Ray Signorello Jr. has never backed away from a challenge.

When his late father decided to retire in California after a successful mining career in British Columbia, Signorello welcomed the change of scenery.

When his father planted grapes and then decided to make some wine in the mid-1980s, Ray Jr. rolled up his sleeves.

While he was schooled for a career in investment banking, the San Francisco transplant welcomed an offered opportunity to work in commercial real estate.

And when his dad’s “by the seat of the pants” winemaking venture turned serious, Ray Jr. was on hand to help build and run the Signorello Estate winery.

Now, coming up on three decades of grapegrowing and winemaking, the second generation vintner is bent on making significant changes in both vineyard and cellar that will produce even better wines.

Signorello has invited respected viticulturist/winemaker Luc Morlet to help improve vine and wine quality, even if it means seriously cutting back on the production of Signorello wines in the process.

The 48-year-old vintner can afford this marked retooling because he has other wine brands — Fuse and Edge — that can make good use of the fruit and, for starters, just happen to be brands offering a lot of bang for the buck.

For example, production of the 2007 Signorello Estate cabernet sauvignon was 2,500 cases. In an effort to market only the best wine  from the family estate, production of this same wine was cut to 350 cases in both 2008 and 2009 vintages.

Signorello loves “European style wines rather than the big fruit bombs,” he told a group of writers and consumers at a recent gathering at the Silverado Trail winery built in 1988. “The greatest wines in the world are those that are elegant and complex.

“We have vines that are 20 to 30 years old on average. I feel bringing a European sensibility to Napa Valley grapes is something we can do.”

To that end, Morlet has teamed up with Pierre Birebent, who’s been Signorello winemaker since 1997, to help Signorello meet this new challenge.

Talking about his priorities, Morlet is a fan of organic composting “instead of using fertilizer — it keeps the soils healthy. It’s important to keep yields under control, too.”

When harvest is imminent, Morlet insists on picking grapes that are “physiologically ripe. We pick in small lugs at night or early in the morning. We have three sortings (of the grapes) — cluster by cluster, grape by grape and with a new machine that I invented that separates out green berries and raisined fruit. And then we still inspect what’s left by hand.”

Morlet insists on “non-intervention in the cellar,” using natural yeasts and producing wines that are “unfined and unfiltered.”

Born in a family that owns a Champagne house, Morlet has been making wine at a number of prominent wine estates owned by Peter Michael, Newton and Staglin. Last harvest was his first at Signorello Estate.


Food and wine

Raised on food befitting his Sicilian and Calabrian roots, Signorello wants visitors to the wine estate to experience memorable food and wine pairings.

To that end, he invited chef Michael McMillan to sign on as winery chef and worked up with Snake River Farms, a family owned beef and pork producer best known for its American Kobe beef.

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Chef McMillan conducts interactive cooking classes for winery guests in the facility’s open kitchen and prepares meals tailored to groups of six to 18 people.

On Saturday night at 6, the winery is hosting an heirloom tomato dinner. To check on availability of spaces at this late summer event, call 255-5990.

During the recent visit, we got to taste a number of Signorello’s exceptional current releases, as well as a few barrel samples. Here are a few thoughts on some of those wines:

Signorello Estate 2010 Seta ($32): Italian for silk, Seta is an apt name for this silky blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc (60 and 40 percent, respectively) sourced from a low yielding vineyard across Silverado Trail from the main property. Ripe tropical fruit aromas and flavors are balanced by bright acidity. There’s both citrus and melon on the lush finish. You’ll find this is a favorite at restaurants around the valley like Bardessono. It’s a gem.

Signorello Estate 2009 Vieilles Vignes Chardonnay ($42): Made from the oldest vines on the property that yield only 1.8 tons per acre yields, this 500-case production came from a shallow, rocky hillside vineyard planted in 1980 that stresses the vines sufficiently during the growing season to ensure intense varietal character. Displaying gorgeous acidity, this charming, balanced chardonnay shows off its mineral backbone along with aromas and flavors of apples and stone fruit. There’s also a hint of Meyer lemon and a pinch of cinnamon on the long finish. A treasure for chardonnay lovers.

Signorello Estate 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($50): The palate on this wine explodes with blueberries, plums and cassis, adding a tantalizing layer of dark chocolate on the finish. It’s a full-bodied cab with agreeable spice and mature tannins, yet it sits lightly on the tongue. It’s a bargain offering from this reliable cellar — the long finish ideal for pairing with a grilled steak, particularly bistecca Fiorentina.

Signorello Estate 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (barrel sample): You’d expect a young wine like this to be a bit brawny and it is — a textural big boy with lots of spice and juicy black fruit. You can see where Morlet, Birebent and Signorello are headed and it’s to the top of the high scorers list. It won’t be released for about three years and I can’t wait to see how this one develops.

Signorello Estate 2007 Padrone ($125): A tribute to Ray Signorello Sr. who died in 1998, Padrone (which translates as head of family or godfather) is a blend of the best blocks of the estate vineyard. It’s the Signorello cab’s big brother, if you will — a lush, complex red with lots of black fruit and a nice finish of black cherries. It has an earthy complexity worthy of the man it salutes.

Tastings of subsequent vintages, including a 2010 barrel sample, show that this is the showcase wine Signorello and company intend to keep on the pedestal — a wine that can improve only with all the fine tuning taking place in the vineyard. I’d expect this to rival the valley’s cult offerings in a few more years.