Charter Oak Wines: Quiet Pursuit of Excellence
The wine world includes a lot of small, family-owned producers. Many produce good wines, and a multitude don’t. Occasionally, however, the results are outstanding—truly among the ranks of the region’s very best.
That’s the case with Charter Oak—a tiny, Napa Valley based producer that operates out of a family’s backyard and basement cellar.
I first encountered Charter Oak wines at a trade tasting in 2008. I included them as an impressive producer that was new to me in my report. I tasted two more of their wines at the ZAP Zinfandel Festival this year, where the wines stood out as not only complex and rich but also more elegant and balanced than virtually anything else I tasted that day.
Proprietor/winemaker Rob Fanucci and his business partner Jim White joined me for dinner in Napa the following month. There I tasted more of the wines, including three vintages of Petite Sirah that were both profound and delicious.
I was so intrigued by what I’d tasted, and by Rob’s story of having learned winemaking from his grandfather and continuing the operation out of what had been his grandfather’s cellar, that I knew I had to see this family operation myself. I was hoping to figure out just what made the results of this tiny production effort so darned good.
So this month I visited Jim, Rob and Rob’s wife Layla at the Fanucci home in St. Helena. That’s where they have a one acre vineyard, and where Rob and his family produce on average 700 cases a year.
What I discovered was a family–Rob and Layla Fanucci, lately joined in winemaking by their son David—whose lives are quietly dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in their respective fields.
Layla is a very successful painter. She has painted full time since 1999 and sold about 200 paintings—vibrant city scapes in a unique style that she came to with advice from a major art world consultant. Rob is a tax attorney by day, but also a serious and talented winemaker who has built on what he learned from his Italian grandfather, continuing to make great wine using his grandfather’s press, in what was his grandfather’s old cellar.
Their home is half studio/art gallery and half winery. There’s a creative vibe throughout the place. Layla has created artwork for special labels for the wine, and artful arrangements of mementos and tools that belonged to Rob’s grandfather can be found throughout the winemaking cellar. A striking portrait of a woman even adorns the family’s chicken coop, home to a dozen or so beautiful and exotic looking egg producers, including a peacock hen.
Rob’s maternal grandfather, Guido Ragghianti, came to the U.S. from Luca, in Tuscany, in the 1920s. He settled first in San Francisco, where he worked for years as a carpenter. In 1950 he moved to St. Helena, purchasing a house built in the 1890s that had an acre of land and a basement big enough to make wine in.
Guido drank wine, only his own wine, with every meal. Rob told me he once got in trouble with Guido for bringing him a 1982 Pine Ridge Cabernet he had purchased at Safeway for $20. His grandfather angrily called it “shitto.” Guido also called Petite Sirah “Pity Serah,” and blended white grapes into his Zin.
Guido planted the backyard with a lot of white varieties for making grappa. (The Fanuccis replanted to Zin and a little Petite Sirah in 1992.) He also picked “second crop” grapes from local vineyards for free. Second crop refers to clusters that form on secondary shoots and that often mature several weeks after the main crop. It is time consuming to pick this second crop, and the yield is very small, but the little berries–which in the case of Zinfandel are often black–tend to have intense flavors.
When he was in high school, Rob learned to make grappa on his grandfather’s stove. He also received a bottle of sweet wine from his grandfather for his birthday every year, from age four on.
In 1986, Rob faced a career turning point. The firm he was with, Dean Witter, decided to move from San Francisco to New York. Rob wasn’t willing to move to New York so he left the firm and he and Layla moved up to St. Helena to share the house with his grandfather. Guido was then 98.
Rob went to pick grapes that year with Guido. They brought the grapes back and crushed them in 60 gallon open vats and punched them down with old redwood bats Guido had brought with him from Italy. They’d bring wine into the cellar by bucket and leave the bungs off the fully topped off barrels for 40 days. They would rack these barrels four months later.
After he taught Rob the whole winemaking process, Guido passed away at the end of December 1986.
Rob has continued to make wine ever since, following much of his grandfather’s recipe. He’s also kept the press room and barrel room much as Guido left them. Even Guido’s old truck, with the driver’s side window Rob managed to crack as a boy, is still parked in the yard as well. Rob’s love for his grandfather is palpable throughout the place, and in the way Rob talks about him. It’s clear that winemaking at Charter Oak is an ongoing tribute to a much beloved ancestor.
After 11 vintages on his own, Rob went commercial in 1998, having gotten the home winery bonded that year.
He produces three Zins, including a Monte Rosso Vineyard designate (from one of California’s most esteemed old vine Zin vineyards), one from fruit from the one-acre “estate” vineyard, and a bottling called “The Zinfandel Mind” that’s based on second crop fruit they pick from one of the same vineyards Guido used to source from. He’s also made an eponymous cuvée, the Roberto Fanucci, in the last couple years. He produces a Petite Sirah, with fruit from the David Fulton vineyard in Napa that was originally planted in 1860. There’s also a Cabernet Sauvignon, made in the last few years from fruit sourced from Mt. Veeder. And in the last couple years, Rob has also made a special blend named after his grandfather that’s largely based on Cabernet, but that reminds me of one of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s luxury cuvées.
