In 1976, the victory of a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon over a French Bordeaux at the Judgement of Paris changed the course of the Napa Valley. Prior to this, Napa was filled with diverse farms, orchards, and vineyards planted to countless grape varietals. Chasing fame and fortune, wineries have spent the last four decades systematically ripping out heritage varietals and replanting to more profitable vines, regardless of whether or not the terroir was more suited to the original plantings. As a result of this Manifest Destiny approach to planting Cabernet Sauvignon, many old varietals are on the verge of disappearing. Of all the heritage varietals, Charbono has perhaps suffered the most. Once widely planted highly acclaimed, it’s been relegated to obscurity in the last few decades, with less than 65 acres surviving.
So, why would a documentary filmmaker and a winemaker best known for Cabernet Sauvignon make a Charbono together?
Ten years ago, I came across an unusual bottle of wine. I was in college at the time, already obsessed with filmmaking and eagerly pursuing a newfound interest in wine. It was a Charbono, produced in 1980 by Francis Ford Coppola as a Christmas gift for his family and friends. My interest in it was not entirely wine related—here, on one label, were some of my favorite filmmakers, and a grape varietal I’d never heard of. I opened it that Christmas and was shocked at how well the wine had held up. Despite endless sleuthing, the grape remained enigmatic. Was it French or Italian in origin? Exactly how many acres remain? If you asked ten different people, you’d get ten different answers.
Benoit Touquette was one of the first winemakers I met. At first, we weren’t quite sure what to make of each other. He’s a classic extrovert, joyful and loud, overflowing with contagious energy. I tend to be a silent observer, stuck inside my own world. His taste leans towards the modern, the sexy, the cutting edge. I’m drawn towards the older, the simple, the authentic.
Despite this, our friendship grew quickly. We discovered similarities in our passions, beliefs, and work ethic. Many late nights at the winery were spent opening bottles, tasting from barrels, learning from each other, and sharing our dreams and ambitions.
It was in February of 2014 that Benoit started digging a little deeper into my past with wine. While discussing memorable bottles, I told him about the old Coppola Charbono.
I knew it was rare, but I couldn’t believe he didn’t know what it was, let alone had never tasted it. I set up a small tasting at the winery, just the two of us. Benoit was surprised by the quality and the personality of the grape, and as I left the winery he said, “We should try to find some fruit and play around. It could be fun.”
Two months later, Benoit introduced me to Peter Heitz. Peter is a winemaker and a grower for one of Benoit’s clients, and Benoit had discovered that Peter made a Charbono as well. Peter asked how I knew about the varietal, and I started telling him the story of the Coppola bottle. He smiled.
“I know that wine.
My grandmother grew those grapes.”
My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe it. As it turns out, Peter’s family owns a vineyard that has been planted to Charbono since 1905. It was at that point that we realized we all had to make a wine together. Fate or coincidence, it was all too good to be true.
Less than a year after Benoit tasted Charbono for the first time, we found ourselves in Peter’s vineyard in the middle of the night harvesting grapes. It happened so quickly none of us could quite believe it was real. Friends and family joined as dawn broke, and we picked a few lugs for good luck.
During fermentation, we knew that we had something special on our hands—the color, the fruit, the aromatics, the tannin—everything was surprising us, exciting us, and defying our expectations. Our wine wasn’t like anything else we’d tasted. Benoit and I both had the same crazed look in our eyes. We knew we had been given an opportunity to create something unique. Benoit was given free reign to make the wine up to his unusually rigorous standards. Pulling out all the stops was the only way we could justify all the time and effort we were putting into such a small, crazy project.
As we were wrapping up our harvest, I received an unexpected phone call from Vince Tofanelli, another legendary Charbono grower in Calistoga. Vince knew about our little project and invited us to swing by his harvest the very same morning. His head trained, dry farmed vineyard is less than a mile from Peter's, so we stopped on our way to the winery. Vince was out harvesting alongside his family, as he's done his whole life. As I walked the vines, I casually picked a grape and tasted it. I stopped in my tracks as I tried to process what I was tasting. His fruit was a drastically different expression of Charbono. I asked if I could take a cluster to the winery and he obliged. Benoit was in full harvest mode, rushing from one job to the next.
I stopped him and held out the cluster - “Taste this.”
“What is it?” “Just taste it.”
He grabbed a berry, chewed on it, and locked eyes with me.
“We need this fruit.” “I know.”
Before we had our first vintage in barrel, we knew we’d be doubling production in 2015.
If people connected with it, great, if not, who cares, we’ll drink it all.
Our Charbono isn’t about nostalgia—the point is not to look back at the past wearing rose colored glasses, but to bring a piece of Napa’s history into the present. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.”