Several years ago when we first visited the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma, we told the people in the tasting rooms we liked bold red wines and asked which wineries we should visit. They all said, “Go to Rafanelli.”
There we met Dave who turned out to be the winemaker, and his wife, Patty. Also working there was their daughter Shelly. At that time, they made only two wines, a Zinfandel and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Both were, and still are, amazing. Their Zinfandels are made with traditional methods. They’re long and full bodied with distinct layers of flavors.
We’ve returned many times and learned their family history.
In the early 1900s, Litizia Tonnetti, an adventurous young girl left Tuscany, Italy, and arrived in San Francisco. There she met Alberto Rafanelli. They fell in love and were married. She was 19 years old. The area had just been devastated by the 1906 earthquake and times were tumultuous.
Alberto, a skilled carpenter, was in demand helping to rebuild the Freemont Hotel and other structures. Litizia’s family had been in the wine business in Tuscany. She told her husband, “You can drive all the nails you want, but we need to plant some vineyards.”
She persuaded her husband to move across the bay to the Healdsburg area. She did much of the physical labor herself, planting the vineyards and starting the wine business that would become a family legacy.
In those days, the winemaking business was quite different than it is today. Wine was largely made and sold in bulk. Large redwood storage tanks were maintained near the rail lines where wine could be loaded aboard trains to the eastern markets. Their first vineyard was planted with Gamay Beaujolais, a varietal not commonly found in the United States today. During Prohibition, the family remained in the wine business partially by selling grapes to the large Italian community in the Bay area for legal “home winemaking.” They established a good reputation for supplying high quality products.
Litizia loved her new country. When she became pregnant, she hoped for a girl she would name America. When she gave birth to a son, he was named Americo. Americo, too, possessed interest in growing grapes and making wine, and continued the family tradition. In the early 1950s, he and wife Mary moved the family winery to its present location in the Dry Creek Valley. He planted Zinfandel, which became his signature grape, and sold bulk wine as well as grapes. In the early 1970s, he came up with the A. Rafanelli label used today, and began selling wine commercially in bottles.
Americo’s son, Dave, says he learned winemaking from his father, but he worked in other wineries as well. He also received his bachelor’s in agronomy from Oregon State University and his master’s in viticulture from UC Davis. He added his signature to the family winery by introducing Cabernet Sauvignon to their product line.
In the late 1970s, the wine business began to change. Consumers became more knowledgeable and California wines gained prestige. Cabernet Sauvignon became the red wine of choice. Dave’s Cabernet’s are truly world class. They’re opulent, with a complex nose that’s a prelude to well-defined cascading layers of flavors. They are silky smooth with good mouthfeel and a lingering finish. They are in demand and could sell far more than they now produce. Quality, however, is paramount to the Rafanelli family.. They won’t ramp up production if it might lessen the quality of their wines.
Two important elements in the winemakers craft are taking proper care of equipment and attention to detail. If you pass by one of the Rafanelli vineyards you might encounter their work trucks. In 1945, Americo purchased three Chevy trucks. These large trucks are still used on a daily basis. They look as though they just rolled off the assembly line. They’re an example of the care and quality that resides in the Rafanelli name.
Dave has handed over the winemaking and production roles to his daughter Shelly. She learned winemaking from her father, but also graduated from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo with a bachelor’s in agriculture business. She has added Merlot to the line of wines. She treats the Merlot as she does Cabernet Sauvignon. It is elegant, well-layered and full-bodied.
Today their vineyards total about 85 acres. They are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah and Chardonnay. TThe vineyard manager is Craig Fehlman, Shelly’s husband. He takes meticulous care of the soil, as well as the rest of the vines and fruit. Stacy Rafanelli, Shelly’s sister, received her degree in law and has returned to be the winery business manager.
One benefit to consumers is that by being a family winery they have few full-time employees. Here the winemaker and consultants are the owners. This helps keep their prices low. The 2010 Merlot is $34, the 2011 Zinfandel is $37, and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon is $48. In exceptional years, in very limited quantities, they produce a Terrace Select Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2008 version is $110. They only sell their wines at the winery, which is open by appointment only. They don’t have a wine club, but rather a mailing list. Visit arafanelliwinery.com for details.
Festival general admission is $55. VIP passes cost $75. To reserve tickets, visit ashevillewineandfood.com.
Jim and Marie Oskins live on Lake Wylie. They can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.