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  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Christian Vitone stands with a glass of his wine, Verde Soul at Napa East Wine Lounge, Thursday afternoon in Nashua.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    A glass of Verde Sole is poured at Napa East, Thursday afternoon in Nashua.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Founder and CEO of Vitone Family Wines, Christian Vitone sits with a glass of his wine as bottles are displayed in a case at Napa East Wine Lounge in Nashua.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Part of the wine selection at Napa East is seen, Thursday afternoon. More than 100 bottles of wine are available by the glass.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    Christian Vitone stands cradeling a bottle of his wine at Napa East Wine Bar in Nashua, Thursday afternoon. Vitone's wine, Verde Sole is made in California but sold in New Hampshire.
  • Staff Photo by GRANT MORRIS

    A glass of Verde Sole is poured at Napa East, Thursday afternoon in Nashua.
Sunday, April 1, 2012

Merrimack man’s California wine business growing

With his roots in Italy and his vines in the Sierra Foothills, Christian Vitone may be New Hampshire’s only California winemaker.

Vitone, a Merrimack resident and president of Vitone Family Wines, runs his growing business out of a small office in Amherst. But before they reach local shelves, his wines travel the 3,000 miles from Northern California.

Serving as a “negociant,” Vitone crafts his wines from grapes produced at the Miraflores Winery in Placerville, Calif., and he sells them under his own label, Verde Sole.

Vitone, 49, launched the label and the company three years ago, following a lifelong dream. And he hasn’t looked back since.

“I didn’t want to do the same thing everybody else does,” said Vitone, whose zinfandel blend sells for about $18 a bottle.

“I wanted to produce California varieties, but I wanted to operate out of New England,” he said, showing his wine proudly in a Nashua liquor store. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Vitone’s love for wine and the name of his wine label come as gifts from his late grandfather.

Fedele Brunoli, an Italian immigrant, crafted his own wine from his Avon, Conn., home, and as he farmed the grapes, he often told his grandson, “Con il sole, tutto e’ verde.”

The translation? “With the sun, everything is green.”

Now 40 years later, Vitone can still smell the deep, earthy aroma of his grandfather’s basement, where he helped crush the grapes and bottle the wine, among other tasks.

“I’ll never forget that smell. It was a combination of the dirt floor, the oak barrels,” said Vitone, who works days at the Napa East wine bar in Nashua. “I always wanted to go down in the basement to get that smell.”

As an adult, Vitone honed his love for wining, serving bottles with almost every dinner. But after several years in the retail industry, he decided to follow his passion west, moving to California in 1998 to seek work in California’s famed vineyards.

At first, he enlisted in a job at Southern Wine and Liquor, a national distribution company, but after several months, he lined up work behind the wine bar at film director Francis Ford Coppola’s winery in Napa Valley.

“It was quite an experience working for Francis,” Vitone said. “He is very much the director. He wants things done in a certain way. … That was when I first started thinking of making wine myself.”

After two years in California, Vitone decided to return to New England. His wife, Susan, is a Massachusetts native, and a job at Fidelity Investments brought the family to Merrimack.

But he brought his winemaking dreams east with him. And when his Fidelity unit dissolved in 2009, Vitone decided it was time to put his dreams in action.

Vitone had considered starting his own vineyard. But the time and the overhead costs made that impossible.

“You have to buy a piece of property, and then the vines don’t produce for three or four years,” he said. “It was prohibitive.”

So instead, he set about to start his own label.

Vitone began by filing paperwork with the state, establishing a limited liability company. And he returned to California soon after to find a winemaker to work with.

He initially met with several wholesale distributors, but decided against their mass production. It wasn’t until a mutual friend introduced him to Marco Cappelli, a celebrated custom winemaker, that Vitone knew he had found his match.

“He’s my age. He’s Italian-American. He loves to make wine like this,” Vitone said. “It’s worked out great.”

Since then, the two have worked to produce several blends under Vitone’s Verde Sole label. Last fall, they released the zinfandel, and later this spring, they plan to release their second blend, a pinot grigio blend, which includes roussanne and marsanne grapes to add to the flavor.

“I like pinot grigio, but in combination with the other two, it’s really a unique experience,” Vitone said.

Vitone plans to release a third variety, a sparkling prosecco, sometime this fall. But he has bigger plans for his company.

Over the coming years, he plans to release a second label under his company, Sierra Gold, which will feature a less expensive line of wines that will range between $8 and $12.

“We want to make sure it’s affordable for people,” he said.

And eventually, Vitone hopes to expand his label farther around New Hampshire and into other states. Currently, Verde Sole is available in 21 of New Hampshire’s 78 state liquor stores, as well as Napa East and several restaurants in the area.

“I think it’s a wonderful addition to the state,” said Chris Riendeau, general manager of Napa East.

“It’s very expressive of the Sierra Foothills, where it comes from,” said Riendeau, who also works as the restaurant’s sommelier, or wine steward. “I think it’s a real approachable wine and something that does pair well with a lot of food. … We’ve had wild success having it on our list.”

Outside the United States, the Verde Sole label has reached as far as the Caribbean, Vitone said. It has reached Saint Lucia, among other Caribbean islands, where it ranks among the region’s top sellers.

“Right now, in Saint Lucia, we’re outselling every other red wine 2-1,” Vitone said. “They really love it down there.”

Ultimately, once his company has expanded its reach, Vitone hopes to return to California to buy his own vineyard and to bring his family further into the business.

“Ten years down the road, I’d like to have a small estate vineyard, get the kids involved at some point,” said Vitone, whose three children are 10, 7 and 5. “I could do some really interesting limited varietals.”

Until then, however, Vitone will work to grow his business one glass and one bottle at a time.

“The response has been amazing,” he said. “People love the wine, and they love the story. … It’s going much better than I had anticipated.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or