the bouquets and flavors of wine varietals and their blends. Other than scoring a cheap glass of oxidized merlot at some bar slinging Coronas and Fireball, the pickings for wine drinkers were abysmal.
But with Ocean Beach’s craft beer and food renaissance of late came Gianni Buonomo Vintners, a 3,000-square-foot winemaking facility and tasting room that opened last year in what used to be an antiques store.
Owner Keith Rolle, a native of Minnesota, left the corporate world in the late ’90s to immerse himself in a full-time enology program in Washington State. Today, he impresses visitors with a portfolio of 10 reds and two whites made onsite with grapes from Washington State and El Dorado County in California.
Some of them are obscure even to wine aficionados, such as the dark-skinned Blaufrankisch with Austrian roots and another called Charbono, a bold and rustic varietal that originated in eastern France and is grown only on 70 acres in the U.S. — all within California.
Those wines, along with others he produces from such grapes as Petit Verdot, Syrah, Sangiovese, Barbera and Viognier are perfected in part by using an old-school aeration oxidation apparatus that tests sulfite and acidity levels from small beaker samples.
“It’s a slow, cumbersome process compared to modern-day analyzers, but more accurate,” he noted.
Assistant winemaker Neely Ashley agreed. She’s a chemistry-minded millennial who earned a bachelor’s degree in wine and viticulture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
“She knocked it out of the park during the interview and required zero training,” Rolle said of her hiring last year.
While pouring for customers or helping those select bottles to go, Ashley and Rolle are adept at conveying specs about the wines in either layman’s terms or in technical wine speak, depending on the patronage.
“Wine is for everyone and we’re all about making this a comfortable environment for anybody who comes in asking questions,” said Ashley, citing an increased interest in wine drinking and production seen within her 20-something age group based on personal observation and an article published last year by Wine Business Monthly.
She and Rolle are also accustomed to explaining the winery’s curious name.
Gianni Buonomo is neither a vineyard or winemaker or type of wine.
Their website explains that “buon uomo” means “good man,” and as legend has it, Gianni Buonomo was “a consummate gentleman,” a humble and elegant — but fictitious — role model that parents from Italy’s Piedmont region encouraged their sons emulate.
Rolle said after much brainstorming on what to name the winery, which he launched originally in Washington State several years ago as a subscription-based business, his sister came up with the idea and it immediately stuck.
The tasting room is as elegant as any you’d find in reputable small-production wineries nestled throughout Napa or Sonoma. The space is replete with wood barrels, string lights, earthy wall colors and antique jewelry cases used for displaying current releases.
Wines by the glass start at $7 for an off-dry white flaunting fruity, floral notes called Symphony. They climb modestly to $12 for a 100-percent cabernet sauvignon reserve that calls to a beefy steak or roasted mushrooms with its rounded notes of black cherry and toasted vanilla. (Select wines are $5 and $7 per glass during happy hour, which is held from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays.)
Bottles range from $23 to $69 and can be consumed on site with no corkage fee or purchased to go.
Based on a tasting of seven reds, standouts included the prized 2014 Charbono ($45), which offered dark-red hues and a dusty, earthy soul balanced with essences of lavender and stone fruit.
“We had a gay couple join us last month for our Charbono fest and they bought a bottle to take to a wedding they were about to attend in Italy. Everyone loves it,” Ashley said after Rolle pointed out that only 17 wineries in the U.S. produce the wine.
The equally rare Blaufrankisch ($29) is a pinot-like varietal boasting a complex flavor profile of anise, berries, florals and white pepper. Both Ashley and Rolle concurred that for a red, it pairs unusually well with poultry and salmon.
Another favorite was the 2014 Barbera, a medium-bodied wine sporting remarkably bright acidity, though without the puckering after bite. It was easy to imagine keeping it on hand to wash down red-sauced pasta or pizza.
The winery serves only cheese, charcuterie or veggie boards, although more substantial dishes catered by local restaurants come into play at ongoing pairing events posted on Gianni’s website (gbvintners.com).
In addition, Paella Lifestyle Catering sells plates of a Spanish rice dish for $8 from 6 to 9 p.m. on the last Friday of every month.
“Not everyone is a burrito and Jagermeister type here,” said Rolle. “We’re seeing a full age spectrum of people who live up in the hills coming into Ocean Beach again, and they love the fact there’s a nice, clean winery in their neighborhood.”
Gianni Buonomo Vintners is located at 4836 Newport Ave. For information about upcoming wine-food events and the winery’s growing membership club, call 619-991-9911 or visit the website.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.