I recently had a chance to talk with Nova Perrill, the winemaker at Foppiano Vineyards in Sonoma Valley. Foppiano has been continuously operating for 125 years, owned and managed by the same family. It all began when Giovanni Foppiano bought Riverside Farms in 1896, and continued to make bulk wine right up to Prohibition in 1920. The family survived through the 13 years of Prohibition by selling grapes to home winemakers, and maybe making a bit on the side as well. There is a great old photograph of barrels of wine being poured into a nearby creek by Federal agents, turning the creek red. Somehow, by whatever means, the family emerged from Prohibition in 1933 with wine to sell and a future to define.
After Prohibition, the Foppiano family began to bottle some of their wine under their own name. New, varietal bottlings came along in the 1950s, and changes were made in the vineyards. Then, in 1967, the first Petite Sirah was available. Petite Sirah is a major deal at Foppiano. It is considered their signature wine, and it has a significant history here. In 1995, a 20 year vertical tasting of Foppiano Petite Sirah was held in London, to rave reviews. In 1999, the 1996 vintage of the Petite Sirah won the Civart award at Vin Expo in Bordeaux. Then, in 2002, Foppiano Vineyards help establish P.S. I Love You, a trade organization dedicated to educating consumers about the Petite Sirah grape. This organization is still active and vibrant.
We think this is all great stuff, because Petite Sirah is one of our favorite varietals, and one which is under appreciated. It can make rich, complex and nuanced red wines worthy of a place among the top wines in the world.
The winery and vineyards continue under direct family management, currently that of Paul Foppiano, 5th generation removed from founding father Giovanni. Paul is also the vineyard manager, as well as the president.
Making the wine today at Foppiano is Nova Perrill. Nova found his way to winemaking via an ecology degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He had visions of becoming a marine biologist. Deciding to continue his education, he entered the Master’s program in crop science, where he got a smattering of enology. Somehow life tends to dictate what happens in the long run, and Nova met his wife to be during school and eventually relocated to the bay area near her family. From here a series of resumes went out to various wineries in the region, and an opportunity came up at Mount Eden Vineyards. Nova was hired as assistant winemaker and viticulturist. Here Nova helped out with everything at the winery, gaining broad experience. Mount Eden is family owned and more of a boutique winery, making on the order of 10,000 cases. After four years Nova moved onto a larger operation, at Dry Creek Vineyard. This was much larger, more on the order of a 100,000 case per year operation, but still family owned. Learning to make excellent wine at larger volumes helped round out his skill set, and when the winemaker position at Foppiano Vineyard opened up in 2015, Nova was ready for the challenge.
Foppiano Vineyards is a big operation, producing between 300-400 tons of wine grapes every year. Most of their wine production is sold off as bulk wine, used by others, and they also provide a custom crush and winemaking service for another 1500 tons of fruit. The best of their vineyards is selected for their own labels. There is a lot going on here. Nova estimated they have about 4000 barrels at the winery, of various species and age.
The vineyards are huge, encompassing 200 acres of prime vineyard land in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma. The Sunset Vineyardland ranges from the river up into the bench lands, providing a diverse set of microclimates that allow many different varietals to be farmed. You’ll find the usual Chardonnay and Pinot Noir the Russian River Valley is known for, grown close to the river and benefiting from the cool ocean air coming up the valley, as well as the morning fog. Up higher there is more sun, and warmer temperatures. So you’ll also find Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Nova is also experimenting with Barbera and Rosa Chardonnay. I suspect there will be some others as well, as Foppiano has some fallow ground available for new plantings.
During the discussion with Nova we had the chance to taste and talk about six of the Foppiano wines. These ranged from a low priced, easy drinking red blend to a single block estate Zinfandel. Everything we tasted was very well made, and these are wines worthy of any wine lovers attention. Let’s take a closer look.
Foppiano Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay – the grapes here are whole cluster pressed, and then the juice gets drained into tanks for a cold settle. This is fermented in barrel, 55% new French oak and 45% used French oak. It spends 8 months in barrel total. During fermentation the lees are stirred. After fermentation about 65% of the wine went through native malolactic fermentation. Nova indicated that the percentage is somewhat of a moving target, as they have barrels that have undergone no malolactic fermentation, some that are partially through it and others at 100%. It sort of is what it is in a given year, as he favors letting the native yeasts kick it off.
For style, Nova was shooting for something similar to the Mount Eden Chardonnay he used to help make. The general theme is Burgundian, but with more acid and a fresh finish. Here’s what we thought:
Light golden yellow in color, and brilliant, this has noticeable oak on the nose but it is not overpowering. You also get delicious apple, pineapple and honeysuckle. On the palate this has nice texture and great balance. The first sip really is very Burgundian, and then the acid comes around and cleans it off beautifully. Smooth and still fresh, but with the complexity and elegance you’d expect from the Cotes de Beaune. Very nice. SRP of $24.99 and a Value List wine.
Foppiano 1896 Red Blend – This wine is a blend of mostly Petite Sirah, with the addition of Carignan, Barbera, Mouvedre and Zinfandel, which is an interesting blend to say the least. Some of the fruit here is sourced from other vineyards. The wine is aged in one year old French and American oak barrels. Nova’s inspiration here is the traditional field blend, where a vineyard with different varietals is harvested and blended together. In this case the grapes are not grown next to each other, but Nova brings them together in a blend that certainly represents a group of different varietals. The Barbera is really an interesting addition. Here are our thoughts:
Bright ruby in color, this has a nose of fresh fruit, with raspberry, cherry and some herbs. Just full bodied, it has some depth and great balance. It is an easy drinking red, but not a simple one. This has barbecue written all over it, whether paired with a burger, barbecued chicken of a steak. Throw in the fact that the SRP is $13 and this is a case buy. It would make a great house red. An easy choice for a Value List addition.
