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BOCCEBREW - Holding Court

Holding Court with Glass in Hand

By Richard Paul Hinkle


For the suds crowd, the sport of choice is softball, played with long-neck bottle in hand.  California's wine folk-- especially those with Italian roots -- are gravitating toward a more genteel pastime, taking to the lawn with a bocce ball in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.

"Oh, yes.  You have to have a glass of red wine in hand while you're playing.  A Preston red.  It emboldens you to make your best shot," affirms Lou Preston, whose Dry Creek Valley winery in Sonoma County seems to have been the first to spark the trend of winery bocce ball competitions.  Indeed, the interest was so great that Preston was recently forced to add a second court.

Bocce had its beginnings in the Italian Alps during the early Christian era, when players tossed stones at a target (the object being to land as close as possible to the target).  Roman soldiers, employing balls instead of stones, spread the game throughout the Roman Empire, where the game evolved to boules (France), lawn bowls (England) and bocce (from the vulgar Latin word for ball, bottia ) in Italy.

And although it has taken well over a century for the game to really catch fire here, bocce is gaining in popularity.  It will even be played as a demonstration sport at the Sydney Summer Olympics next year.

The game is simplicity itself. A small white ball, known as "jack," is bowled down the alley.  The object is to then place one's ball as close to the jack as possible to score points.  Much like croquet or horseshoes, each subsequent bowler can dislodge those balls previously bowled. (There is even a similar version of bocce played on ice called curling.)

Preston, whose heritage and M.B.A. from Stanford University certainly didn't predispose him  to bocce ball, put in his first court in 1985.  So how did this bread-baking, bocce ball -playing winemaker take up this once so esoteric sport?  "{It} was inspired by my Italian in-laws -- Susan's folks, who live in the Sierra Foothills and cook and bake and play bocce.

"Our second court was inspired by a cellar worker who used to work for us, Roberto Sabatini. He really knew bocce. He was a member of the West Coast chapter of the American Bocce Federation.  He helped us build a better court, coached us on how to play better and taught us how to run a tournament."

Building a proper bocce ball court is far more complex than the layperson could begin to imagine.  International regulations call for a court 91 feet long and 13 feet wide, but a court of 60 feet by 10 feet is sufficient for most needs.

"First you lay down a base of three-quarter-inch drain rock," Preston explains, "because you don't want water pooling in the winter.  Then a thick layer of oyster shells, and over that comes the surface layer of oyster flour.  The flour is quite fine, and sifts down to fill in the courser layers.  You work it with a roller until the surface becomes very dense and very smooth.  The new technology is to mix in a little clay with the oyster flour so that everything compacts better

Preston admits to holding the occasional tournament, but insists that they're never formal.  "Winery visitors keep the courts fully occupied all day on weekends. They picnic, eat bread, play with the cats and play bocce."  And as to those rumors of nude bocce ball, Preston winks and shakes his head. "We don't allow that, " he claims.

Sonoma County was heavily settled by Italian immigrants who recognized an intimate geophysical resemblance to their native Tuscany and Piedmont. It is no surprise then that the county's winemaking population is littered with names such as Foppiano, Ghiotti, Martini, Mazzoni, Parducci (Kenwood), Pastori, Pedroncelli, Prati, Rafanelli, Rosse, Sebastiani, Seghesio, Sodini, Sbarboro (Italian Swiss Colony) and Vercelli.

"We've had our court next to the tasting room for about six years now," says Jim Pedroncelli, co-proprietor of his family's historic Geyserville winery. He believes the game is an important part of his Italian heritage. "My brother John and I remember, as little guys -- this was before television, you understand -- when bocce was a big Sunday social event. People would sit around drinking wine, telling stories and playing bocce.

At J. Pedroncelli Winery, much like at Preston Vineyards, "nothing is too organized," Pedroncelli says. "Bocce is a friendly game. It's easy to learn and doesn't take a lot of practice. It's very sociable. People sit and stand around, talking, kibitzing, trying to throw people off their game. And bocce doesn't take a lot of preparation or maintenance. It's not like a golf course or a tennis court.


