Dunne on Wine

Saxophone part of the tasting experience at Mastroserio Winery

Ruggero Mastroserio plays tenor saxophone at Mastroserio Winery. “I had to learn how to be a host,” he said. “I learned that when I play, people get more relaxed.”
Ruggero Mastroserio plays tenor saxophone at Mastroserio Winery. “I had to learn how to be a host,” he said. “I learned that when I play, people get more relaxed.”

The first clue that tasting wine at Mastroserio Winery in Somerset, El Dorado County, could be a step beyond the ordinary is the strap that dangles about the neck of the perpetually energetic and upbeat Ruggero Mastroserio.

Just what kind of winemaking tool does Mastroserio clip to that strap, a visitor is apt to ask himself.

None, it turns out. Rather, the strap is for his saxophone. Mastroserio enjoys making music as much as he enjoys making wine. Not long after a visitor steps up to his counter, Mastroserio is likely to dart into a corner of the tasting room, snap on the saxophone and fill the quarters and the surrounding hills with a seamless and vibrant interpretation of “Call Me.” You might think of the sax as a wine-selling instrument, given that the right kind of music with the right kind of wine is believed to prompt consumers to reach for their credit cards.

Mastroserio, however, plays his saxophone more for the pure joy of entertaining guests than for selling wine. “I had to learn how to be a host. I learned that when I play, people get more relaxed,” he says. One senses that the music also calms him as visitors weigh his wines.

As for his wines, he lets them speak for themselves. And broadly speaking, the dozen or so small-production wines he makes each vintage are faithful to type, intensely aromatic, luxuriously textured, complex and long. And those are just my notes from when he wasn’t playing the sax.

His lineup runs to the usual suspects out of the Sierra foothills – sauvignon blanc, sangiovese, zinfandel and barbera – but it also includes such oddballs as teroldego, charbono and fiano.

Mastroserio began to make his own wines only with the harvest of 2010, but he’s been a force within the Fair Play appellation since 2000, when he started an 11-year stint as winemaker for the twin wineries Latcham and Granite Springs, for which his releases were consistent winners on the competition circuit.

As he neared the end of his tenure with Latcham and Granite Springs he began to experiment with a laborious and precise winemaking technique introduced to him by a buddy in Napa Valley. In short, the method starts with the painstaking task of removing from stems only the best-conditioned grapes as clusters arrive at the winery. He uses as many as 20 workers to help speed this deliberate technique.

Most of the grapes then are crushed, though about a third he leaves whole. Together they are fermented in barrels of French oak, a not-uncommon technique for chardonnay but unusual for black grapes such as cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah. As fermentation ends after 90 days of extended maceration, he drains out the wine and disassembles the barrels so they can be cleaned thoroughly. Then he rebuilds the barrels so they can be used to age the wine.

“That flipped my winemaking. The wines were wonderful – complex and elegant at the same time,” he says of those early experiments. Because of the precision and patience the process requires, the resulting wines weren’t cheap, costing around $50, but they sold, convincing Mastroserio that wine enthusiasts would pop for super-premium wines from the Sierra foothills.

“This is going to be my signature,” he says of his barrel-focused style of winemaking, confident that the method couples intensity with unusual accessibility even when the wines are young.

Most of his wines, not all of which involve hand-destemming and barrel-fermenting, cost $22 to $35, but he also has a few at $50 and one at $70, the latter the Mastroserio Winery 2010 El Dorado County Quartetto, his strapping yet symmetric blend of grape varieties usually associated with France’s Bordeaux, principally cabernet sauvignon.

Mastroserio didn’t set out to be a winemaker or a Californian. During his formative years in his native Italy he earned degrees in architectural engineering, music theory and geology. “I wanted to be a classical musician,” he says.

Geology came into play because he was a restless child, eager to be more engaged in outside adventures than to be occupied full-time indoors. “I was not going to be in an office. I wanted to be in nature, so I studied geology,” Mastroserio says.

His father, however, saw him taking over the family’s architectural firm in Milan, which Ruggero Mastroserio was running when he began to visit the Sierra foothills on vacations in the early 1980s, largely to help his wife’s parents, Gene and Connie Oliver, develop a vineyard in Fair Play.