So one of the secrets to Charter Oak’s amazing wines is top fruit sources–great vineyards with very old vines. But there’s more to the winning formula than that.
The winemaking process, based on what Rob learned from Guido, is a traditional and very gentle one.
The fermentation takes place in open vats relying solely on indigenous yeasts. These yeasts are so tenacious that Rob reports they’ve fermented juice to dry that couldn’t get to dry when fermented elsewhere. One batch fermented to dry at 17.4% alcohol.
After three to four weeks in the fermentation tank, the skins are separated from the juice using an ancient basket press Guido brought over from Italy. It extracts less juice from the skins than they’d get if they used modern equipment, but it does so in a slow and gentle fashion. The juice is then taken by buckets to the barrels in the cellar.
Rob has taken wine chemistry classes at U.C. Davis. He sends samples to ETS Labs, and the results aid him in blending decisions and when to rack. He constantly checks to see whether something’s going wrong, but otherwise lets the wine do its thing.
If the fermentation is slowing, Rob will take a five gallon pot of must out of the vat and put it in the sun until it gets going again, and then pour it back into the vat. The secondary, or malolactic, fermentations happen naturally in the spring, when the cellar room gets warm enough for that process to start.
Rob ages the wine mainly in used barrels–he hasn’t purchased any new barrels since 2007. Guido used to use the same barrels for 30 years.
I tasted some of the 2010 and 2011 wines out of barrel and it was exquisite juice–the best Zin and Petite Sirah I’ve ever tasted out of barrel. There is, however, one more secret yet to Charter Oak’s brilliant wines, and it’s one I virtually had to pry out of Rob as he’s not the type of guy to brag about his own efforts.
Rob, an excellent cook according to Layla and partner Jim, is also a gifted blender.
The Zins often have as much as 15% Petite Sirah in them, and the Petite Sirahs also tend to have a healthy helping of Zin. Rob never blends all at once. In a difficult vintage, like 2008, he can go through 40 to 50 trials to get to the final blend. That year he got down to two or three choices that he then tasted with partner Jim and Chris Phelps, winemaker at Swanson Vineyards. Sometimes he’ll freshen up a vintage with a little of another vintage.
So what sets Charter Oak apart from your average family winemaking operation is top notch fruit sources; traditional and low intervention winemaking on a small and manageable scale; and final touches by a naturally talented blender. No wonder Charter Oak wines can be found at some of the country’s finest restaurants, like Per Se, French Laundry, Gary Danko, and now Gordon Ramsay at the London in New York.
Rob and Layla’s son David got involved with the winemaking in 2008. David is now enrolled in an enology program in Walla Walla, Washington. In 2009 he did a lot of punch downs, which I think shows in that vintage’s intensely flavored wines.
Rob and Layla have no plans to produce more than about 700 cases a year, because of the handcrafted effort involved, the fact that Rob and Layla both have full-time careers, and the limits of the size of their facility–the cellar will only hold so many barrels.
Before we get to my notes on the Charter Oak wines and barrel samples I tasted, I want to share with you a couple shots of Layla’s artwork, to give a sense of another form that the artistic energy emanating from this 120-year-old St. Helena home has taken.
Layla’s paintings remind me of archaeological digs. She builds them up in layers, one city scape over another–usually four or five cities on top of each other. The most so far has been six.
The result is a view of urban life that pulses with energy. She’s also a brilliant colorist as well as a great technician. She’s had shows in Toronto, North Carolina, New York, Miami, and a museum in Marrakech, Morocco. She’s scheduled for another exhibition, along with a Moroccan artist, at the Robert Mondavi Winery in November this year. A book of her work, City of Dreams
Unabridged 1999-2011, with an essay by Valerie Gladstone, is being published this year.
Art and wine tours at Charter Oak can be scheduled by appointment. For more information, see their website.
