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Making wine outside the barn in 1991
Everyone had a job. In the foreground you see 5-year old John Rodeno, the younger of the ragazzi on the label, helping winemaker friend Charles Thomas and his son Will -- today a winemaker and father himself -- prepare for the 1991 crush outside the Rodeno barn. Rodenos mama e papa were assigned to pitchfork hand-harvested Sangiovese clusters into a borrowed portable stemmer-crusher* whence the must** went into that white bin Charles is cleaning. Fermentation gave the pictured ragazzi their opportunity to shine: those little arms were perfect for punching down
John's 7 year-old sister Kate, fondly known as the Queen of Always,
oversaw quality control. Post fermentation, the basket-pressed****, unfiltered (couldn't find one to borrow) new wine was moved into used French oak barrels and, eventually, on to hand bottling and hand labeling. A labor-intensive, all volunteer endeavor.
* removes the berries from their stems and crushes the fruit to release the juice
** crushed grapes and their juice
*** to mix the cap of grapeskins that rises to the top of the fermenter back into the fermenting wine, where it imparts color
**** 19th century method for separating new wine from pomace (skins/seeds) post fermentation
John pressing our Sangiovese at Antica Napa Valley in 2009
Plus ça change... John Rodeno, 18 years later and much taller at 6'2", was again making Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese, this time as part of his temporary post-graduation cellar job during the 2009 crush at the Antinori family's winery, Antica Napa Valley. Antica winemaker Nate Weis sagely assigned John to handle (literally) Villa Ragazzi, as our lot was too small for Antica's equipment. Here John is operating Antica's ancient, people-powered basket press: shovel grapes in, screw down press plate until the wine runs free*, shovel pomace out, repeat until done. The residual pomace in the stainless steel bin was discarded because - so far - we're not into making grappa.
Result: about 4 barrels of wine. This artisanal approach to winemaking gives excellent results. The 2009 Sangiovese shows the variety's classic spicy, red fruit characters and clean, bright finish, with a hint of French oak and the deep color typical of the Rodeno clone.
In 2010 we did the same, but without John. Nate managed the artisanal production of another four barrels of Sangiovese and a little Cabernet Sauvignon (because we had some spare grapes), with gratifying results
for Villa Ragazzi.
We didn't make any wine in 2011.
The 2012 vintage was spectacular, as are the 2013-2014. Napa Valley is a happy home for wine grapes.
In 2015 we moved operations to the Napa Wine Co. with Bob Pepi, a longtime Sangiovese fan and friend, as consulting winemaker.
* free run is highly prized, as harder pressing can extract undesirably harsh tannins from grape skins and seeds. Exhausted from weeks of long days and little sleep, John admitted later that he simply lacked the strength and energy to press our Sangiovese any harder. Pressing with a machine would have given us more wine, but we're just fine with free run.