The latest happenings from the vineyard and cellar.....
Reprinted from the October 15, 2014 issue of Wine Spectator
Brothers of the Vine
by: James Laube
Around this time of year in Napa the signs of harvest are everywhere. The sun bakes, but the days are shorter and the nights cool by half. Kids are back in school and the tourists have gone home. The scent of ripening grapes fills the air. Garages and driveways are cleared to make room for crushers, presses and fermentation vessels—the standard equipment for home winemaking. People's hands—and sometimes their teeth and feet-are stained deep purple. Everything is sticky.
In Browns Valley, west of downtown, Mimi and Rob Buoncristiani have for decades made their own award-winning garagiste cuvées, turning their home into a production facility, with winemaking apparatus filling the garage. The family's operation is the envy of any home winemaker—a bonded garage with a permit to produce 250,000 gallons of wine a year. What gives the Buoncristianis' story a different twist is that all four of their sons, raised on a quiet street in middle-class suburbia, parlayed their family's hobby into professional wine careers.
It began in 1972, when Rob Buoncristiani made wine with another new father to commemorate the births of their respective children. In 1976, Rob and Mimi moved from Campbell, near San Jose, to Napa, and Rob began buying grapes for the family's wines. An educator for 38 years, Rob, 69, loved farming and found some choice vineyards in nearby Sonoma for their project. He even planted part of their backyard to all five Bordeaux varieties. It's not big enough to make wine, but it's a way to see the viticultural process first-hand, as the vineyard changes through the seasons. Mimi, 67, was a homemaker and second-grade teacher for 20 years and is the resident chef, graced with the best palate.
Rob taught the boys winegrowing as soon as they could walk. They learned how to prune vines and drive a tractor, each of them sharing time on his lap as he plowed vineyards. When they were old enough, they did everything from picking to crushing to fermenting to bottling. And Rob taught them to be creative as well. When he needed to heat the must during fermentation, he used heating blankets or an aquarium heater. To chill the fermenting wine, he ran icy water through the coils of an old refrigerator he'd placed in the tank.
Even as the boys grew up and went their separate ways to different colleges, the family passion kept them bonded. After years of home winemaking, they decided to try wine as a business even as their father attempted to steer them into grapegrowing. In 1999, the Buoncristianis had their garage bonded as a winery, receiving at the time the last winery bond within Napa city limits. Then over the next decade, they increased production, buying and crushing 5 to 15 tons a year in the driveway, making small 150- to 200-case lots. It was a noisy endeavor, with trucks coming and going, but the neighbors never complained.
Each of the sons started off on the bottom rung at various wineries. When it came time to set up their winery, they turned to Matt, 42, to run the nascent business, now 4,500 cases, mostly sold to wine club members. Jay, 40, is the winemaker and a much-in-demand consultant for a handful of other wineries, including Krupp Brothers and Hollywood Classic. Aaron, 36, is winemaker at Roy Estate, a tiny Cabernet winery, and an artist. Each year he designs a new label for the brothers' Artistico label. Nate, 34, is part of the winemaking team at Black Stallion.
The lineup of Buoncristiani wines is an eclectic mix of tradition and innovation. The brothers make small lots of Syrah and three different Cabernets, along with bottlings of Dolcetto, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Their homage to Mimi's father—called O.P.C., or Ol' Pa's Cuvee—is a blend of Cabernet with Syrah, Merlot and Malbec, and their white blend called Triad Blanc uses Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chardonnay.
"They're very, very hard workers," says Mimi. "They've got a passion that's unreal. If it were me I'd be so tired of it. But they're unrelenting."
"If my dad was not in home winemaking and got us out in the vineyard I don't think we would be this involved in the wine business," says Matt. "We might be in the wine business, but not this capacity, going full bore."
(Hover over the photos above to see the captions)
Thank you for the overwhelming love, support and prayers we've received as a result of the 6.1 earthquake that recently shook our little corner of the world here in Napa last Sunday. First and foremost all four of us Buoncristiani brothers and our families are safe. Our homes were quite shaken up, especially Matt, Aaron's and our parent’s homes. We've had quite a mess to clean up, but none of us sustained any structural damage to our homes.
As for Buoncristiani Family Winery, that’s a different story. The two warehouses where we store all of our finished wine in bottle sustained no damage, and luckily we did not lose a single bottle of wine there! The Caves at Soda Canyon, our winemaking home dug deep into the hillside, didn't have a single bottle or barrel disturbed either. We were extremely fortunate in both regards.
