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Tending to the family wine business

When Ann Colaruotolo’s husband began looking for sites in the Finger Lakes region to start a vineyard and winery, she encouraged his vision but put her foot down on the location.
 
The couple recently had purchased a large parcel of land off Turk Hill Road in Perinton, and Colaruotolo did not want to have to divide her time between a winery that would be some distance away and the home where she needed to be to care for her children.
 
After testing the soil to see if it was good for growing grapes, the couple decided to build Casa Larga Vineyards Inc. on their Perinton land.
 
The venture began as a hobby for Andrew Colaruotolo but expanded into an award-winning winery and a banquet facility heavily sought after for weddings and other functions.
 
Andrew Colaruotolo died nine years ago, but his wife-Casa Larga’s president and co-founder, who goes by "Mrs. C."-continues her involvement with the business.
 
Her daughter, Andrea O’Neill, who works at the winery along with her brother and sister, says her mother personifies the five-star service associated with Casa Larga.
 
"Everyone who comes here wants to meet Mrs. C.," O’Neill says. "She sets the bar."
 
Ann Colaruotolo, 78, says she cannot imagine her life without the winery.
 
"I love to be out with the people," she says. "I don’t see myself just sitting in the house."
 
Colaruotolo grew up in Rochester with her parents, who came from Italy. The family did not speak English in the home, and Colaruotolo did not begin using the language until kindergarten. She graduated from Jefferson High School in 1952.
 
Shortly after finishing school, Colaruotolo met her husband-to-be at a dance. A native of Gaeta, an Italian coastal village between Rome and Naples, he worked as a mason and attended Rochester Institute of Technology in the evenings. The two married roughly eight months after they started dating; she was 19 years old.
 
In 1958, Andrew Colaruotolo formed Anco Builders LLC. The firm, now run by the couple’s son, John, has constructed thousands of homes in area developments, including Beaumont Estates, LeTour Manor and the Midlands.
 
Ann Colaruotolo was able to use the training she received from the Rochester Business Institute after high school to do the company’s books.

Wine business
While he enjoyed the growing homebuilding business, Andrew Colaruotolo came from a long line of Italian winemakers and had a desire to follow in that tradition.
 
He began what would become Casa Larga-named after his family winery in Italy-on five acres in 1974 as a hobby, learning about vinifera grapes from Konstantin Frank, a noted viticulturist and winemaker in the region.
 
The family also grew vegetables on the land, selling them at a stand, and let people pick and buy grapes off the vine.
 
Ann Colaruotolo was involved with the wine business from the beginning, doing everything from bookkeeping to tours.
 
Originally, the winery’s offices were at the couple’s home, which gave her the chance to get her house in order before starting her business duties for the day.
 
The boutique winery was a family affair, with relatives and friends getting together to pick grapes from the vineyard and then feasting on a seven-course meal made by Ann Colaruotolo. It was a mix of work and play, she recalls.
 
"This was our country club," she says.
 
Casa Larga’s first three wines were produced in 1978, earning gold and silver medals in the first competition in which they were entered.
 
Today, Casa Larga produces a wide range of wines, including red and white table wines, sparkling wines and ice wine. The grapes are grown on roughly 40 acres of the site. The winery produces four lines of wines under the labels Casa Larga, Fiori, Gallery 155 and Vineyard Hill.
 
In 1991, the banquet facility-called Bella Vista, or Beautiful View-was constructed. The venue can accommodate events with up to 350 people.
 
Casa Larga employs up to 24 workers year-round, but that number can increase to roughly 40 with seasonal staff. The family declined to disclose sales.
 
Casa Larga ranked 13th on the most recent Rochester Business Journal list of wineries with 35,000 gallons of wine produced in 2011.
 
The family takes great pride in its products and still uses many methods that Andrew Colaruotolo’s family practiced in Italy. Some of the equipment comes from overseas, including oak barrels from Hungary.
 
"We have an old-fashioned approach," Ann Colaruotolo says. "Everything is done in a traditional European style."
 
Colaruotolo still makes sure her house is in order before she goes to Casa Larga, where her duties include sorting and distributing the mail. She also scours trade magazines, making sure the winery keeps up with the latest industry trends and advances.
 
Elegant and well-dressed, she is also warm and friendly. She enjoys talking about-and caring for-her family.

