Cambrian: Opinion

Maria Stolo Bennetti: Her family tree is woven in vines

Maria Stolo Bennetti in the wine cellar at Stolo Family Winery.
Maria Stolo Bennetti in the wine cellar at Stolo Family Winery. Special to The Cambrian

Take a quick look at Maria Stolo Bennetti’s family history and it’s no surprise she’s working in the wine industry. The only curiosity: It wasn’t her first career choice.

Criminal psychology was the path she took straight out of college in the early ’90s to work as a counselor for gang members and other convicts released from prison. Her workplaces were halfway houses for some pretty rough characters in Denver and San Francisco. A challenge for anyone, but one this petite, newly minted college grad relished.

“I looked like a little kid, and here I was working with all these hardened criminals,” Maria laughed. “I was basically their mom at 25. And I actually enjoyed it.”

Well, she still looks 25, though she just turned 40, and is a wife and the mother of two young boys. By all accounts, her work today managing the picturesque Stolo Family Winery on Santa Rosa Creek Road is a far cry from that first job.

“I really love what I’m doing,” Maria said. “It’s 100 percent a dream come true. My parents could not have picked a better place.”

And she loves producing and selling the Stolo label. “Wine has always been part of our lives. From the earliest stories of my great-grandparents and great uncles, there was wine on the table.”

And in the basement.

Early family members — the Stolos on her father’s side and the Roccis on her mother’s — made wine, first in Italy and later when they came to the U.S. The Rocci family settled in Ohio, the Stolos in Rome, N.Y.

“We joke that they came from Naples to Rome,” Maria said. “They were family winemakers and would have wine grapes shipped across the country from California to make basement wine for their everyday use.”

Her connection with the family winemaking tradition clicked after attempts at a few other endeavors. She left criminal counseling work for a job at a law firm, with her eyes focused on a law degree. But she soon discovered that a 9-to-5 desk job was not for her.

Then she followed her passion for photography, going back to school for another degree and taking a job at a photography studio. Additional part-time work waitressing introduced her to the “nuances” of various wines and led to a job at a tasting room in Napa. All this while she was in her 20s, a time her husband, Matt, jokes about as her “colorful résumé.”

Maria worked in the tasting room at Cartlidge & Browne in Napa, a huge facility that was an umbrella for many labels and the place where she really “latched on” to selling wine. “That was really fun. I especially enjoy the social aspect of the tasting room, where everybody has a story. People come in and tell you the most amazing things about their lives.”

But again, she began considering an adjustment to her career, this time in the direction of wine buyer for restaurants. She took a job at California Wine Merchant, a well-established wine shop in San Francisco’s Marina District, where she learned about wines from all over the world. She later met wine broker Hunter Boone, who introduced her to famous Napa and Sonoma wineries.

“All that experience was really amazing. I learned so much that I thought I should have paid for this education.”

Maria was busy brokering wine at some of San Francisco’s top restaurants in 2002, when her parents, Don and Charlene Stolo, bought their Santa Rosa Creek property. They had been looking for a place to buy in Cambria for their future retirement and fell in love with the old farmhouse, historic barn — and, of course, the vineyards.

“We come from a small family business background, so it wasn’t unusual for my dad to suggest we start a small family winery on the property,” Maria said.

Don Stolo runs the cabinet shop his father started in the 1950s in Brea, and Maria’s two siblings, Justin and Breanna, work for him there. Though the plan for retirement continues, her dad has yet to “relinquish his power” at the cabinet shop, Maria joked. “I am always glad when he’s here, though, because he is really fun to work with.”

They had their first harvest of pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah grapes “off the hillside” in 2004. Winemaker Steve Dooley was tapped for production and storage at his San Luis Obispo facility, while Maria worked the Internet and conducted small tastings to get their label started. “I was still working in San Francisco and trying to get this up and running. It was all very exciting.”

For 10 years after they purchased the property, the Stolos planted more grapes and worked their way through myriad county hoops to get construction of their winery and tasting room approved. In 2011, Nicole Pope replaced Steve Dooley as winemaker. The winery and tasting room opened in 2012.

Nicole Pope’s first vintage under the Stolo Family label is a 2012 sauvignon blanc that will soon to be featured in Touring and Tasting magazine. “It has been hugely popular and is selling very well,” Maria said.

Their 2012 chardonnay will be released this summer and the 2012 pinot noir is in the bottle for an expected November release. “I sat down with Nicole to taste the pinot and I was really impressed. She is a great match for us,” Maria said. “I can describe to her what I want to see, and she gets it.”

A self-described “wine geek,” Maria says their wines have a distinctive smell — a mixture of earth, ocean and cranberries. “You can smell our property, coastal breezes and the actual berries in our wine. I have never smelled it anyplace else.”

Wines grown in this region on the coast are not part of a recognized AVA, or American Viticulture Area, the way wines are classified in Paso Robles, for example. And that’s unfortunate, Maria said, because the AVA defines a sense of place for the wines grown and produced here.

“We have a unique climate with a nice balance between the cool coast and some inland heat. We have the beautiful coastal breezes and the warming sun during the day, and that makes for happy grapes.”

Stolo Family Winery is a member of the Pacific Coast Wine Trail, and Maria is in discussions with other local wineries about applying for an AVA designation for this region.

Down the line, she admits her “colorful résumé” will likely continue. “I may pursue a master’s degree to become a sommelier or I might become a winemaker. Who knows?”

For now she is happy where she is. “We are a micro-boutique winery — a mom-and-pop — and this is where we want to stay. We want to keep it local.”