Charter Oak Winery:
Charter Oak: The Next Cult Zin? (By Jim White, founder, ilovenapa.com) If you buy enough wine, we throw in a will!" jokes the exuberant, 47-year-old lawyer-by-day, winemaker-by-night, Rob Fanucci, hinting that if you buy a few cases of his family wine, he'll throw in some discounted legal services. Which, of course, isn't true. But Fanucci's a colorful speaker. Fanucci is sitting in his... Read more
Charter Oak: The Next Cult Zin? (By Jim White, founder, ilovenapa.com) If you buy enough wine, we throw in a will!" jokes the exuberant, 47-year-old lawyer-by-day, winemaker-by-night, Rob Fanucci, hinting that if you buy a few cases of his family wine, he'll throw in some discounted legal services. Which, of course, isn't true. But Fanucci's a colorful speaker. Fanucci is sitting in his law office in St. Helena. From this vantage point, he consults to many high profile Napa Valley wineries. And it is from some of them that he gets gorgeous, ripe, black fruit to make sumptuous, elegant, age-worthy Zinfandels under his Charter Oak label. Fanucci's family history is the kind of material that books are written about. And after tasting his wines, it's obvious that his future that will be covered in print, too - though in wine journals. Charter Oak wines are destined for high demand. Fanucci's Italian-born grandfather, Guido Ragghianti, a one-time chef in the Italian army, turned up in San Francisco with two brothers in the early 1920s to pursue a career in woodworking. The brothers made friends with another immigrant family, the Guidis, and en masse, they moved north to the sleepy, pastoral town of St. Helena, Napa Valley, much closer to the lifestyle they'd known back home in Lucca. The brothers bought a one-acre plot, built a small cabin and Guido planted mostly white grapes for grappa. During his last harvest, granddaddy Guido passed his knowledge and secrets on to the young and impressionable Fanucci, who says, "from that moment onward, I knew that I wanted to make wine." After Guido died in 1986, Fanucci replanted the St. Helena patch 'o brown with Primativo, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The vineyard is on Charter Oak Street, just beyond Tra Vigne restaurant. At crush each fall, Fanucci honors Guido by using the handmade punch down tool that his grandfather shaped to push down the cap of berries and seeds that rise to the top of his open-air fermenters. The wines that Fanucci makes are unfined, unfiltered, and, until now, unfamous. But once word gets out about these extraordinary wines, they will only be two of these three. Think Turley. Think Martinelli Jackass Vineyard. Think Biale in the same breath because Fanucci's Charter Oak Zinfandels can keep up. Even better, they're not as hot or alcoholic. Fanucci says of his Napa Valley Zinfandel, "It's a Zin that a Cabernet Sauvignon drinker would like." Until this year, Fanucci has made two core wines Ñ a Zinfandel from the famed Monte Rosso vineyard owned by Martini (now Gallo) in Sonoma, and a Napa Valley Zin that is a blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah from vines on the Charter Oak estate blended with old-vine fruit from Calistoga. Going forward, it appears Rob will no longer have access to the Monte Rosso fruit. Never mind; the grapes he is picking in Napa Valley are from equally legendary vineyards. All Fanucci's wines are made with naturally occurring yeasts Ñ whatever's in the air of the 100-year-old farmyard. As it happens, the place is a living junkyard of memory; granddad Guido's rusting old green Ford pickup truck sits in the middle of the yard as a salute to the now fallen wine idol. Fanucci's wines are - in contemporary buzzwords - "made in a non-interventionist style." In Fanucci's case what this really means is "primitive." Fanucci's winemaking efforts look more like those of a Middle Age (think era, not Rob!) alchemist trying to coax gold out of a stone. Friends come to pick and crush during harvest; over the course of several weeks, the fermenting wine is punched down by hand. There are no machines, no big pipes, tubes, or conveyor belts. Fermented wine is moved about the farmyard in small, five-gallon pails. It's pressed in Guido's original, near-100-year-old basket press, which sits in a leaning, wood-slatted, abandoned chicken coop. It gently squeezes the fermented juice, separating must from what will be future lust. The wine is then aged in a combination of new/used oak barrels that are stored in a rickety-staired, low-ceilinged, limestone cellar. (I've now banged my head so many times on the low-ceiling beams that I can't even remember to duck the next time I reenter the cellar because I've already lost too many brain cells from whacking my head on the beams.) Fanucci's wife, Layla, who teaches guitar and who has, until now, only been in touch with her musical brain, recently decided to get in touch with the "other artist inside." So she took up painting in oils. Fully self-taught, Layla has produced a dozen canvasses this year. One that hangs in the couple's dining room portrays Rob, the winemaker, in his cellar. And it's accurate right down to the often-undone shoelace in one of his shoes. (Anyone interested in seeing more of Layla's art can reach her at 707-963-2298 and arrange a showing.) But back to Charter Oak wine. Ambrosial stuff. I rated the 2000 Napa Valley Zinfandel 92 points. The 2000 Charter Oak Monte Rosso is a no-fail, 93 pointer (descriptions of both below). And if you are a Fanucci Fan of the Future, mark your calendars for the release of the 2001s. Displaying ethereal levels of chocolate and cocoa on the end palate, I rated a barrel sample a smokin' 96 points and scribbled this note in the margin of my notepad page: "Best Zin I've had all year." We'll see what aging and bottling do to the wine, but, at present, Fanucci is on his way to the Pantheon of Wine Pleasure. Read less
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