With the vines turning shades of red and gold and the weather holding steady at a crisp 65°F, this is the ideal season for a pinot noir crawl through Sonoma County. One F&W editor-approved spot is Papapietro Perry, which features ten different Pinots from the region.

By Justine Sterling
Updated May 23, 2017
Ben Papapietro
Credit: Courtesy of Papapietro Perry Winery

Owned by friends Ben Papapietro and Bruce Perry, the winery’s Pinots are so celebrated that you might presume them to be the result of a lifelong pursuit of winemaking. But both Papapietro and Perry spent more than 30 years in another industry before retiring to pursue winemaking. Here, we chat with Papapietro about how it all started and what it was like to retire into a whole new career.

You had a career at the San Francisco Newspaper Agency before starting the winery. What were you doing there?
I started there in 1965 and retired in 2003. I was in circulation for 37 years—I drove a truck, I was head of a teamster union for some period of time. And the last six or seven years I was one of three guys that installed modular mounts—you know how you buy newspapers out of the dispensers on the street? Well, I built and installed and repaired those.

How did you go from working at the newspaper agency to owning your own winery?
I started making wine in my garage as an escape from my work in 1980. It was a hobby. But then in 1998, my business partner, Bruce Perry, who joined me in 1985 making wine in the garage, he talked me into doing it commercially. We were having a good time. We were getting some really great fruit. We had a group of guys we put together to help out. It was a lot of fun doing it as a home winemaker, but by 1998 it was pretty obvious that we had a good product and people were pushing us to market it. So we decided to go into business. So I still had my job at the newspaper and I made wine. I took all my vacation and all my sick leave each harvest to work—that way I didn’t have to quit my job. I did that from 1998 until 2003. By 2003, I had enough of working at the paper, so I resigned and devoted my full-time work to the winery.

How was the transition?
It was fantastic. Working for a corporation versus working for yourself? There’s no comparison.

How did you learn how to be a professional winemaker?
I’m self-taught. I read everything I could get my hands on. Philip M. Wagner’s book on winemaking got me started with how to do home chemical analysis. And then in 1995, the winemaker quit at a friend’s winery. So I came in and helped him part time as the general manager. I hired a winemaker and I worked with him. I didn’t want to quit my job at that time, I wasn’t really prepared—I still had two young children. But once I started working there I was convinced that I could do it commercially.

Did you apply any of the skills you learned from your time at the agency to the wine business?
Running and negotiating for the union helped me in negotiations for grapes and contracts. Also, the organizational skills from the job. When I first started making wine, I tracked everything I did so if I had a problem I could go back and see what it was that I could improve upon. And the mechanical abilities I had from installing the newspaper modulars helped. Now I repair winery equipment.