Charter Oak Avenue in St. Helena is just a little street where old and new worlds meet. The two come together in a small 120-year-old white house with a white picket fence and orange trees out front.
It is the residence of Rob and Layla Fanucci, partners in a 33-year marriage. He, a winemaker who uses century-old Italian methods his maternal grandfather, Guido Ragghianti, taught him. She, a painter whose inimitable cityscapes of New York, Paris and San Francisco have gained her international-level cache.
So the little house is both the Charter Oak Winery and an art studio.
Situated next door to the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company — itself a historical structure — the house gives no hint of all that goes on beyond the front door. Well, maybe a couple ... The wine barrel that Layla has converted to an art object out front and a towering thingamajig of junk all stuck together, which Layla explains is the result of an inspiration she had during a visit to a gallery in New York.
“I saw this big marble podium with a bunch of junk on it,” she says. “I thought, there’s so much junk around here I can do that. So I came home and made my own.”
Rob Fanucci’s wine cellar is the house’s basement and has been since the 1920s, although the winery didn’t go commercial until 1998. Grapes ferment in 16 barrels, which is capacity. Until a structure out back is completed, the little house’s kitchen serves as the tasting room.
Rob Fanucci says the process used to create Charter Oak wines “makes it distinguishable from anything else on the market.”
The process includes making wine with a 110-year-old basket press and punching down the caps thrice daily with equally aged redwood bats from Italy.
“It’s a soft, gentle press, not like a commercial winery press that will integrate 180 gallons. That means that our wine is softer, more elegant and approachable, so it gives it a unique character,” Fanucci said.
There are other distinctively different methods in the process Fanucci uses to make wine, which includes 600 to 800 cases of Charter Oak’s signature Monte Rosso old-vine hillside zinfandel Sonoma Valley; Roberto Fanucci Estate Napa Valley zinfandel; Mount Veeder hillside cabernet; old-vine petite syrah; and a red wine blend that Layla calls “a beautiful blend of 50 percent Monte Rosso zin, 25 percent cabernet and 25 percent petite syrah” that Rob recently developed as a tribute to his grandfather, Guido.
All are priced from $42 to $60.
The Fanuccis’ little white art gallery-winery has a one-acre vineyard out back. The majority of the grapes used in Charter Oak wines are sourced from St. Helena.
“We pick by flavors and Brix read ing,” said Rob, a practicing tax attorney in his day job. “We crush the grapes, ferment in small batches and use indigenous yeast off our property. We don’t inoculate with sulfur and we don’t add any nutrition or maloactic chemicals — no chemicals whatsoever — so it’s a wild fermentation.
“The aging process is very hands-off,” he added. “We like to see the wine make itself and evolve. If the wine is off, we may do something, but we don’t add any chemicals.”
As far back as he can remember, wine was part of Rob Fanucci’s life. He wasn’t much older than 4 or 5 when he picked his first grapes.
“Even when I was a 3-year-old boy I always had wine with water at the dinner table,” he said. “You didn’t get milk, you didn’t get Coca-Cola, you got wine. For birthdays every year, my grandfather gave me a bottle of sweet wine.”
Guido Ragghianti was outgoing, but not in terms of leaving his winery, where in addition to wine, he produced world-class grappa, raisins and prunes.
“You could rarely get him out of the kitchen,” Rob said. “Every three or four years you could get him to go to a restaurant, but he would always sneak in a bottle of his own wine.”
For her part, Layla’s self-taught urban renderings represent a dramatic shift from music — which she taught for 25 years, including 10 at St. Helena Catholic School — to a insatiable impulse to paint a dozen years ago. For a painting surface, even the Fanuccis’ chicken coop is in play.
“I’d paint the refrigerator if they’d let me,” she said.
Layla used a New York-based independent art/business consultant to develop her unique paintings of cityscapes. The two struck up a plan for Layla to try different visual styles that would set her style apart.
“I tried several styles,” Layla said. “Then the cityscape came up and she said, ‘This is the style! Gimme more, gimme more, gimme more!’ Then she wrote a five-word e-mail that said, ‘Meet me in New York.’”
Since then Layla Fanucci has shown in Toronto, North Carolina, New York and most recently in Miami and a museum in Marrakech, Morocco, a breakthrough.
Rob Fanucci’s winery is not profit-motivated. “It’s a capital-intensive business, so everything gets invested back into the next harvest,” he said. “But there are some financial rewards. What I want is something I can retire into and that my son David can have as a viable business.”
Although David is only 22, he seems ready to lead Charter Oak into the future. Last June he was judged the “Top Young Winemaker” during the Next Gen Wine Competition for Millennial Wine Buyers in Santa Rosa. Charter Oak’s Sonoma Valley Monte Rossa Vineyard 2007 zinfandel, made by father and son, won Best of Show over 730 international entries at the competition.
Not long ago, Charter Oak got CNN network exposure.
There’s a lot going on in that little white house on Charter Oak Avenue.