This summer, 32 people gathered for an unusual winery dinner. Rather than overlooking grapevines and the rolling hills of Napa or Sonoma, the meal took place in an alley in Oakland. And the theme for the night was far from local — the food and wines enjoyed were inspired by Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey.
The dinner was a collaboration between the Ancient Wine Guys, Dana DePietro and Jeff Pearson, two academics specializing in the classics and archaeology; Ti Ngo, a wine professional; and Pietro Buttitta, a chef and winemaker, who earlier this year, opened the Prima Materia tasting room in Temescal Alley. The event was a fundraiser for DePietro and Pearson’s Society for Archaeological Research and Exploration (S.H.A.R.E.), which runs archaeological and dialogue projects in the Middle East for Israeli and Palestinian youth.
Buttitta prepared dishes from the historical regions in The Odyssey: a Turkish vegetable salad called turlu turlu, Sicilian fennel caponata with tuna, Calabrian pork sugo with chickpeas, and cake made with dates and apples. Dishes were paired with wines from Anatolia, Turkey; Thrace, Greece and the Amalfi Coast of Italy. While guests ate and drank, the Ancient Wine Guys gave a presentation focused on The Odyssey, through the lens of food and wine.
“Being able to make a history lesson fun, as well as a little political, is super on point for what we want to be doing,” Buttitta said, noting that he met his collaborators when they all worked together at a wine shop.
Prima Materia is only a tasting room, not a proper winery. The name, Buttitta said, “is a reference to how in alchemy, it’s the first substance of primal material that everything evolves out of.” His winery is small; he sells about 1,500 cases per year.
Buttitta grows his grapes in Lake County and does all of his wine production there, too. But this year, he decided to bring his wines to sell in Oakland since this is where he lives.
While his name gives away his roots, it was Buttitta’s grandfather who was the immigrant from Italy, though he said his father “maintained that Sicilian fresh-off-the-boat” sensibility, which had both its positives and negatives.
Buttitta grew up in Sonoma County, but “it was not some romantic Napa vineyard kind of thing,” he said. His family had fruit orchards, but he said, “we were bad at what we did.” They were on food stamps for part of his childhood. Nevertheless, Buttitta picked up where his family left off and was able to make it work.
“I clicked with the agricultural cycle,” Buttitta said. “I liked being out in the field in the sun, carrying stuff around and harvest time was pretty exciting.”
As a teenager, he got interested in cooking shows and reading cookbooks, even though no one else in his family shared that passion or even cooked, for that matter.
In college, Buttitta realized that he enjoyed learning, but structured education was not for him.
“I wasn’t cut out for extended school life. Sitting in classes and writing papers was not for me,” he said. He raced bicycles for much of his 20s, only getting his first kitchen job in his late 20s.
Buttitta’s experience ranges from cooking in fine-dining restaurants to working as a banquet chef, and his interest in wine grew steadily, too, so much so that helping out during crush at a Lake County winery “was a big transformation for me,” he said. He was living in Portland then, and started going back and forth as his interest in wine grew.
“Once I got my hands on the agricultural side, I began piecing together the winery side,” he said. “I was always interested in history and philosophy. If I’m going to grow Cabernet, I want to know everything about it.”
While he’d like to move his winemaking operation closer to Oakland, he doesn’t foresee that happening anytime soon.
“I’m a one-person operation and that part is great but it’s a long commute three or four days a week, six days a week during harvest,” he said.
While the tasting room is new, the grapes he’s been growing go back 11 years, and he planted most of them himself. He is currently growing 14 different varietals, 11 of which are Italian, since he has a strong preference for Italian wine. While some are recognizable to the non-wine geek, like Sangiovese, Chianti and Barbera, he’s also growing some lesser-known grapes, like Aglianico and Refosco.
Prima Materia’s tasting room is open limited hours and only on Friday through Sundays during harvest, but Buttitta said he’ll open Thursdays once harvest ends in the coming days.
Buttitta will host more historical wine dinners with the Ancient Wine Guys, as well as classes; everything from a general beginners class on how to taste wine, to pairings with cheese and other offerings. The next event, “Wines of the Appian Way “ taking place Nov. 22, is a class highlighting grapes and wines found along Italy’s Appian Way. The wines will be from Prima Materia and Italian producers, as well. Buttitta will pair the pours with small bites based on historical recipes from the region.
“I like helping people get comfortable asking questions about wine,” he said. “Like can you describe what broccoli really tastes like? It’s incredibly hard to do. The same applies to wine. Too bad we really don’t have that language, but we can certainly learn.”
“Wines of the Appian Way” takes place 7 p.m., Nov. 22 at the Prima Materia tasting room. Tickets are $55. Class is limited to 12 people.