The Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn is a poorly known AVA. Host to immigrant Italian and Jewish families in the 1950’s; it provided my initial exposure to winemaking as a child.
Fruits and vegetables were everywhere in the garden plot behind the small row house where my parents lived along with the Valenti’s and another set of Messina’s, whose relationship to our family still remains murky.
Fig and peach trees, a large vegetable garden, carefully tended and supplying still the best tomatoes I have ever tasted, were everywhere. Just beyond the driveway was a trellis overburdened with grapes; in retrospect probably sangiovese, but given the family’s roots, perhaps nero d’avola.
One day as I wandered around the basement, I opened a door leading to a small room, not much larger than a small bathroom. I was almost overcome by this pungent, earthy, feral yet somehow pleasant smell. Its source was uncertain but seemed to come from the wooden structure itself. Purple spilled everywhere. It flowed onto the floor, a wooden bench and covered the floor and even the ceiling. In the center was a huge barrel, also purple. Sitting on top was a small basket press- the first I had ever seen.
My great uncle Peter, who we called nonno, was the winemaker. His production was modest, perhaps a barrel a year. I assume he used natural yeast. Malolactic fermentation may or may not have occurred. As best I could tell he was his only customer. I remember watching in fascination as he would interrupt his meals and drink directly from a wine bottle with a rubber baby nipple inserted in the top; apparently a traditional method of preventing oxidation.
Life unfolded. It turned out I was a pretty good athlete. Scouted by a number of major league baseball teams, as my myopia became evident my dreams of playing along Mickey Mantle dissipated.
After interning and beginning my residency in internal medicine and cardiology on the Harvard Service of the Boston City Hospital, I was once again thrown a curve ball. This pitch was one I had never faced before; the draft and the Vietnam War. Thrown unceremoniously into the 36th Engineers as a battalion surgeon, I was stationed in Vinh Long IV corps.
As fate would have it have it, it was there I met Max Painter. It was to become a life changing event. Now deceased, Max was my first exposure to Southerners, their wonderful sense of humor and joie d’ vive, and to cardiac surgery. Max was assigned to MILPHAP in a civilian hospital in Vinh Long. He became a great friend and mentor. Initially volunteering to go on medical missions with him, I soon was assisting him in surgery and vice versa. Impressed with the dramatic effect surgery could have on illness and people’s lives, I decided I wanted to become a thoracic and cardiac surgeon and give up the more sedentary sub-specialty of internal medicine.
At the time, tremendous advances were being made in cardiac surgery. The specialty fit well with my physical skills and the athlete’s inherent willingness to be challenged and “win” with everything on the line. In retrospect it was a great choice. After training with phenomenal surgeons in Memphis, Houston, and New York, I began a practice in Manhattan and began a family.
My wine epiphany really occurred after several trips to Europe including Burgundy and Tuscany. I remember one special moment as if it were a photograph; two bicycle riders, silhouetted by the waning Tuscan sun, winding their way carefully through a narrow road engulfed by sheep and surrounded by endless breathtaking vineyards. It was so incredibly surreal. It was if the earth was speaking to me or perhaps it was the wine consumed earlier in the day. Whatever its source, some primordial, suppressed urge was unleashed that day. I promised myself this was something I would become a part of, if I was to be so fortunate.
My opportunity came in the form of Lawrence Johnson. I became interested in a business my family friend Glenn Rink was developing. He informed me that a California attorney had some of the original shares in the company and he was interested in selling them. After a telephone conversation, it became apparent that Lawrence and I shared a similar passion for the land. Lawrence had been an attorney for the Dole Corporation and specialized in agribusiness. He knew a good deal about olives and even more about California farm land.
We agreed to exchange the shares and, more importantly he would accompany my wife Robyn and I on a two week sojourn to the unexplored wilds of California. Lawrence did his research and indicated he thought we should focus on an area on the Central Coast that was beginning to arouse some interest - Paso Robles. Google map was not invented yet, so I had no idea what he was talking about. I researched my California maps and arranged to meet him in LA.
I was unprepared for Paso Robles. It was everything Tuscany, but with a cowboy flavor. I immediately fell in love with the area. Over the next five years and after multiple visits, I was fortunate enough to cross paths with John Crossland and Bob Denny. John was leaving Andy Beckstoffer in Napa and the two of them were starting a vineyard development company. “Paso" was now beginning to stir and attract international interest.
In 1999, I was fortunate enough to come upon land owned by Dr. Ray Hoy and his lovely wife, Susanna. The property consisted of 90 acres of hills and gentle slopes. The land was partially cleared, planted in barley and surrounded by oaks. Its soil was filled with calcareous boulders and was cooled by Pacific breezes entering the Templeton gap. It was a unique property in an area of California that the world was soon to hear about.
Over the past 10 years our vision has been realized. Situated on 5620 Vineyard Drive and lined by intensely purple plum trees, 60 acres of vines now exist. Multiple varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Viognier, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc now fill the landscape & in 6 short years as a winery (& not just grower), Jada has received over 45 90/90+ wine scores for the industry's top wine critics. In addition, a beautiful 4000 case winery straddles one of the hills & we have begun the conversion of the vineyard to biodynamic farming practices. Nonno, Max, George, Bronson and all my Italian ancestors would be proud!
- Jack Messina, 2008