Vince Tofanelli can’t remember a time when wine wasn’t a part of his life. Raised on the Calistoga land that he now maintains, he recalls as a teenager helping his grandfather to harvest and crush grapes, and to make wine. As an even younger child, he remembers drinking small pours of that wine during family lunches in the vineyard. For him, the vineyard and the wine have always been synonymous with family, good times, and livelihood.
The Tofanelli wine brand is 20 years old, but Vince’s family has grown grapes in the Napa Valley for the past 120 years. His great grandparents had a vineyard on the outskirts of St. Helena, and his grandparents Sebastian DiGiulio and Irene DalPorto purchased 20 acres of fertile vineyard in the Calistoga AVA in the 1920’s, making Tofanelli one of the oldest vineyards in the Valley. The duo sold their grapes to others, while making just enough wine for themselves and their Italian family. Vince took over the operation in 1977, upon the death of Sebastian, and at the time, was struck by the soul-satisfying nature of a ‘circle of life’ continuation – a life that had come to define him, and continues to define him.
“I initially found it so rewarding to carry on in the steps of my grandfather – to grow and tend grapes in the same way he did, on the same land,” says Vince. “I continue to have complete passion for the entire vineyard process, from farming to bottling.”
Just as his grandparents did, Vince sells a large percentage of his harvest to other wineries and vintners who are proud to tag the Tofanelli name on their labels. His largest buyer is Duckhorn; others include Chateau Montelena, Helen Keplinger, Luc Morlet, Dave Phinney, (with whom Vince collaborated on early Prisoner vintages, and on whose new label Papillon Vince’s hands are prominently displayed), and Thomas Brown (whom Vince credits as his greatest inspiration). Many of these vintners are likely to serve Vince’s rare Tofanelli varietals – Zinfandel, Charbono, Petite Syrah, Grenache and Semillon – at their own tables. “Tofanelli wines are winemaker’s wines,” says Vince. “Each features intense flavor and layered complexity with old world influence. My goal is to craft wines that not only taste good now but will complement your meals and age gracefully.”
Though Vince took classes through the UC Davis viticulture program, a life amongst the vines was his best educator and he is largely self-taught. He acknowledges a tightknit community of fellow winemakers who act as a sounding board. He produces only 500 cases annually, and sells via the Tofanelli website and a few select Northern California wine shops. Diners at The French Laundry, Mustard’s Grill, and Charlie Palmer Steak in downtown Napa can also find his wines on the menu.
Visually, the Tofanelli old and gnarled vines hearken to another era, and Vince is proud to farm them in the same manner as his grandfather – organically (no pesticides) and with no irrigation lines. “I actually didn’t have great aspirations to build a wine empire,” says the slightly elusive Vince. He rarely attends winemaker dinners and doesn’t operate a tasting room. “I’m very happy with the simple purity of making wine out of fruit that I grow myself and I’ve been fortunate that my wines, and my grapes, are so well-received. For me, happiness is all about balance – with wine, and in life.”
Tastings by appointment only: 707-529-1907
Article By: Fran Miller