From Sonoma to Biondi-Santi
MICHAEL MUSCARDINI, right, presents a bottle of his sangiovese to legendary winemaker Franco Biondi-Santia.
Michael Muscardini/Special to the Index-Tribune
Michael Muscardini entered the winemaking world only five years ago and already Muscardini Cellars is blazing hot. It's piled up awards, been called the best microwinery in California and packs 'em in at the tasting room.
This fire of success that Muscardini tends started with a spark, ignited in his ancestral homeland, Italy.
Franco Biondi-Santi, the winemaker and owner of the famed winery that bears his name, is Muscardini's inspiration. Biondi-Santi makes sought-after brunello and russo, both 100 percent sangiovese wines, in Montalcino, Tuscany. Michael first visited the estate in 1992, when he was still a high-end-home general contractor who knew not much of anything about wine. The moment he tasted Biondi-Santi Brunello though, he knew he loved it, and he never forgot it.
A few years later Michael moved to Sonoma, built his own home, planted sangiovese and began taking winemaking classes at UC Davis, all the while daydreaming about making Biondi-Santi-quality wine.
Eventually, he sold his contracting business and in 2004 took the leap, switching from home winemaking to fulltime Muscardini Cellars. He returned to Biondi-Santi in 2005, and was honored to actually meet Franco. When Michael was introduced to his 83-year-old hero, it was explained in Italian that he was a winemaker making sangiovese wines in Sonoma Valley.
"Ma che fai," Franco said to Michael, meaning, "What are you thinking!" Clearly he did not believe that good sangiovese could be made outside Italy. Michael took this as a personal challenge, deciding right then to return in five years, the length of time it takes to release a brunello, and bring Franco his own high quality Italian wine made in Sonoma.
It turned out to be six years, but this past July, Michael was granted a private appointment with Franco, presenting him his 2005 Sangiovese and a 2005 Tesoro. The elder winemaker received his gift graciously.
"He was touched and I was blown away," Michael said. A week later when Michael had returned home, he received a letter he will forever treasure. On Biondi-Santi's private stationary it reads, "The wine of all the bottles you gave to me were very good, very well done and with a great color (absolutely black)."
"I think about Biondi-Santi a lot," Michael said, "He is passionate about his craft. He took this ugly duckling, this common Italian grape and made it into $120 a bottle wine." Biondi-Santi wines are known for their longevity and older bottles sell for $300 to $500. "What he did, and what I want to emulate, is he didn't just push himself up, he pulled everybody else up with him." Italian varietals can be a hard sell in Sonoma, Michael said, "I want to elevate Italian varietals to their rightful place."
Michael keeps Kiren O'Keefe's book, "Franco Biondi-Santi: The Gentleman of Brunello," close at hand, following not only his winemaking style but also drawing motivation from the way he lives as well. "You should give back more than you take," Michael said. He chooses to share his time, serving the boards of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers and the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.
The eight-acre hilltop estate he built was recently sold, and he is concentrating, at age 60, on a simpler lifestyle. Making wine, promoting Muscardini Cellars, and maybe building just one more house. A low-maintenance one this time.