A Very Good Year
by Jesse Hamlin
With their wine winning accolades and her artwork the subject of a new book, these Gators have reason to raise a glass.
Rob Fanucci still recalls the pleasure of sticking his fingers in a vat of fermenting grapes when he was 3, the rich smell and taste of the crushed purple fruit. He stood for what seemed like an hour in the cellar of his grandparents' house on Filbert Street in San Francisco, licking the luscious juice from his fingers.
"I couldn't stop. It was so sweet and good," says Rob (B.A., '78), who owns Charter Oak Winery in St. Helena. The small Napa Valley winery makes prime Zinfandel and Petite Sirah using hands-on, old-world methods and century-old tools passed on to Fanucci from his maternal grandfather Guido Ragghianti. The grapes in that vat hadn't yet fermented, but little Roberto became intoxicated -- by the winemaking process.
"I got mesmerized," says Rob, who as a kid helped his nonno (his grandfather, an immigrant from Lucca, Italy) pick and crush grapes. Rob is sitting in the spotless kitchen of the little yellow Victorian on Charter Oak Avenue in St. Helena where Guido lived and made wine until his death at 98 in 1986. Rob and his wife Layla (B.A., '81) -- a painter whose images are etched and painted on the double magnums of their Monte Rosso Old Vine Hillside Zinfandel -- make their wine and art here. It's the hub of a warm family enterprise.
In the back of the house is Layla's studio, a local historic landmark built in 1900. There she paints bold, multilayered cityscapes that hum with urban energy and motion. Rob, a lawyer whose office is down the street, punches down the grapes in half-ton bins out back, using big redwood bats that Guido made decades ago. The backyard vineyard provides the fruit for the Roberto Fanucci Estate Napa Valley Zinfandel, a hit at this year's international Zinfandel Advocates & Producers Festival in San Francisco, as was the winery's 2009 Monte Rosso vintage, made with grapes from the famed Sonoma vineyard planted in the 1880s.
Working with his son David, Rob hand-presses the grapes -- fermented with natural yeast from the property -- in his grandfather's 100-year-old basket press. The juice is pumped into French oak barrels in the little cellar beneath the house, where the wine ages 18 to 20 months before Rob begins the delicate and intuitive process of blending the flavors to find the right balance for each vintage. The cellar is exactly as Guido left it. There are dusty bottles of wine stacked against the walls, oval-framed family portraits, old tobacco tins and cigar boxes filled with screws and nails.
"We still do it the old-world way. You basically sleep with your wine," says Rob, a genial man in a black-and-white checked blazer, orange tie and jeans. "I'm around it all the time, always tasting it, smelling it, blending it. You can only make wine like this under these circumstances. This is a unique winemaking facility. It makes a unique product that can't be duplicated."
See more of A Very Good Year
See the story A School for Sommeliers
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