Cosimo Pizzulli began his artistic career as a painter and a sculptor. He’s now a leading interior designer in Santa Monica working for clients that include several high-end luxury retailers on Rodeo Drive.
This year Pizzulli also joined a prestigious group of winemakers when the Pizzulli Family Winery, based in Camarillo, won a Gold Medal /Best of Class Sangiovese in the Los Angeles International Wine Competition.
“It’s an amazing award. I was completely blown away,” Pizzulli says. “I was shocked because we are a very small producer and we’re young.”
The winery began in 2006 and produces just 500 cases per year from fruit grown in Santa Barbara. It’s known for its California versions of Italian varieties made completely without additives. The award in many ways rounds out the career of this prolific artist, which his friends call a Renaissance Man.
“Winemaking is really just an extension of who I am as an artist,” Pizzulli says.
The two art forms of wine and design mixed especially well recently when Pizzulli recreated the interior of Mason Giraud, a French restaurant in Pacific Palisades where they now serve Pizzulli Family Wines.
Winemaking has always been a hobby for Pizzulli that he first witnessed as a child seeing his father and grandfather make wine in their Brooklyn basement. Much of his hands-on winemaking ability, though, came over the past six years from experimenting in his own small-scale winery right in the backyard of his Pacific Palisades home. Pizzulli calls it a test plot, but really it’s a simple reflection of what families have been doing in Europe for hundreds of years, he says.
“Food and wine go back centuries,” he says. “It’s nothing new. What I’m practicing is something my grandfather and his grandfather practiced and goes back 1,000 years which is to be able to produce something completely natural.”
A winery in Pacific Palisades, however, is somewhat unusual. He may have the only vineyard in the neighborhood, but there are several others scattered throughout the Malibu foothills that have formed a sort of winemaking community.
Driving through the gated entrance to the home of Cosimo and Christine Pizzulli feels like entering another time and place, maybe mid 20th century Italy. Car wheels rumble over warped boards. An old truck rests among the trees as the drive descends to an elegant ranch style home set in a small canyon.
There’s an outdoor dining area on the back porch and a charming swimming pool. Yet by far the crowning intrigue to the place is its unique backyard winery. Short rows of vines, planted about 13 years ago, sit on a steep hillside on the edge of the property that’s warmed by the morning sun.
Around November the grapes are harvested and later crushed over an outdoor patio that’s sloped just right to filter away excess runoff. Afterward the wine is stored in barrels for aging in an aboveground wine cellar made from an old refrigerated shipping container. Every step in the process Pizzulli takes with the finest attention to detail.
It takes a unique grape to thrive at such low elevation, about 200 feet above sea level. For just the right variety Pizzulli looked toward an area of Italy close to the sea where vineyards have grown well. He chose a Sangiovese that grows in Tuscany clear down to the beach. He says it typically requires a little more heat, but it works well for Pizzulli even on a terrace with only partial sun.
The commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara also produces Sangiovese along with several other Italian varieties such as Nebbiolo and Barbera that grow well relatively close to the ocean. Mostly high-end Italian restaurants carry Pizzulli wines. Bottles are also distributed through a single wine shop in Santa Monica.
Pizzulli grew up in New York in an Italian family with close ties to their homeland. As a general rule, children could have a sip of wine if they were old enough to hold a glass, he says. Pizzulli’s little backyard operation on less than a quarter of an acre makes about 50 gallons of wine on a good year.
While he can’t sell any of the wine he makes at home based on a city ordinance, Pizzulli has no problem sharing wine with friends and family in what have become famed gatherings over delicious meals. Friend Chad Gutstein, says Christine’s cooking is phenomenal. She’s also the Director of Nursing and Operations / Operating Room Services for UCLA Health Systems.
“It’s unbelievable,” says Gutstein, founder and COO of Ovation, a cable television network based in Santa Monica. “It’s one of my favorite places in all of Los Angeles to go for dinner. It’s got this sense of being in Tuscany. Yet you’re in the Palisades. It really is a transformational sort of place.”
Pizzulli brings to winemaking the same mentality he has with design, which is to use completely natural and sustainable products as much as possible. If he’s going to use plastic for a design feature, he prefers a good plastic, not plastic disguised as wood, he says. Pizzulli’s renovation of a 50,000 square-foot former AT&T telephone equipment building recently won a LEED Gold designation from the US Green Building Council.
“For interior design and architecture, wood is a very basic product,” Pizzulli says. “The cord of a vine is basically wood. If you work with natural products in your design, you’re working with sustainable natural products. The same is true in winemaking.”
Everything about Pizzulli’s winemaking process is handcrafted and completely organic. There are no pesticides used on the vines. No cultured yeast is added to the wine during the fermentation, which is a typical step in many wineries. Even the recycled refrigerator trailer used as an above-ground wine cellar and the reused wood that holds the bottles have been hand-crafted with an attention to detail and conservation.
“He’s invited me to help him many times in the winemaking activities,” Gutstein says. “These are really manual, labor of love, working with your hands activities that are a form of painting and design. They are art. You are using your hands to create an expression of yourself. And in this case that expression is wine. It’s a long process relative to other arts but it’s very much an artistic process the way he does it.”
Another friend, Neal Berkowitz, a retail broker, has also helped Pizzulli to harvest grapes or change barrels. He says he gained an appreciation for how tough it is to produce wine when he bought a house in Michigan years ago with its own vineyard.
“Not only did I ruin the wine but the next year the grapes were infested with bugs,” Berkowitz says.
Many art forms take time, but perhaps none as long as the winemaking process where the fruits of the labor won’t be fully realized for years to come. Every vintage is an expression of the year it was produced, whether it was a hot year or an especially cloudy summer. Pizzulli says winemaking helps him to feel closer to nature.
“Winemaking has a fundamental connection to nature,” Pizzulli says.