On the less fortunate side, since only half of the Caves at Soda Canyon has been constructed yet, we have many overflow barrels at two different facilities in Napa, more than 200 to be exact. Both of these facilities sustained heavy damage. The small downtown winemaking facility (Walnut Street) we have been utilizing since 2001has been red-tagged, meaning no one is allowed to enter the building. The roof has collapsed. In fact the only thing holding the roof partially up is our stack of barrels (see photo above). I also had a good chunk of my personal wine library stored there that will probably be lost as well. Clearly I should have had far more dinner parties!
The other warehouse we utilize to store about 200+ barrels of ours, is Napa Barrel Care. They are home to barrels from close to 100 wineries in the valley, and of all the barrel houses I’ve seen, they’ve taken one of the hardest hits from this earthquake. I have hopes that several of our barrels have simply toppled over without breaking, but they expect the cleanup effort to take over a month. A huge heartfelt thank you to Mike Blom, Jorge Vargas, the staff at Napa Barrel Care and all the volunteers working tirelessly to recover the 15,000 barrels stored there.
Vintners Collective, a historic tasting room in downtown Napa that we and 15 other vintners call home has been red-tagged as well. The beautiful exterior stone façade that has graced the building since the late 1800s has cracked and crumbled all around it. I have not heard yet when it will re-open for tastings. In the meantime they still have many fabulous wines avilable for sale from their website. All our thoughts and prayers are with Garret, Kim and the entire staff at Vintners Collective as they try to rebuild.
We are just one of many wineries in Napa that have been hit by this earthquake. Far worse than us are the hundreds of people whose homes have cracked, shifted, collapsed or been red-tagged, meaning that they are no longer habitable. Many Napa residents have been displaced, including our dear friends Dave and Julie Guffy.
Many people have asked how they can help, and I truly thank you for your desire to assist the people of Napa in a time of need. There are several ways in which you can assist. The first, and easiest way, is to support all things Napa. Come visit us in Napa! Most of our businesses, hotels, world-class restaurants and wineries are open, including our own. Buy Napa wine – buy a bottle or two of Buoncristiani, Fontanella, Lagier Meredith, Guffy Family Wines or any bottle of your favorite wine from the many wineries in Napa. Several Napa wineries have taken a serious hit as a result of the earthquake, but the three family wineries just mentioned are worth pointing out as they are quite small and have sustained considerable damage.
Donate money – The Napa Valley Vintners, of which we are members, has established a fund to help families and businesses most in need. The Napa Valley Vintners themselves have pledged $10 million dollars, a spectacular start, however depending on the source the most recent estimate calculates the total damages and losses sustained could top $1 billion dollars. To make a tax-free monetary donation to the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund please click here.
In addition our friend and fellow winemaking colleague, Jason Moore from Modus Operandi has established a fund to assist the volunteers at Napa Barrel Care as well as other cellars in Napa. As I mentioned earlier, Napa Barrel Care is the barrel home for close to a hundred Napa Valley wineries. This fund supports all of the brave men and women who are volunteering to extract the 500+ pound barrels that have been strewn about. Monies raised will go toward providing lunches, dinners and childcare for the staff and volunteers. (I will be firing up the pizza oven with broken Buoncristiani barrels and bringing wood-fired pizzas to the crew as time permits.) To make a monetary donation to the Napa Earthquake Volunteers Fund please click here.
Thank you again to everyone for all of your kind words, thoughts and prayers. Truly, it’s business as usual at Buoncristiani and we look forward to having one of our wines grace your table sometime soon or hosting you in Napa on your next visit.
Burning the midnight oil as I write, two things are at the forefront of my mind during the Harvest Season...First of all, the successful launch of our new wine membership opportunity, La Famiglia. What better time of year to kick off a long relationship of sharing our family library of special wines we brothers have worked so hard on than The Crush! We are so excited and thankful to include you all into La Famiglia. Secondly, the stellar quality of the 2012 Vintage, Wowsers!! All whites on the dancefloor are amazing (heads up for the killer Triad Blanc proprietary white coming down the pike), and even though the reds are just now in the barn, the concentration of color and flavor, quality of tannin and depth of complexity already in the tanks all point to a Classic Vintage in the Napa Valley.
Here are some pics from Harvest 2012 so far: (Hover over the picture with your mouse for captions)
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