"Our court is open to our tasting room visitors," Pedroncelli explains. "They just walk in and start playing."  Picnicking is also encouraged, so visitors who take full advantage of the amenities can savor an Old World-style of relaxation that's being preserved in wine country. "We do occasionally invite friends, members of the wine trade and restauranteurs for loosely organized tournaments. But no money changes hands, " Pedroncelli asserts, "it's strictly amateur."

Over in the Russian River Valley, visitors gravitate to the bocce ball court at Armida Winery, a noted producer of Pinot Noir. "The original owners, the Frugolis, were Italian," explains co-proprietor Bruce Cousins. "They put in the court before we bought into the winery."

Armida's bocce ball court is pleasantly situated and seems to be the center of outdoor life here. "Everyone uses it,"  Cousins says. "People open a bottle of wine and hang out and whoop it up for hours. The court sits between the vineyard and the pond, and is lined by roses on one side and has some nice benches on the other.  And there's a big stone lion's head overseeing things. He's like, our referee," Cousins chuckles.

Visitors to Armida, which is open seven days a week, are welcome to use the court. "We've never done anything organized," Cousins says, "but the Chicago Bocce Ball Club was here once to play."

The Chardonnay specialists at Sonoma Valley's Landmark Vineyards see bocce as one of the great wine-drinking games. Besides that, "it's one of the few games I can beat my husband at," enthuses co-proprietor Mary Colhoun.  "We put in our court in the spring of 1997. It's pretty easy to maintain -- you just sweep it and roll it.." 

Built in a lovely, park-like setting, Landmark's bocce court is popular with winery visitors, who also may enjoy wagon rides and Landmark's picnic grounds seven days a week.

A pair of Sonoma County wineries that maintain courts that, unfortunately, are not generally available to visitors are Belvedere Winery and Mazzocco Vineyards.  Eye surgeon- owner Tom Mazzocco lived in San Francisco in the late 1960s while doing his medical residency. "I remember going over to the public courts on Columbus Avenue, watching the old Italians play for hours at a time."  Once he built his winery "we put in a bocce court for family and employee use, but we leave the balls out in case winery visitors wander down from the tasting room and want to play."

Although Belvedere's court is also semi-private, it boasts a setting so spectacular that it's worth mentioning.  Sitting atop a promontory that is 800 to 1,000 feet above sea level --a commanding aerie that also includes picnic grounds -- it makes an ideal spot for entertaining clients or holding company get-togethers.

Winery spokesperson English Knowles suggests that the setting represents the rural, real Sonoma County ambience. "It's a reminder of this county's Old World roots," she says. "The Italians settled the area because it reminded them of their own Tuscan hills. They also had the foresight to plant some bold red varieties. We pay homage to them as we toss the bocce, and we have only one rule. You must have a glass of Zinfandel in hand at all times while playing."

Indeed, the Old World game is catching on. "Everybody's talking about bocce ball," affirms Pete Seghesio Jr. of Seghesio Winery. "We're putting two courts in at our family's new downtown Healdsburg facility, which is actually a retrofit of our 1895 cellar.  We used to have a family-style picnic and play bocce ball. It's a wonderful way to bring people together.:"

Slated for play to begin next year, the Seghesio courts will be open to the public.

The folks at Mendocino County's Brutocao Cellars have incorporated bocce courts into their new complex in downtown Hopland. "We had a court in our backyard when I was growing up,"  says owner Leonard Brutocao, who wanted to recapture those golden days for visitors and clients.

"We want Hopland to be an important wine country destination,"  Brutocao explains, "so we're putting in a restaurant, a tasting room, a gazebo for weddings, a hillside garden planted with 4,000 rose bushes and six bocce courts."  His winery has even joined the U.S. Bocce Federation and will serve as the North Coast Bocce Federation's headquarters. Plans are in the works to host inter-city, inter-winery and regional tournaments.

The entire Brutocao complex is nearing completion, while the six courts, which Brutocao estimates cost about $100,000, opened for play in May.

The brochure published by Boccebrew, a Marin County bocce court builder, notes that "Bocce has been distilled over the centuries like rare amber, ready to enlighten and ennoble, humble and humiliate, soothe and satisfy." But the words of Machiavelli, perhaps the greatest player the game has ever known, say it best:  "Let's-a play-a ball!"