The family cook
She is also a phenomenal cook, her family says, having learned her husband’s favorite meals from Italy, many of which included fish, light sauces and chunks of parmesan cheese. She would pick up cooking tips every year when visiting her in-laws in Italy, and she served as the chef at the restaurant that used to be at Casa Larga.
 
"My husband never really liked to go out," she says. "He always wanted to eat what I was cooking."
 
Her children also rave about her cooking. Recently, her son, John, had a business meeting and asked those attending to meet at his mother’s house near Casa Larga. There she cooked up dandelion greens and cannelloni beans; stuffed peppers; and a salad with tuna, beans, olives, lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil-another staple in her kitchen. She prepared the feast in roughly an hour.
 
Every Sunday, Colaruotolo is host for a family dinner at her Perinton home, where the guests include her three adult children, their spouses and nine grandchildren who range in age from 29 to less than a year old. Often, some bring friends or significant others.
 
Colaruotolo also enjoys playing the piano and accordion. She likes dining out with friends and attending Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concerts.

Philanthropy
Known for her commitment to charitable causes, particularly charities that involve children, she supports the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children as well as Casa Italiana, the center for Italian language, literature and culture at Nazareth College of Rochester.
 
"I love children; I love babies," she says. "When I hear of abuse or they are taken, I want to do something to help."
 
Kathleen Bivona, co-founder of the New York chapter of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and an honorary board member of the Bivona Child Advocacy Center, has known Colaruotolo for nearly 30 years, since the Colaruotolos began donating wine for the center’s events. Over the years, Colaruotolo has taken a more active volunteer role in the agency.
 
Bivona describes Colaruotolo as a high-energy, passionate woman who is hysterically funny.
 
"She’s just amazing; I can’t say enough good things about her," Bivona says. "She is a woman to be admired in so many ways."
 
She also describes Colaruotolo as "old-world, old-school with no airs," and a person with a love for her family business.
 
"When you develop something from the ground up, you have that love and commitment," Bivona says.
 
Casa Larga released 13 wines in 2012 and has been working on expanding its wholesale distribution. Over the past few years, the winery has aligned with a new wholesale distributor, aiming to double the number of retail outlets for its wines, and has developed wines specifically for liquor stores. Its Lakeside Series, for example, includes special labels on bottles of pinot noir, cabernet merlot, chardonnay and riesling, each featuring a lake scene from New York.
 
The business has entered the Virginia-Washington, D.C., market through a distributor who has gotten Casa Larga wines added to restaurant wine lists in that region.
 
Locally, Casa Larga recently has added a wall of beer to the wine shop, rounding out the offerings of New York beverages and foods at the store.
 
The business has also hired a general manager to give the family more time to focus on long-term growth rather than day-to-day operations.
 
A new winemaker was hired as well and is earning rave reviews from Colaruotolo because of a chardonnay he has made with hints of vanilla that reminds her of a varietal her husband used to make.
 
All three of Colaruotolo’s children remain involved with the business. The family is working on a succession plan, although nothing has been finalized. Colaruotolo has no plans to step down from her role as president.
 
In addition to growing Casa Larga, which includes possibly expanding the store and banquet facilities, Colaruotolo has a strong commitment to her faith.
 
A devout Catholic, Colaruotolo prays daily, recites the rosary while driving and has numerous religious statues in her home. She wears a medal featuring Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, a Capuchin priest from Italy who is venerated as a saint in the Catholic Church.
 
Suzanne Johnston, president of Our Lady of Mercy High School, has known Colaruotolo for several years as her daughters and granddaughters have attended the private school. The Colaruotolo family has been a generous donor to the school.
 
"They are all very strong, successful, positive women, and they get that from Ann," Johnston says.
 
Colaruotolo successfully balances her dedication to her family with her keen business sense, Johnston adds.
 
She also speaks of Colaruotolo’s faith and adds that her personality immediately puts people at ease.
 
"Compassion runs in her veins," Johnston says.

Ann Colaruotolo
Position: President and co-founder, Casa Larga Vineyards Inc.
Age: 78
Education: Graduated from Jefferson High School in 1952, attended Rochester Business Institute
Family: Son, John; daughters Andrea O’Neill and Mary Jo; nine grandchildren
Residence: Perinton
Activities: Spending time with family; playing the piano and accordion; cooking, entertaining, philanthropy
Quote: "I love to be out with the people."

3/22/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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