John Tudal is full of stories — from 41 years ago, when his parents bought 10 acres of land north of St. Helena, and from this summer, when he and his wife moved from the East Bay to their family’s property, which he said they should’ve done 10 years ago.
With the Tudals’ move to the property — John said, “We’ve somewhat driven a stake in the ground” and “we’re not going anywhere” — the estate, which was for sale last year, has been taken off the real estate market.
One of John’s current stories is about the 2013 growing season. He said, “I’m learning more by having my boots on the ground, watching it closer by being here every day. Kyle Vella is our vineyard manager, whose father is Dave Vella, vineyard manager at Chateau Montelena. We were Kyle’s first hire. His Dad brought him down here about four years ago and he was looking for (vineyard management) clients. I asked him how many clients he had and he said none. I said, well, you got one now.
“Kyle is about 26 or 27 and he is really good. He went to school and trained as a race car mechanic and he fixes anything here. I bought an arc welder and we’re having a good time.”
Today, John and Felicia Tudal are welcoming visitors to their estate winery and love living both on the property and in a small town. Driving down their dirt driveway is like going back in time.
“We are a time capsule. That’s our shtick,” said John. “People come on tours through the Napa Valley and tell us this is our favorite place. I’ve figured out why: Number one is our authenticity. They can only get so many $10,000 chandeliers and caves. It is hard for regular people to relate to that.
“Our wines speak for themselves, and we have a very nice cab, so we can relate to people who want to go in that direction. We had a couple in here yesterday, they were wine buyers and came with a driver. They bought our high-end cab and they said, ‘This is what we want.’ It’s quiet here, there’s nobody else here.”
John’s mother, Alma, moved to the big house on the property, while John and Felicia live in the winery house. The 10 acres are planted in 7.5 acres of cabernet sauvignon in two blocks, the old block with vines Arnold and John lovingly planted in 1972, and the River block, which was replanted in 2000.
“Mom’s happy in the big house,” John said. “Her mother lived to 102, and there’s a good chance she’s going to have a nice 10-plus years now.”
This year, the winery released “Alma’s Napa Valley Rosé,” made from zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese grown on Big Tree Road. Instead of grapes on the label, John said he decided to put a rose, since his mother is well known for her beautiful roses, which grow throughout the property.
Another current story concerns consulting winemaker Rudy Zuidema. “Rudy loves coming here because he brings the kids and we have a pool. Rudy can come over here, do a call and the kids go swimming.”
The stories of Tudal Family Winery start in 1912, when John’s grandfather, George “Baci” Cerruti, emigrated from Genoa, Italy. Twenty years later, he began a commercial vegetable business in the Bay Area and the produce was sold to the Produce Market in Oakland, now 100 years old.
Like many Italians, “Baci” Cerruti made wine. When he lived in Alameda during Prohibition, he made wines for the police chief and fire chief, John said.
Cerruti’s daughter, Alma, married Arnold Tudal, and in 1972 they bought 10 acres on Big Ranch Road. It was a walnut orchard, and the only structure on it was a tractor shed. Arnold and his son, John, harvested the walnut crop and they said, “Nuts to that,” according to John.
After that, Arnold decided to tear out the walnut trees, and he went to a neighbor, Vern Marsh, who told Arnold to go see Louis P. Martini. “My dad asked if I wanted to go, and I did. We walked into Martini’s office and sat down,” John said.
According to John, Martini had one question for his father. He wanted to know where the land was, and when he found out the Tudals were neighbors of Marsh, he said, “I like Vern’s grapes. You plant cabernet, I’ll buy it from you.” John said the two men shook hands and the deal was done. “There was no paper contract, no nothing,” he said.
After buying what was then experimental bench grafts, Arnold and John planted the River Vineyard first and then the Old Vine Vineyard, which John claims is “some of the oldest cabernet sauvignon vines in the valley.”
Their first commercial crop was in 1977, and they sold it to Martini both that year and in 1978. The following year, they sold half their crop to Martini and kept half to make a cabernet. John said he remembers using a hand corker for every bottle. “Every time I open a 1979, and we’ve only got six bottles left, I look at that little dimple on the top of the cork and smile,” he said.
Arnold ran the winery business with his son, and in 1997, John wanted to release a second-label wine. Today, John said, “Everyone knows us for our Tractor Shed Red, now a California appellation of French and Italian varietals.”
The tractor that appears on the label is a 1947 Massey-Harris that the family brought to St. Helena when they bought the land. It was running then, but sometime after that, it was abandoned down by the river. John dragged it up to the tractor shed, and when Arnold saw it, he told his son to get rid of that piece of junk. The two argued, but soon as John kept talking, Arnold cracked a smile, then laughed.
There was only one hitch: Arnold told his son he could put anything in the bottle of wine but cabernet sauvignon. So, as John tells the story, he went across the road to Benessere, where Chris Dearden was general manager. The first vintage was a mix of merlot and sangiovese, which is what Benessere was growing.
For 10 years, the wine was made to a specific recipe from Napa Valley grapes, 60 percent sangiovese, 20 percent merlot and 20 percent zinfandel. But after that, when it was too hard to source consistently fine sangiovese, the wine is made from California grapes: zinfandel from Lodi, sirah from Temecula.
“I can’t tell you how many times people have said this wine is a crowd-pleaser,” John said. “It’s your Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday wine. It’s a pizza, burger wine. It’s spaghetti. It’s ‘let’s go make friends’ wine.”
People know Tractor Shed Red and Tudal produces 10,000 cases of it annually. The current vintage, 2010, won a double-gold medal in a San Francisco tasting, and John said visitors love getting their photos taken with the old tractor.
John had one last story to tell today. One person told him, “You guys are real. You really have a tractor in the shed.” Of course there is, because Tudal Family Winery is nothing if not authentic.