July 2010

Fine Tuning at Foppiano

By: Meridith May
Photos by: Ryan Lely


Vineyard Manager and fifth-generation family member Paul Foppiano on the estate's upper benchland, with Petite Sirah vines.

Relics: an old train caboose, a weathered barn and an old family residence that dates back to the 1930s. The home ranch setting for Foppiano Vineyards, just minutes from downtown Healdsburg, in the northern end of the Russian River Valley, is rustic and so charmingly real.

It's late May, and there's an unusual weather pattern in Sonoma wine country for this season. In the cold drizzle, we walk the benchland vineyards, smell the Chardonnay bloom, its full flower anxious for summer to announce itself. And, in the same way, the new team is bursting to show off its re-branding-news as big as that of 1937, when the Foppiano Wine Company became one of the first Sonoma County wineries to bottle under its own label.


Fifth-generation family winery member Paul Foppiano greets us, along with winery President Todd Arterburn and winemaker Natalie West. The trio represents the new phase of Foppiano.

Louis M. Foppiano was one of a small group of vintners and winegrowers who set about establishing official AVA status for the Russian River Valley in the late 1970s. Now, 114 years after its founding, Foppiano Vineyards is ready to redefine its place, producing all-estate fruit from its land: the Russian River Valley.

"We'll be all-estate from here on," declares Foppiano, who is responsible for the farming and viticulture that will drive the 140-acre winery's new direction. The 35-year-old rejoined his family business in 1999 after working at Sausal Vineyards, owned by a family who, like his own ancestors, emigrated from Genoa, Italy. "Our impetus for change is to make world-class wines," he tells THE TASTING PANEL.

Two years ago, Natalie West came on to the scene, and Paul Foppiano had his doubts. "She looked so young," he notes, adding, "but now there is no question. She has shown all of us how talented she really is."

New Foppiano winemaker Natalie West overlooking estate Pinot Noir vineyards, just 150 yards from the Russian River. While early morning fog defines the AVA and acts as a natural air-conditioner, "Pinot Noir and Chardonnay speak the language of the Russian River," she says.

The 30-year-old winemaker earned her Bachelor of Science degree in viticulture and enology from U. C. Davis. Her stints at Ferrari-Carano, J Winery and Clos La Chance in California, along with her work in New Zealand, were admirable; perhaps just as important, she was actually raised in nearby Dry Creek Valley, where she was later engaged on a project that would foreshadow her present-day mission: working with Petite Sirah on her family vineyard.

Maintaining Foppiano's vineyard quality requires little manipulation, according to West, who truly believes in the quality of the estate fruit. However, she has full say on production methods, such as night harvesting, which keeps the grapes crisper and refresher and helps maintain their natural acidity. "This also makes cold-soaking easier," she points out. West's wines are vibrant, aromatic and fresh.
Sustainable farming through ecological balance is an important factor for Foppiano. "Nurturing the land is an investment for our future," Foppiano asserts. "We use what nature provides." Cover crops return nutrients to soil and improve its structure, water is conserved and predators are introduced to maintain the vineyards instead of using chemicals to kill rodents and insects. Owl boxes line a path above the grape rows. Owls find the gophers before the gophers find the young vines.

A (Family) Business Environment

With a degree in Business Administration and years of experience in corporate and local wineries, Foppiano President and COO Todd Arterburn understands the behind-the-scenes economics of the industry.

"My real role," he begins, "is to create a business environment in which the Foppianos can thrive." The revitalization includes re-packaging, a nod to the Russian River Valley appellation and the estate. The old-style script ties in with the winery's history, while the relevance of the AVA drives place.

"Paul started working here as Vineyard Manager six years ago," remarks Arterburn, "to reclaim the winery's legacy as a pioneer in the Russian River Valley-to replant just the right varieties for this estate. Natalie now has access to world-class fruit, and I have the ability to access capital to support the program and stay the course."

Building volume with its new releases, the winery has an eventual capacity of 25,000 cases, but as of now, production is at the 10,000-case level.

"With all of our rich history here, we know now what we want to be when we grow up."


The New Releases from Foppiano Vineyards

The Foppiano 2009 Russian River Valley Estate Sauvignon Blanc (SRP $18, 850 cases) is a shiner: fragrant peach, pear and pineapple notes are vibrant to its crisp core. From 30-year old dry-farmed vines, "the fruit knows what it's doing," states winemaker Natalie West. The wine was cold-fermented in stainless steel tanks.

Releasing this fall is theFoppiano 2009 Estate Chardonnay (SRP $22, 600 cases), whole cluster-pressed and aged in 25% new, 75% neutral French oak. Barrel-fermented and aged sur lie, the soft vanilla, slightly spiced tapioca richness is held steady by a wall of acid and a mineral back. The result is Russian River typicity: an eloquent expression of delicate apple and pear fruit.

Over-delivering in value is the Foppiano 2008 Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir ($SRP $25, 800 cases). It coats the tongue with a denseness and a mouthfeel that are preceded by a room-filling waft of cherry aromatics. Open-top fermentation and gentle pressing (along with 70% neutral oak) allows a roundness that is not disturbed by oak. Flavors run from blueberry, cinnamon, forest freshness and mocha to cardamom spice.


Petite Sirah Legacy

"Petite Sirah is our legacy variety," Paul Foppiano states. The first Foppiano Petite Sirah was introduced in 1964. In 2002, Foppiano hosted the first Petite Sirah Symposium at the winery; the group is better known as "P.S. I Love You." Louis M. Foppiano became the organization's first charter member. In fact, Foppiano Vineyards has its own certified Petite Sirah clone.


Reclaiming its leadership role as the winery's flagship Petite Sirah will be the fall release of the Foppiano 2008 Estate Petite Sirah (SRP $20, 6,500 cases). Tooth-coating tannins sidle up to ripe plum, maple syrup and blackberry. A new, gentle de-stemming process, along with whole-berry, open-top  (and some closed-top) fermentation, a ration of new French oak and a small percentage of Hungarian oak create an avenue for a chocolate, smoky intensity without any herbal or coconut influence.

"The former Foppiano style would try to get as much tonnage of Petite Sirah as we could get ripe," explains Foppiano. "Now, we are purposefully getting smaller yields and therefore more balanced fruit from our mature vineyards."

THE TASTING PANEL, 6345 Balboa Blvd, Ste. 111, Encino, CA 91316
Content ©2016 THE TASTING PANEL magazine. All rights reserved