Rediscovering The Soul Of Napa Valley

By John Lenart in Food on Oct 17, 2014 7:35PM

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(Photo credit Jannessa Botts)

It's a tale I've heard over and over again. “Oh, the story behind our Napa winery is one that's so romantic...” and then it goes on about a super wealthy couple who made their money elsewhere and buy a vineyard at a million dollars plus per acre, build a multimillion dollar state of the art winery, create the perfect retail experience in their tasting room for tourists, and hire well known wine makers at big salaries to make $100 per bottle wine. Romantic? Well not to me anyway. This common Napa story has become kind of boring.

I get out to California wine country at least once a year and have toured extensively through Napa Valley. If you've never been there before, touring at Robert Mondavi or taking the sky tram to Sterling or sipping sparkling wine on the veranda at Domaine Carneros are things you shouldn't miss. But after a few trips these wine experiences, which are crafted like Disneyland, become sort of antiseptic. There are only so many rich couple stories of “romance” or corporate owned places you can do before they become, well, boring. Of course there are the big cult wineries too, like Harlan or Screaming Eagle, but they're not open to the public and unless you're some sort of one-percenter who is on their exclusive list and you can afford to buy cases of these ultra-expensive wines, you'll never see the inside of these places. So what's left to see in Napa Valley after a number of trips?

While planning a recent trip to Napa Valley I put some feelers out looking for small, undiscovered gems in Napa Valley. I was looking for a different Napa experience. My friend Brandy told me about a place I had never heard of before, called Charter Oak Winery in St. Helena. After a few emails, I had a reservation for a tour and tasting at Charter Oak.

Driving up Highway 29, through the heart of Napa Valley, you pass all the big name wineries. Opus One, Cakebread, Franciscan, and more. On this trip I continued right past these stunning, enormous, multimillion dollar facilities. My eye was trained on something different, something smaller, someplace more personal that these mega-wineries often lack.

Turning right off of Highway 29, just south of the town of Saint Helena, onto Charter Oak Avenue, I had a feeling I was going to find that experience. Charter Oak Avenue is a tree lined street with the simple small houses typical of Napa Valley in the early 20th century. Down near the end of the road is one small house with a tiny sign identifying it as Charter Oak Winery. Look closely, because you might miss it like I did. Even before entering the house I knew we were in for a unique experience. Little did I know how different, personal, and charming this tour and tasting would be.

We were warmly greeted by Layla Fanucci, winemaker Robert Fanucci's wife. The first floor of the tiny craftsman style home serves as a gallery for her internationally acclaimed paintings. Layla's art covers the walls in what was once the living room, dining room, and bedroom of the first floor of the modest house. Her unique style of painting cityscapes captures the grit and the beauty of big cities. Layla spent a brief time telling us about her paintings and talking about the history of Charter Oak. It was right here, on this property, that her husband learned to make wine from his grandfather Guido Ragghianti.

Layla then took us to the tiny kitchen, complete with Robert's grandmother's wood burning stove, where we were poured samples of the current releases from Charter Oak Winery. There were five wines for us to taste. With a production of less than 1000 cases per year, most Charter Oak wines are limited to just 100 cases per year. The wines are primarily Zinfandel with a few blends based on petite syrah. The fruit for most of these wines is sourced from high quality vineyards, most notably old vine zinfandel from the legendary Monte Rosso vineyard in Sonoma Valley. Charter Oak does have a small, half acre vineyard behind the house in St. Helena where it grows the zinfandel and petite syrah used in the Roberto Fanucci Estate Napa Valley Zinfandel.

All of the wines from Charter Oak Winery are big, bold, and rustic. I'd imagine these are the kinds of wines that Italian immigrant Guido made and preferred, and Robert is maintaining that tradition today.

Interestingly, Guido never learned English, so Robert's wine education was all in Italian, until he did a brief stint at UC Davis in 1986 to study wine making. It was in that year, during harvest, that Guido passed away. Robert inherited all of Guido's wine making tools, including a 110 year old basket press that is still used today to make all of the wines at Charter Oak Winery.

After our tasting Layla took us down to the cellar. Now, if you've ever toured in Napa Valley you've probably seen the caves or storage facilities with their neat rows of oak barrels stacked to the ceiling. The cellar at Charter Oak Winery is about as far from that as possible. Instead of neat rows of barrels in a pristine room with dramatic lighting, Charter Oak's barrel room is what we in the Midwest call a basement. Filled with all the brick-a-brack that you might find in any old basement, I had to constantly duck my head to avoid the dusty joists above. Now, I'm no giant, at only 6'2” but I had to really watch it so I didn't bonk my head.

Here, among walls lined with shelves filled with precariously stacked dust covered bottles, and barrels of aging wine placed in just about any empty floor space, Layla showed us some of Guido's wine making tools, which are still used today by Robert. Among these, enormous wood punchdown tools used during fermentation. These antiques are definitely not something you'd see in any modern winery.

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Layla in the cellar with Guido's antique punch down still used today. (Photo by John Lenart)

Layla then took us into the yard of the house. Here, they have a barn that has been renovated into a charming guest house that tourists can rent. Also available for rent is the one bedroom home next door, called Charter House, complete with kitchen and laundry.

Beyond the barn is the estate vineyard. A small, half acre planting of zinfandel. After fermentation the wine is pressed using Guido's 110 year old basket press which is housed in the old chicken coop. The wine is then transferred to French oak barrels by hand, where it is moved to the basement for aging. Every step is done in Guido's tradition which he handed down, in Italian, to Robert. Bottling is done off site.

The wines I tasted were from the 2012 vintage and bottled only weeks prior to my visit. Alcohol content was high, as is common among old vine zins grown in northern California, yet the wines were not hot at all. They are all rather fruit forward. I'm curious to see how these age. I'll be re-tasting the ones I purchased over the next few years.

Soon after, Robert came by and greeted us as if we were old friends. We talked a bit about the harvest, which was just wrapping up, and the recent earthquake, which shook the winery but caused no damage. Robert then invited us back down to the cellar where we tasted some barrel samples of the 2013 vintage. The most exciting wine we tasted here was a blend that Robert proudly described as, “One barrel of hillside cabernet sauvignon from St. Helena, six barrels of old vine petite syrah from St. Helena, three barrels of petite syrah from the David Fulton Vineyard on Fulton Lane, which was planted in the 1920's, and three barrels of petite syrah from the Papina vineyard, originally planted in the 1890's and continuously owned by the Papina family since the 1890's. We also added a splash of Rutherford petite verdot and cabernet sauvignon to round off the blend.”

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Robert Fanucci in cellar (Photo Credit Jannessa Botts)

Robert was obviously proud of this wine and upon tasting I can see why. It was outstanding. Too bad the production is just a few barrels because it's going to be hard to obtain.

Our visit ended with hugs from Layla and a hearty handshake from Robert, who needed to get back to work as this is a winemaker’s busiest time of the year.

Where visits to many of the huge and famous wineries in Napa Valley can lack a personal touch, a visit to Charter Oak brings the average way, way up. Leaving Charter Oak, I felt like I was leaving old friends, and as we drove away, I was already missing them.

Next time you're in Napa Valley turn off of the main drag of Highway 29 when you get to Charter Oak Avenue and pay Layla and Robert a visit at Charter Oak Winery.

Charter Oak Winery 831 Charter Oak Ave. St. Helena, California 94574. Tours and tastings are by appointment only Monday through Sunday from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. The tasting fee is $25 per person. To book, call the winery at 707-963-2298 or call Layla's cell phone (I told you there is a personal touch here!) at 707-812-4609.