Cougar Vineyard & Winery wants ciliegiolo recognized in US

Cougar Vineyard & Winery assistant winemaker Jake Rentner moves a barrel of ciliegiolo wine. Cougar has chosen to produce a single varietal wine from the grape and is having the wine certified. The wine will be available in limited quantity. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

What’s ciliegiolo, you ask?

“There’s not a lot of information on it, but they thought it was like the mother of sangiovese,” Rick Buffington, co-owner of Cougar Vineyards & Winery, said. “But then they came back and said, ‘No, it’s not the mother of sangiovese, but it’s in the sangiovese family.’”

Regardless of where it comes from, Rick Buffington and his wife, Jennifer, along with the help of friend Pete Anderson, are going to petition the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to get the grape recognized so they can produce and sell wine made exclusively from the grape, which produced enough fruit for the first time to do so this year.

Cougar Vineyard & Winery used a basket press to extract the juice from a small batch of the ciliegiolo grapes.Valley News/courtesy photo
Cougar Vineyard & Winery used a basket press to extract the juice from a small batch of the ciliegiolo grapes.Valley News/courtesy photo
Ciliegiolo grapes are dumped into an industry size press during the beginning of Cougar Vineyard & Winery ciliegiolo wine production. Valley News/courtesy photo

“I would say it’s been at least six years since we grafted aglianico over to it,” Buffington said. “We have it as its own varietal, and we’re producing it right now as its own varietal. We’re not blending, and we’re making wine from it. We’re gonna make it a stand-alone varietal this year and next year.”

According to Buffington, the ciliegiolo harvested this year was good enough to where they think they will graft over more to make five rows.

This year, the lot was so small, they had to use the old basket press to press the grapes and get it into barrels.

Buffington talked about why getting ciliegiolo recognized is important.

“You have to get the label approval for everything,” Buffington said. “To list it on your bottle, it has to be on their approved list of varietals in the United States.

“Right now as far as (TTB) is concerned, it doesn’t exist, but we’re growing it, we’re using it,” he said.

According to Anderson, there’s a whole process of getting a grape recognized by the TTB.

“When you have a grape that you want to use on a label that really hasn’t been produced in the States, it makes it more difficult,” he said. “In other words, you have to do more research on the grapes, and I’ve already started that by contacting various growers in Italy and I’ve already purchased a couple of the wines that they have available from those vineyards. Here in the States, I need to track the market value of the grape. The TTB, they don’t want to necessarily waste their time on a grape that’s not going to go anywhere. When I put the petition together for TTB, I’ve got to be able to document that and show evidence that the grape has value on the market.”

The process involves sending cuttings from the vines to University of California Davis for DNA analysis.

“Then we get the analysis, they’ll send that to a university in Italy and they’ll match it up to the varietal over there,” Buffington said. “If they say, ‘Yes, in fact it does match the DNA of that varietal,’ then we send that information to the TTB and with the letter and say, ‘We’d like to have this one recommended because we’re growing it and producing it.”

Anderson is the one who petitioned, with the Buffingtons, to get falanghina recognized by the TTB and is doing the same with ciliegiolo.

Cougar Vineyard & Winery assistant winemaker Jake Rentner tests the quality of the newly barreled ciliegiolo wine. Valley News/Shane Gibson photo

Buffington and Anderson said that due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the wheels of the TTB are moving a little more slowly these days, and there are several varietal names that are tentatively approved but haven’t been finalized.

They said they think the entire process for the varietal approval process could take from a few months to a few years.

Editor’s note: Valley News will follow along with the work that Buffington and Anderson do in discovery to build the case for naming the varietal with the TTB.

Jeff Pack can be reached by email at