- 2006 Charter Oak Zinfandel Monte Rosso Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley (4/7/2012)
Dark red violet color; lifted, lovely, ripe berry, wild berry, violets, floral nose; silky textured, tasty, tart berry, wild berry, violets palate with good balance and acidity; should go 10-plus years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (with 15% Petite Sirah; rich and satisfying, classic, refined Zin) (93 points)
- 2006 Charter Oak Petite Sirah – USA, California, Napa Valley, St. Helena (4/7/2012)
Very dark red violet color; appealing, tart black fruit, rich berry, tar, espresso nose; rich, youthful, tight, flavorful, complex, tart black fruit, espresso, tart berry, violets palate; needs 3-plus years, will go 25; medium-plus finish (with about 15% Monte Rosso Zin; 15.5% alcohol) (94 points)
- 2007 Charter Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder – USA, California, Napa Valley, Mt. Veeder (4/7/2012)
Dark ruby color; bright tart currant, cedar, mineral, mocha nose; tasty, tart currant, cassis, cedar palate with near medium acidity; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (delicious Mt. Veeder Cab, from 1442 foot elevation, that should go 25 years) (93 points)
- 2007 Charter Oak Petite Sirah – USA, California, Napa Valley, St. Helena (2/22/2012)
Very dark ruby color; appealing, focused, ripe berry, black fruit, dark chocolate nose; tasty, poised, rich, delicious, tart berry, red berry, ripe black fruit, dark chocolate, tart blackberry, licorice palate; good now but could use 2-3 years; long finish (with 10% Monte Rosso Zin) (93 points)
- 2007 Charter Oak Zinfandel Monte Rosso Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley (4/7/2012)
Bright medium dark red violet color; lovely, focused, tart black fruit, ripe berry, mulberry jam nose with a touch of fine French oak; rich, complex, elegant, luscious, pretty, ripe black fruit, ripe berry, blackberry, black raspberry palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points (15.9% alcohol) (93 points)
- 2008 Charter Oak Zinfandel Roberto Fanucci Napa Valley – USA, California, Napa Valley (2/22/2012)
Dark ruby color; floral, ripe berry, crystallized violets, rich plum, berry, berry syrup nose; delicious, plush, ripe blackberry, berry liqueur, violets palate; long finish (an outstanding Zin) (95 points)
- 2008 Charter Oak Zinfandel The Zinfandel Mind – USA, California, Napa Valley (4/7/2012)
Dark purple red violet color; evocative, floral, ripe berry, bright, tart blackberry, lavender nose; rich, tasty, youthful, unusually flavorful, tart berry, ripe blackberry, black fruit, anise palate; medium-plus finish 94+ points (94 points)
- 2009 Charter Oak Zinfandel Monte Rosso Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley (1/28/2012)
2012 ZAP: Grand Tasting and K&L Tasting; 1/20/2012-1/28/2012 (The Concourse, San Francisco, and K&L, Redwood City, California): Nice, focused, berry, anise, tar nose; very tasty, tar, tasty black fruit, dried berry palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (93 points)
- 2009 Charter Oak Petite Sirah – USA, California, Napa Valley, St. Helena (4/7/2012)
Very dark black red violet color; herbal, green peppercorn, savory, black tobacco, black tea, roasted blackberry nose; rich, dense, complex, tart black fruit, roasted black fruit, black cherry, floral palate; medium-plus finish 94+ points (from 80 year old David Fulton vines; with 2-3% Cabernet Sauvignon; will be a profound and ageworthy Petite) (94 points)
- 2009 Charter Oak Guido Ragghianti Old World Field Blend – USA, California, Napa Valley (4/7/2012)
Nearly opaque dark ruby color; deep, rich, berry, mulberry, chocolate nose; rich, complex, layered, tight, black fruit, tart berry, tar palate; needs 5-plus years; long finish 93+ points (95% Cabernet Sauvignon with 5% David Fulton Petite Sirah and Monte Rosso Zin; 15% alcohol; reminiscent of a luxury cuvee Chateauneuf-du-Pape) (93 points)
- 2010 Charter Oak Zinfandel Monte Rosso Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley (4/7/2012)
Barrel sample – lovely, lifted cherry, ripe raspberry nose; delicious, poised, balanced, ripe black cherry, raspberry, floral, gorgeous palate; medium-plus finish 94-97 points (94 points)
- 2010 Charter Oak Zinfandel Napa Valley – USA, California, Napa Valley (4/7/2012)
Barrel sample – dark red violet; ripe raspberry, pepper, mineral nose; tasty, elegant, dried berry, tart cherry, floral, pepper, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 95-98 points (with some Petite Sirah) (95 points)
- 2011 Charter Oak Zinfandel Monte Rosso Vineyard – USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley (4/7/2012)
Barrel sample – dark red violet color; tart berry, dried berry, ripe currant nose; tasty, tart currant, pepper, tart berry palate; medium-plus finish 93-96 points (with a little Petite Sirah) (93 points)
- 2011 Charter Oak Petite Sirah – USA, California, Napa Valley, St. Helena (4/7/2012)
Barrel sample – dark red violet color; tart black fruit, reductive; reductive, tart black fruit, herbs, pepper palate; medium-plus finish 93-96 points (time for racking) (93 points)
- 2011 Charter Oak Zinfandel The Zinfandel Mind – USA, California, Napa Valley (4/7/2012)
Barrel sample – medium dark cherry red color; tart black fruit, tart blackberry nose; tasty, Pinot-like, floral, tart cherry, herbs palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 93-95 points (93 points)