A Very Good Year
Rob studied political science at SF State and was captain of the debate team, an invaluable experience that he says gave him a great foundation for practicing law. He praises SF State's "progressive environment," and the speech and debate training he got from Professor Nancy McDermid, the retired dean of humanities. "It really prepares you for life after college -- how to make an argument, how to think on your feet."
But he owes his wine skills to Guido. Rob shows a visitor his grandpa's old basket press, whose wood barrel is stained a deep plum color. It's out back past the chicken coop and a small cottage that is being renovated into a tasting room. It takes four to five hours to hand-press a ton of grapes; using an automated press, a commercial winery does it in about three minutes, says Rob, who produces only 600 to 800 cases of wine a year.
"It's hard work. But we get a gentler extraction," he says. "You're not squishing all the seeds, which are bitter, or taking all the tannins out of the grape skins, which could also make it a little astringent. It's a softer, silkier, more fruitful wine." Maybe Guido is watching over him, he says, proud to see him following the tradition, sprinkling a little magic dust to make the wine extra special.
In 1986, Rob, then working for Dean Witter, opted to stay in California rather than move back to New York with his division. At the time, he and Layla had two young daughters, Michelle, who would become an Emmy-winning TV producer, and Nicole, now a therapist ("Every family business needs a licensed therapist," Layla says with a laugh). They moved in with Guido, later buying their own home nearby. Before he died, the patriarch taught his grandson how to make wine as his family had done it for generations. Rob, who'd grown up drinking vino, was hooked.
"You just feel so alive when you're in the vineyards picking grapes, then crushing 'em and watching them ferment. I was badly bitten by the bug, and I knew I wanted to be in the wine business." He devotes 60 percent of his time to practicing law, the other 40 percent to making Charter Oak wines, which are sold in restaurants around the country, online and at the winery."We both work seven days a week," says Layla, a lively woman who put herself through SF State teaching voice and guitar while studying sociology. When she's not painting or playing the piano, she works in the wine business with her husband and son, an award-winning winemaker. They're respected vintners in the collegial but competitive Napa winemaking community.
"People really help each other out, but it is competitive," Rob says. "Everybody wants to get that top score, to make the best wine and get that cult status. Not everybody [reaches] that pinnacle."
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