“Living the Dream” on Mt. Veeder
A decade ago lawyer-turned-vintner Karen Fontanella and her winemaker husband, Jeff Fontanella, strapped their two infant sons to their backs and set about yanking weeds on the 81-acre Mt. Veeder property they purchased a few years earlier. Grimy and sweaty, Karen recalled recently, the couple looked at each other and simultaneously joked, ‘Living the dream!’” Within hours a tidied- up Karen poured wine for two guests, who caught up in their Napa Valley moment, enthused, “Well, aren’t you just living the dream?” The catchphrase became Jeff and Karen’s tongue-in-cheek shorthand for winery ownership’s less glamorous aspects.
Like Karen, a Southern California native, Jeff enrolled in UC Davis’ pre-med program but quickly forsook it for viticulture and enology, supplementing his schooling with hands-on experience at three prestigious Napa wineries. At his first stop, Opus One, he learned traditional French-château winemaking. Later at ZD Wines the emphasis was on research and innovation, a sharp contrast to the intuitive, “shoot-from-the-hip” style of valley legend Nils Venge at Saddleback Cellars.
Despite the diverse apprenticeship, “Nothing prepares you for owning a winery,” laughed Jeff, citing three catastrophes he and Karen faced during their first ten years: the 2008 recession, 2014 Napa earthquake, and 2017 Wine Country wildfires. Some winery owners downplay calamities, but the Fontanellas embrace theirs as evidence of resilience and adaptability. During the earth- quake, for instance, hundreds of barrels toppled onto cases of just-bottled wines. In addition to extricating the barrels without losing their wine came the challenge of marketing 7,000 scratched, stained, but still- drinkable bottles. Karen’s solution: relabel them “Unbreakable” in honor of the winery team’s resourcefulness and grit. “We sold all the bottles,” said Karen. “People bought them to support us, of course, but also to gift to loved ones who may be battling cancer or struggling with something major in their lives. It became a shared experience.”
Most of the appointment-only tastings at Fontanella Family Winery take place on an outdoor patio edging Cabernet vines. Swallows zip overhead and egrets land on a nearby pond’s shore. Hosts greet guests with a glass of Chardonnay, followed by Zinfandel and the flagship Mt. Veeder Cabernet. Whatever the varietal, the wines’ balance and bright acidity uniformly impress. Winery visits always include a trip into the cellar for barrel tastings designed to illustrate the influence of soil on the wine.
The estate, whose 13 planted acres are devoted solely to Cabernet, occupies a hilly south-facing slope. On a clear day, the views at the highest point range south to San Francisco and east across the valley to Atlas Peak and Pritchard Hill. From this lofty perch it’s easy to imagine what inspired Jeff and Karen to chase their dream on Mt. Veeder.
“We are lucky to live the life that people envision when they visit Napa Valley,” concluded Karen.
“My husband makes the wines. I manage the business. We live here with our two kids. Our dogs are running around. What could be better than that?”
1721 Partrick Road Napa, California 94558
Article by: Daniel Mangin