By Kristi Evans
The twin valleys of Napa and Sonoma comprise California’s most famous wine country, but there are about 170 federally recognized grape-growing regions in the Golden State. Lamorinda, where Tony De Venuta ’71 BA operates his Bullfrog Creek Vineyard, was christened as an American Viticultural Area early this year. The small, boutique operations in this AVA produce limited quantities of high-quality varietals, particularly reds. Lamorinda is uniquely situated in a suburban setting with hilly terrain and many backyard vineyard parcels.
De Venuta’s house is the last stop on a quiet, dead-end residential street in Moraga. It is not obvious on the approach that this is a vineyard, but a walk beyond and behind the house reveals the telltale vines and a barn used for the wine-making process. Three creeks flow on the property and account for half of the Bullfrog Creek name. The first word is a nod to De Venuta’s lifelong friends: a group of Vietnam-era veterans who used to fraternize on the Monterey Peninsula, where he was stationed in the Army at Ft. Ord.
“A lot of guys were getting out of the service at the same time and partying a lot,” he said. “A popular song back then was ’Joy to the World’ by Three Dog Night. We called ourselves the Bullfrogs because of the opening lyric, ’Jeremiah was a bullfrog.’ And Jeremiah ’always had a mighty fine wine,’ so I decided to name it after that for my buddies.”
After his Army service, De Venuta embarked on a technical career with the federal government. He was a director of Command, Control, Communications and Computer Systems (C4S) on U.S. Navy ships and in offices throughout the world. After retiring and moving to the San Francisco Bay area, he started meeting people in the wine industry and taking college courses in oenology and viticulture. In 2009 he established Bullfrog Creek.
“This is a fun hobby that got out of control, but in a good way,” De Venuta said. “You have to do it gradually or you’ll fall on your face. I enjoy the process and the camaraderie with other vintners. In this community, it’s not competitive. We help each other out, see each other at events and wine festivals and have regular social events. I got into this for those reasons, not to make money.” He noted that winemaking at this level is not a lucrative career, so he continues to run a side business with employees that carry on work related to his C4S career.
“If you want to make a million, you have to put two million into it. I could grow lots of grapes on my 15 acres, but each vine costs $45 if you do it right with a trellising system, bird netting and deer and disease prevention. I lost a whole crop last year due to the California drought. I had to let it go because my monthly water bills were around $800 and I couldn’t afford to keep that up. One of the good things about vines is that they do come back, but I buy most of my grapes now.”
Barrels are racked, filtered, tested and aged in De Venuta’s garage. Cases of bottles are stacked in another section near labels and capsules, the thin metal wrapping at the top that is sealed with heat. “Papa Tony,” as he is called, recruited his visitors to help manually affix some labels and capsules to earn their required post-interview tasting. He poured a 2014 Chardonnay and Tony’s Blend, a mingling of Cabernet, Zinfandel and Syrah that he considers his best wine. Bullfrog Creek varietals have won several awards at state fairs and wine group competitions. Three white and eight red options are available from Bullfrog Creek this year.
De Venuta still remembers a television commercial he saw as a boy in Newark, N.J. It was for Italian Swiss Colony Wine and featured a “little old winemaker” in Napa. The ad influenced where he wanted to be stationed in the service and his desire to start his own vineyard. He did not realize until years after watching it that there was an ancestral connection to the business.
He came across a circa 1917, sepia-toned photo that depicts a young boy and a man, De Venuta’s father and grandfather, making deliveries in a horse-drawn wagon with “Winery” painted on the side.
History is repeating itself somewhat. De Venuta has been working alongside his own son, and at age 70 is transitioning away from the manual labor of processing the grapes through de-stemming, punchdown and pressing. He will continue to do bookwork, labeling and of course, sampling. Salute!