He liked California and he liked the wine scene, so he took courses in viticulture back at the University of Milan and earned a diploma in sensory evaluation from the Associatiore Italiana Sommelier. His winemaking mentor was highly regarded enologist Mattia Vezzola of the winery Bellavista in the Franciacorta region of Lombardy. “He urged me to go to California to make wine.”

As a consequence, Mastroserio in 1998 closed the architectural firm and moved his wife and their two children to the Somerset slope where he lives, makes wine and fosters 61/2 acres of grapes. (His wife died from a brain tumor in 2006.) He still gets excited as he recalls the day when a container of household furnishings, including his cherished piano, arrived from Milan in sparsely settled Somerset. “I knew what I was getting into. I’d fallen in love with this life,” Mastroserio says. “Also, I was exhausted by my work in Milano.”

For two years he tended the Olivers’ 23-acre vineyard – overseeing the grafting of vines, selling grapes to area wineries and so forth – and then signed on with the Frank Latcham family as winemaker. Early on in this winemaking role with the Latchams he took courses in viticulture and enology at UC Davis.

As the Latchams began to phase out of the business – they’ve subsequently sold their wineries – Mastroserio started to formalize plans for his own wines, the first of which he introduced in 2010 under the label Rugiada, Italian for “morning dew.” When friends urged him to use his own name for his brand, he agreed, and is phasing out the Rugiada brand.

He is making around 1,500 cases of wine per vintage, with many of his varietals and blends totaling not much more than 100 cases each.

In addition to sourcing fruit from his own vineyard, he buys grapes from neighboring growers as well as from a farmer in the Dunnigan Hills of Yolo County. He is preparing to replant three acres of his own parcel, intending to create “the vineyard of my dreams,” which is to include such traditional Italian grape varieties as dolcetto, teroldego, sangiovese, fiano and “maybe greco di tufo.”

When he isn’t in the vineyard or cellar, he generally can be found in the tasting room, ready to strap on his saxophone. During summers, he invites other jazz musicians to jam on the lawn just outside the tasting room, sessions that are open to the public.

“I always wanted to be recognized as a jazz musician,” Mastroserio says.

He’s working on that, but in the meantime is settling in to be recognized as one of the Mother Lode’s more adventurous and industrious winemakers.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at mikedunne@winegigs.com.


The blackboard in the tasting room, 7351 Fairplay Road, Somerset (11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Monday), makes two things clear: Ruggero Mastroserio’s first name is pronounced “roo-jer-o” and he makes a whole lot of different wines. There wasn’t one of the dozen or so I didn’t like, though I preferred some over others, in particular:

Rugiada 2010 California Tempranillo ($22): Made with fruit from the Dunnigan Hills in Yolo County, one of the state’s more promising settings for the grape, the Rugiada version is lightly colored but exceptionally characteristic yet gentle, sidestepping the rigid tannins that often can obstruct accessibility to the varietal’s plush fruit.

Mastroserio 2011 Yolo County Reserve Sangiovese ($32): This is the first wine I tasted made by Mastroserio’s barrel-fermented approach to red wines. It stood out for its scent of violets, bright cherry fruit, luxurious texture and thread of vanilla from the French oak barrels in which it was fermented and aged.

Mastroserio 2010 Sierra Foothills Special Reserve Barbera ($32): Made with grapes from Dick Cooper’s ranch in neighboring Amador County, the barbera earns the “special reserve” designation for its unusual complexity, fine balance and bright acidity.

Mastroserio 2010 Fair Play Marco’s Vineyard Petite Sirah ($50): The grapes that went into the wine were from a block of his estate vineyard named for his son Marco. The wine is just what petite sirah is expected to be: densely colored, husky and juicy, seizing adroitly the varietal’s floral, spicy and fruity essence.

Mastroserio 2010 Fair Play Illaria’s Vineyard Cabernet Franc ($50): Also made with fruit from the estate vineyard, this time a block named for his daughter Illaria, the cabernet franc comes down more on the cherry-fruit side of the varietal than the herbal, though that note is played here as well.

Mastroserio 2009 El Dorado County Stonehaven Vineyards Reserve Zinfandel ($28): While made in the claret style more than the typically dense, ripe and rigid model for the foothills, the Mastroserio nonetheless captures the varietal’s telltale blackberry fruit, peppery spice and lasting finish.

Mike Dunne