2017 Foppiano Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – The Pinot Noir grapes are only harvested at night. After hand sorting, the finest fruit goes into the fermenter. Whole berry and whole cluster fermentation is used to maximize aromatics and complexity. The juice is aged in 55% new French and 45% used French barrels, for 14 months. Again, Nova was using Burgundy as a model, but toning down the earthy tones in favor of a cleaner finish where the fruit dominates. To do this, he lets the wine get a lot of air, with frequent racking, to let some of the denser aromatics soften. Our impressions:
The color is on the garnet side of ruby. This definitely has a Burgundian nose, rich with berry, cherry, oak and some leather. There is some earthiness, but it is complimentary. On the palate it is smooth, medium+ bodied with some spice at the back end. Great balance here, and a long finish. This is elegant. SRP of $34.99 and also on the Value List.
2016 Foppiano Vineyards Russian River Valley Zinfandel – Grapes here were brought in right at the end of September, and machine harvested. There is 5% Petite Sirah co-fermented with the Zinfandel. Aging was done in 25% new French Oak, 25% new Hungarian oak, 25% once used French oak and 25% twice used French oak. All were in barrel for 14 months. This has a complex approach to the winemaking.
Nova describes the Foppiano Zinfandel as a “diamond in the rough”. This refers to to how the fruit matures, specifically with regard to the ph. Most Zin comes in pretty high in ph (a measure of where the wine is on the acid-base scale), and that is a condition that tends to be more favorable to agents that can spoil a wine. Lower ph, more toward the acidic side, is less vulnerable. And the Foppiano Zinfandel comes in at a much lower ph than usual, and that also allows Nova to keep the wine fresh, not let it get too jammy, and really bring out the fruit. He also called it a “connoisseurs” Zinfandel. Let’s see if we agree:
Let’s just say right up front we do agree. This is exceptional Zinfandel. It’s ruby red, and you get that classic raspberry fruit, along with herbal notes on the nose. Fruit drives the palate, and this is full bodied, complex and really long. I mean really long. It’s delicious, complex and a steal at $27.99 SRP. Another wine we’ll add to our Value List.
2016 Foppiano Vineyards Russian River Valley Petite Sirah – this wine is made with care. It is a signature grape for Foppiano vineyards, entwined in their history and their persona. Nova treats the grapes more like they were Pinot Noir, delicately and with reverence. Petite Sirah is a hardy grape, known for being resilient and tough to overwork. It is also known for big, powerful wines. Here, Nova’s goal is similar to the other wines, bringing out the delicate fruit and the complex nuances that the grape has to offer. In his words, “the challenge is creating a wine with a balanced profile”. He described the wine as “elegant….but not overbearing”. Our thoughts:
This wine is a dark, purplish red. The rich nose has tons of blackberry and blueberry, as well as tobacco and coffee cream. It is full bodied, make no mistake about that, but it is also elegant and refined. You get some nice, complimentary oaky notes. The finish is long, and the overall wine brighter than you might expect with, again, a great balance and some refreshing acid. It has a very long finish. Superior juice, and a great example of Petite Sirah (one of my favorite grapes). Another no brainer Value List wine as well at $24.99 SRP.
2017 Foppiano Vineyards Nonno’s Block Zinfandel – This is one of a series of single block wines made from carefully selected areas in the vineyards. These are only available to wine club members, and maybe at the winery if you asked very nicely. This particular wine comes from a series of rows in a hilltop vineyard in the warmest part of the estate. These are the 3-4 east facing rows on the top of the downward slope, facing the morning sun. As Nova described it, from one row to the next you can see the clear difference, these are more stressed, with smaller clusters. They drop their leaves earlier in fall.
This juice was crushed and then cold soaked for three days in tank. After fermentation is goes into a combination of French and Hungarian barrels. It was aged for 17 months. Here are our notes:
This is a dark ruby, with a dense nose, concentrated and powerful. There is blackberry and blueberry, and maybe something darker like black plum. Tobacco and herbal notes add complexity. It is full bodied and rich, with the great balance demonstrated in all of the wines above. This one is a step up though, and brings added dimension to the table. It is super long, and we’re talking minutes here. After 2-3 minutes I could not just still sense the wine, I could literally still taste the berry fruit. Amazing. SRP is $47.99, and it is clearly at that level of quality. Let’s just put them all on the Value List.
All of the wines above are worth trying, and all are good values. I was struck with the consistent quality across all six, and Nova clearly is in tune with the fruit Foppiano vineyards has to offer, and the style he is looking to achieve. He is hard at work trying to bring the essence of this piece of the Russian River Valley to his wines, and the future should be very bright here.
When I asked Nova where he thought he was in his journey as a winemaker, and what he wanted to leave as his markon the fine wine world, he had an eloquent and thoughtful answer. It was also one I was not expecting. He compared winemaking to shoemaking. Both take raw materials to make something people pay money for, that people want. People like very nice shoes, and they like very nice wine. He also was very clear that he thought of winemaking as a total team effort, and gave credit to everyone at Foppiano for having a hand in what ends up in the bottles. As for the ultimate goal when he makes wine:
“I want people to get a sense of place, and an appreciation and craving for the wines. I am bringing the estate to the people”
He is indeed, very successfully I would add.
You can learn much more about Foppiano Vineyards on their website at https://foppiano.com/. Their wines are distributed by Quintessential Wines (https://www.quintessentialwines.com).
I suggest you give these a try. They are all excellent.
A votre santé!