Fortino Winery
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Fortino Winery, likely one of the most familiar Santa Clara Valley wineries to local people, reflects the history of winemaking in a region famed for the craft. 

Premium wine has been made in the Santa Clara Valley longer than anywhere else in California. Part of that distinction had to do with the difficulty the early winemakers—predominantly Eastern European—had in the Napa region dealing with the indigenous people. 

In the Santa Clara Valley, a large number of winemakers—largely from France and Italy—started making their premium wines without local obstruction. Note: “premium wines” are wines based upon recognized varietals and careful winemaking practices versus the mission grape derived wines primarily used for sacramental ceremonies and consumption with meals. 

Esther Olivares pours a sample of a 2018 Charbono at Fortino Winery in Gilroy on March 22. Photo: Tarmo Hannula

In Morgan Hill, the Malaguerra Winery, a National Historic landmark, was started in 1869 but commercial winemaking in Santa Clara Valley goes back to the 1850s. In the early 1880s there were more than 100 wineries in the valley we call home.

Locally we have a sense of history that places like Guglielmo Family Winery and Fortino Winery are glad to represent (I’m sure I’m forgetting someone…). Places where generations of family have been working the fields and winery.

Fortino Winery was purchased in 1970 by Ernest and Maria Fortino. The vineyard and winery, started by the Cassa brothers just after World War Two, had sat idle for a decade. Ernest could see through that and envisioned a setting which reminded him of his native Calabria, Italy. 

They purchased the winery and committed to all the hard work to follow in resurrecting a vineyard long ignored. But the neglected vines were surviving because at the time this vineyard was established, there was little irrigation so it relied on Mother Nature to provide the needed water (known as dry farming). 

It didn’t take long before the Fortino Winery wines were winning awards. They even got a write up in the New York Times in 1975 for their Ruby Cabernet (the “ruby cabernet” grape is a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan grapes that you won’t find much of these days…). 1975 was a great year for California wines with the famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting that thrust California wines to the forefront of the world stage. And it wasn’t just Napa that sent wines to that tasting. 

Fortino Winery specializes in French and Italian varietals planted on over 50 acres which are now irrigated for a consistent product. The vineyards will be tended to and the wine made by future generations of Fortinos as it is now in their blood—the winery is now in the third generation of Fortino ownership. 

Second-generation Gino and sibling Teri took over the business in 1995 and the third generation of winemakers—Gino’s sons Nick and Kevin and Teri’s son Austin—will take over in the future.

The tasting room at Fortino Winery, pictured March 22, offers a comfortable space for visitors to enjoy a flight, glass or pint. Photo: Tarmo Hannula

A visit to the winery is a comfortable experience—nothing pretentious, as Gino would say. 

When you first drive up you’ll see a picnic area across the parking lot from the tasting room with a view overlooking the vineyard. It’s a comfortable place to sit and enjoy some fine wine with friends, maybe bring a picnic and sip and dine your afternoon away. 

For those days when there’s a chill in the air or it’s a bit toasty you can move into the spacious tasting room. Once inside you can belly up to the 40-foot bar clad in reclaimed wood by Terra Amico (yes, the same Terra Amico with the farm), which helps provide a warm and comfortable feeling. 

Out back there is a spacious lawn area surrounded by trees that plays host to many of the region’s fundraising events.

Back inside is a full complement of white and red wines along with a sparkling wine and a nice selection of fruit wines. Not only did Ernest get recognized for his 1975 Red Cabernet, but the winery regularly earns medals in tasting competitions along with the valued high ratings from respected publications. 

Fortino Winery is somewhat rare in our valley, as it is a winery with a full commercial kitchen. This kitchen not only helps support those fundraisers, weddings and other special events; it also allows for beer and hard cider to be served right next to their wines. 

I mean it when I say they have something for everyone (practically). Fortino is one of the few wineries with the proper license to serve beer and wine together at a winery, and it will likely stay that way until liquor licensing regulations change.

Pictured are some of the wines bottled by Fortino Winery, located near the intersection of Hecker Pass Highway and Watsonville Road in Gilroy. Photo: Tarmo Hannula

Fortino Winery is a classic Santa Clara Valley winery. It’s laid back and comfortable, has great wines and other adult beverages, wonderful staff, great at hosting events, and is right down the road.

Since we find many of those great qualities in other local wineries, I asked Gino what he’d like people to know about Fortino Winery, what he feels makes them special. His response was simple: it’s a third generation family run winery that focuses on making their wines the best they can. Finding wineries that are multigenerational is getting harder and harder to do. Growing grapes and making wine is hard work and only a few ever make a fortune doing it. I have to respect a family that truly has wine in their blood.

Fortino Winery is located at 4525 Hecker Pass Highway, in Gilroy. For more information, visit https://fortinowinery.com/

John McKay has been working with the local wineries and restaurants for over a decade. Promoting local wines and food has driven McKay, a former city council member, to help establish the Morgan Hill Tourism Alliance and serve on the Board of the Morgan Hill Downtown Association (MHDA). He now serves on the MHDA and Visit Morgan Hill Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected]

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