When it comes to family-run wineries, I always enjoy seeing how the many different roles and responsibilities involved in a full-fledged winery are divvied up among the family. Often, the winery benefits from the luck of a child that has gone into marketing as a career, or a sibling that has gone back to school to learn about enology. The combined skills, passion, and familial bond that makes such wineries tick can sometimes make for quite a powerful operation.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite the combination represented by Jeff and Karen Fontanella. They’re just a young couple in their 30’s, but in the space of 36 months they managed to have two kids and build a winery, while both working full time jobs. A feat only possible, but no less impressive, because of their unique combination of backgrounds and experience.
During his freshman year at U.C. Davis, Jeff Fontanella thought he was going to go into sports medicine. But one day, in an attempt to fill his Chemistry requirements, he stumbled into a winemaking class, and experienced the proverbial “first day of the rest of his life” moment. During school he had an internship in the lab at Opus One, and went to work there after graduating with his Enology degree. From there he went to ZD for four years, and after that, to Saddleback Cellars, where he says he learned to do just about everything differently than he had been taught in school.
“Saddleback was essentially the complete opposite of Opus One or ZD in every possible way,” says Fontanella. “It’s a tiny winery, bursting at the seams, verging, at times, on barely controlled chaos, and everything is done based on gut instinct instead of lab science.”
As foreign as the operation at Saddleback was to his rigorous U.C. Davis training and methodology, Fontanella suggests that it was an invaluable opportunity to learn how to singlehandedly run a winery, and an opportunity for him to forge his own winemaking style and philosophy from working in many different ways.
While at Saddleback, Fontanella began consulting as a winemaker to a few other wine labels (among them Carter Cellars, whose wines I have written about in the past), as well as toying with a spreadsheet model of what it would take to have his own winery.
Karen Fontanella met her husband at a Jimmy Buffett concert while in Law School. Amidst all the other Parrot Heads, she was most interested in the friend-of-a-friend that had brought along a magnum of ZD Chardonnay. An aspiring lawyer, she also had developed a taste for wine, and was charmed by a young winemaker bearing gifts for strangers.
The couple dated long-distance while Karen finished her studies and took the bar, and then she found a job in anti-trust law with a firm in San Francisco, moving her to a more manageable distance for the relationship to flourish. When things got serious after a while, Karen moved up to Napa and took a job with a law firm in St. Helena that specialized in the wine industry. By pure happenstance, she ended up working in the division that helps small wineries with all their paperwork and process, from start to finish. After a couple years of this, she then moved on to the legal department of a commercial real-estate developer in Napa, and was responsible for all of the negotiations and interface with the county planning commission.
When they married a short time later, these two had a package of knowledge, experience, and relationships that most people need a team of employees, lawyers, and assistants to assemble, over many, many years. Just ask anyone who has tried to get a permit to build a new winery in Napa recently. The legal minimum time to get a proposal through the planning commission is nine months, but most drag on for years. The Fontanella Family Winery got its papers signed a few days past the nine month mark, and had the winery built and operational about a year later.
Perched on the rolling shoulder of a hill that cascades off the southern end of Mount Veeder, the Fontanella winery is a compact facility that Jeff planned to accommodate about 2000 cases of his own wine, and the few thousand cases of his clients, who take up 85% of the space and make up an equal part of the revenue of this small operation.
The Fontanella Family Winery offers a wonderful glimpse into the birth of a wine brand. Jeff and Karen are just getting started, figuring out what their brand is about and how they are going to build a portfolio of wines. Their current wines are made from various fruit sources that Jeff has access to, but in the near future they may begin to focus exclusively on Mount Veeder. They also have their eye on a piece of their property for planting Cabernet.
Apart from themselves, the winery has only a single other employee. Now that the winery is up and running and they have two kids, Karen has ramped down her hours at her law job to focus on the kids and learn how to do wine sales and marketing as fast as she can.
Their first wines are just the beginning of what I predict will be a successful small label, and if the barrel samples I tasted last month are any indication, there are great wines to come in the near future.
2007 Fontanella Family Chardonnay, Napa
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of toasted sourdough bread and cold cream with hints of citrus juice. In the mouth it has a soft texture and tastes both nutty and toasty, with a core of lemon and pear with notes of toasted bread. A hint of bitterness and dried fennel seeds creep in on the long finish. Aged in 33% new French oak, and only 18% of the wine goes through malolactic fermentation. 275 Cases produced. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. Where to buy?
2006 Fontanella Family Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of tobacco, black cherry, and nice hints of vanilla aromas. In the mouth it is smooth and lush. The wine offers espresso and wet dirt flavors wrapped around a core of black cherry, and reveals hints of nutmeg and cocoa powder on the nice finish. 400 cases produced. Score: around 9. Cost: $55. Where to buy?
2007 Fontanella Family Zinfandel, Napa
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of blackberry and black pepper aromas mixed with hints of grapeyness. In the mouth it offers lush blackberry, wet dirt, and black pepper flavors with a nice acid balance. Hints of chocolate emerge on the finish. Aged in 100% American oak, about 50% of which was new. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $36. Where to buy?