Behind The Bottle

Bacchus Winemaking Club: A Barrel of Fun

By Betty Taylor / Photography By Coline LeConte | October 26, 2017
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Dominick Chirichillo guides winemaking clubs to create their labeled vintages from grape selection to bottling.

A barrel of wine creates more miracles than a church full of saints. —Old Italian saying


This winemaking adage is a favorite of Dominick Chirichillo, a Cal-Italia winemaker and proprietor of the Bacchus Winemaking Club in San Carlos. Dom, as he is affectionately known to club members, has perfected an experience that makes winemaking fun and accessible to wine lovers of all stripes, from novices to aficionados.

“Winemaking is a very low-tech, hands-on experience that provides a connection to nature, and recalls a simpler time of sharing with family and friends. That’s what I love,” says Dom. “And the best part is, you get to live your winemaking experience every time you open a bottle of wine. It’s a real experience of giving and sharing.”

The club offers its members access to varietals of their choosing to make a barrel of wine (or ½- or ¼-barrel fractions) and learn his four-step process from crush to bottling, while being mentored by the award-winning vintner and his team. Each club meets for four fun sessions over the course of a year to go from winemaker planning to bottling with a custom label—ending with a tasting Harvest celebration shared by all of the different clubs.

While there is always a large following for Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs, Bacchus specializes in an array of about 20 Italian varietals for small-batch production, including Primitivo, Aglianico, Barbera, Sangiovese, to name a few. Grapes are sourced from Amador, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Napa, Sonoma, Lodi and other California AVAs.

Some people come to Bacchus for a fun, unique event to mark a major milestone like a wedding or a special birthday. Others have formed lasting groups of family, friends and colleagues and made it into an annual endeavor. A lively San Carlos walking group brings together half a dozen assorted friends to split a barrel or two. Patent attorney Steve Carlson has been dividing a barrel with different groups of friends every year since Bacchus began operation here in 2004. Another long-timer, Aco Alvarez, uses Bacchus for an annual team-building exercise for his staffing firm employees. The cost for all this fun? A modest $15 to $18 per bottle for most wines. The experience: one worth sharing and celebrating.

Photo 1: Winemaking club members toast to the finish of another good vintage.
Photo 2: Kelly Sollars demonstrates bottling techniques for club members.
Photo 3: The annual Harvest Celebration brings winemaking clubs together to sip and sample each others’ wines.

The 14th annual Bacchus Harvest Celebration event in August drew some 50 winemakers and more than 100 participants to celebrate the bottling of their 2016 wines. They were there to taste each other’s 2015 and 2014 vintages to help them make decisions about what varietals and wines they would select for the 2017 fall crush. The event was quite the festivity, with 15 different wines to taste, accompanied by classic Italian nibbles and intense conversations about the wines to be made in the year ahead.

It all began on the East Coast, where Dom grew up and developed a passion for wine early on from his grandfather, who brought the tradition of homemade wine with him from Italy. By age 2, Dom was helping his “Nonno” make wine using a hand press in the basement of their New York City home. They made two barrels a year of a classic red table wine, a blend of Alaconte, Barbera and Zinfandel grapes shipped from Lodi, California. Two barrels is a lot of wine: the equivalent of 300 bottles. But the Chirichillo family was prone to run out: “Every Sunday dinner was a gathering of extended family and friends and the wine was always flowing.”

Dom inherited Nonno’s wine press and the wine bug. He started making his own wine in New Jersey in the late 1980s. He also carried on the tradition of sharing it with community. In the next decade, he went from a hobbyist to making 60 barrels to making hundreds of barrels of wine. Along the way he founded his first winemaking school, Bacchus, in honor of the Roman wine god.

By the late 1990s, Dom and his wife, Gloria, decided to follow his winemaking passion further. They invested in land in Amador County and moved the family to California. Dom planted his eight-acre Amador vineyard with Primitivo and Syrah in 2001. He saw his first harvest in 2004, just in time for the opening of their Bacchus Winemaking Club in San Carlos—along with the launch of their own Domenico Winery label and tasting room.

Just as the Bacchus club took off, the economic downturn of 2008 hit. Though Domenico Winery was their first priority, the Chirichillos remained committed to nurturing the winemaking club venture. Fast forward to 2017 and Bacchus Winemaking Club in San Carlos is in a resurgence.

As Dom Chirichillo surveyed his members during the Harvest event, he relished the experience. “You can really learn as much or as little as you’d like about the art and science of winemaking, or just come and enjoy the camaraderie,” he said. His emphasis is clearly on enjoying.  ###

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