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."
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