October 2010

Focus on Two Legends

story and photos by Liza Gershman

Bob Pepi comes from a long line of Californians, like his famous father Robert Pepi, who founded the family’s Napa Valley winery before it was sold to Jess Jackson more than a decade ago. Then there’s the Italian influence of his mother, a gentle octogenarian with striking features and a welcoming demeanor, who comes from Lucca, a small village in Tuscany. These two cultural influences in Pepi’s life, the Californian-Italian ties, have always been a strong part of who he is, and of the wines that he has made.

The legendary Bob Pepi is the winemaker for Callaway Reserve, a new range from one of California’s best known wine brands. At his home in Napa, Pepi sits in his vegetable garden, with open fields and oaks on the property, and a vineyard where he gets fruit for his own Cabernet. The Mayacamas Range is in the background. He is holding his new puppy Luigi and accompanied by canine buddies Oskar and Toby.

Like a modern-day Midas, over the past few decades, Pepi has had a finger in more successful wine projects than you could imagine in Sonoma, Napa and even Argentina. In fact, his own project is named Eponymous, because he is not legally allowed to label a wine with his family name.

Pepi’s most recent project, one that he is thrilled to be a part of, is the new range of Reserve Wines from Callaway, called Callaway Reserve. “I love the challenge of making a good wine at a reasonable price point,” says the winemaker, “and that is what we are doing with the latest label.” Here, Pepi makes two wines: a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and a Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc, the first releases in the new Callaway Reserve line, which is available from Shaw-Ross International.

The Callaway Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (SRP $12) shows off bright, clean fruit. “Traditionally, Sauvignon Blanc has such a wide range of varietal character, and I try to get as much complexity in one wine as I can,” Pepi tells THE TASTING PANEL. There’s a hint of pungent, honeyed white flowers, some ripe tropical fruit and a surrounding presence of lemon-fresh citrus.

Pepi, like many others, believes that the key to making great Pinot is finding the right vineyard. The Sonoma Coast was the right place for the first Callaway Reserve Pinot Noir ($15). “My style is not to be too much of an interventionist,” explains Pepi. “This wine has a nice body and well-balanced berry fruit flavors, with a touch of richness in the background.”

What Pepi enjoys most about this venture is how well he is treated and how much flexibility he has in making the wine. “This new line gives me the ability to travel through California and source some of the best fruit. That is so exciting—to be able to think not just in terms of Napa or Sonoma, but to look at the whole state.”
Pepi’s enthusiasm bubbles out of him like a first-time winemaker, but that is anything but the case. “Bruce Hunter, Managing Director of Shaw-Ross International Importers, used to sell a wine I made some years back [when he was working for another company],” relays Pepi. “He always liked—and understood—my style. When Shaw-Ross was looking for someone to pour life back into Callaway Brands, Bruce thought of me.”

For this project Pepi is eagerly looking to the future. “Hopefully we will have the opportunity to source fruit from the best appellations and some small vineyards in the state,” he remarks, “in order to make additional varietals. We might source Pinot from Anderson Valley or Cab from Napa. To me, that is exciting.”

When asked about his long-term plans—the 15- and 20-year kind—and what he would do if were to retire, he chuckles and smiles: “I’d like to make exciting, relevant wine.” Seems there’s no end in sight to the pep in this winemaking legend’s step.  

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