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A less traveled road to wine-making: Stuart Spoto makes a Napa cab in Sacramento

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Oct. 9, 2021 series
  • Updated

When Stuart Spoto tells people his winery is in Sacramento, he’s prepared for an inquisitive look, and sometimes, even a negative reaction. He gets a similar response when he tells people he makes all of his wine in his garage, too.

But Spoto doesn’t mind, because he knows that once he pours them a glass, all presumptions will fall away.

Spoto and his wife Christy run Spoto Family Wines, the first bonded winery in Sacramento County. But in truth, they’re Napa Valley vintners. They craft high-end Cabernet Sauvignon from the most famous terroir in the Oakville AVA. They’re a member of the Napa Valley Vintners organization and they regularly participate in many of the region’s high-profile events, including Premiere Napa Valley. The only major difference separating Spoto from Napa’s other top-tier wineries is their location, which Spoto is proving doesn’t really matter.

An Outlaw

Spoto started making wine with his dad, Henry Spoto, who like every good Italian, made wine for his family. Over the years, his dad got a little more serious with his wines and even connected with the head of the enology apartment at the UC Davis.

“My dad was always inquisitive,” recalled Spoto. “He asked people what process they used, what grapes they used, how they did this. He’d walk into Napa Fermentation and he’d ask, ‘Why are you using that yeast?’ He was always asking questions that got him to make some phenomenal wines.”

But despite Spoto’s insistence, his father never made wine commercially, despite the fact that he won Best of Show in Napa’s home winemaking competition in the early 1990s for his Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. He was even featured in Wine Spectator and it was the first time the magazine profiled a home winemaker.

Later, Spoto, who had developed a similar passion, won the competition too, using the same Oakville vineyard source. While he didn’t get written up in Spectator, he did have dreams of producing wine commercially. “I started investigating what it would entail to get there and do it in Napa and it would take a huge investment of land and infrastructure,” he said.

Next, he looked into the other traditional solutions for small, independent vintners, like custom crush and mobile bottling, but wasn’t satisfied with the outcome. “I lost quality, I lost control,” he said. “I could make it so much better in my home facility.”

Plan C wasn’t really a legitimate option at the time, but that didn’t deter Spoto. He set out to obtain a license to produce his Napa Valley wine commercially at home in Sacramento, just as he’d been doing for years. The problem: no one had done it before. “I didn’t realize what a mouthful I bit off because that was not an easy take,” he said. “It’s next to impossible if you don’t have a lot of fight in you.”

Because there was no precedent, the Spotos were told time and time again that it couldn’t be done until finally, they connected with some individuals who understood their vision. All in all, it took well over a year to get the license, which they received in 2004.

“They liked the idea of creating the first licensed winery in a residential neighborhood for a commercial business,” said Spoto. “Several wineries now have popped up and they’ve used our license as a template. That gave them kind of the head start, or I guess, basically helped them along their way because there was a case before them that they could refer back to, to make it an easier process.”

In 2010, Spoto officially left his corporate day job in technical sales to pursue Spoto Family Wines full time, and it certainly is a full-time job. “Most people say ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ and it took me until I was almost 50 years old to figure it out,” he said.

“My wife and I pretty much do all of the work from destemming to fermentation to barrel aging to bottling. We do 90 percent of the work and if our daughters happen to be in town at the time we’re doing it, they participate maybe 10 percent of the time. When I’m not making the wine, I’m marketing and selling and coming up with new ideas for blends or partnerships.”

The Spotos are known to put on special events at their home for their club members, like an upcoming truffle dinner, in addition to charity functions. Their 2019 winery event for Canine Companions, based in Santa Rosa, raised more than $17,000, and Christy Spoto even works as a “Puppy Raiser,” currently training her fourth puppy Zana to be a future service dog. As a perk of hosting the event, the Spotos got to name a future puppy and naturally, they chose Spoto. “Spoto is currently in Oregon assisting a young man and we couldn’t be prouder,” said Spoto.

In 2020, they did a virtual magnum auction in place of the event and raised another $14,000. This time, the puppy was named ToKalon.

Sticking with what they know

For decades, Spoto has produced wine from the same vineyard in Oakville, Oakville Station, and he has no intention of changing that. “To me, it’s the best appellation, so why would I want to look elsewhere? There are a lot of amazing vineyards throughout Napa Valley, but we always came back to Oakville,” he said, noting that years ago, he and his father did play around with fruit from other appellations, like Spring Mountain, Rutherford, and Stags Leap.

“At this point, I’ve fine-tuned our wine to the point that I’m very happy with where we are.”

The Oakville Cuvee Christiane, named after Christy Spoto, is the heart of the Spoto portfolio. It’s a Bordeaux blend that’s roughly 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 24 months in barrel. Spoto, who refers to himself as “the Sheppard,” considers himself a minimalist winemaker, inspired by the French. “Wine should be made simple. It should be grapes, yeast, and a little bit of sulfur when you have such an amazing vineyard to work with,” he said.

On select vintages, he produces the Black Label, a private reserve made from a single barrel of his Oakville cabernet that’s simply spectacular. He’s only released two Black Labels in the last decade, in 2013 and 2016. “If I find a barrel that blows my mind every time I taste it, I mark it for a possible fourth year of aging,” he said.

“It may happen in 2018. I have one earmarked. It has to just be an outstanding wine, heads and shoulders above what I can do with my Private Reserve Cabernet. I taste it frequently to make sure it’s still on track and if not, it’ll just go back down to my Private Reserve label.”

But while he has his Oakville Cabernet dialed in, Spoto isn’t averse to experimentation. “Since we’re so small, I can have special projects that really excite me,” he said. One of those is a Cabernet Franc from the same vineyard, which he’s produced from four vintages that were “stellar.” Ironically, it costs him more than his Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon.

He also produced a Cabernet from the Amber Hills AVA in Lake County. It was part of a program sponsored by grower Andy Beckstoffer, who’s on a mission to prove that Lake County can grow premium Cabernet. Unfortunately, fires made that project difficult, so in 2018, Spoto partnered with a local distiller to turn the smoke-tainted grapes into a grappa, which is currently aging in his home winery. It’s a long game, as he’s targeting 10 years of aging before release, but in anticipation, Spoto went as far as to trademark the name Grappanac, since the result won’t technically be a Cognac.

A High Note

Spoto’s latest wine is one that’s been in the works for years, made in partnership with Robin Zander, the lead singer of the rock band Cheap Trick. Spoto met Zander six years ago at the Uptown Theatre in Napa when a friend took him backstage.

“He was into wine and I gave him a bottle and said, ‘Why don’t you come over for a tasting?’ The next day, he and several people from the crew and band came over for a tasting,” Spoto recalled. “I had on the shelf, a bottle of wine with my backstage pass from the night before. He saw that and perked up and I said, ‘Let’s talk about making a label together.’”

Easier said than done. There was a lot of back and forth over the next few years, which included working with his agent and lawyers. Every now and then, Spoto would meet up with him at a concert and present his latest ideas for a label design. “What really prompted it was COVID,” he said. “When they weren’t traveling much, he had some time to put into it.”

Similar to the Black Label, Spoto set aside a special barrel from the 2017 vintage that’s aged for four years. The Spoto-Zander 2017 Oakville Special Select Cabernet Sauvignon named “Surrender” is named in homage to the popular Cheap Trick song of the same name. Spoto calls it “a big boy” and they plan to have a release party at their home, where Zander will be a special guest.

The partnership should bring the brand one step further in proving their Napa Valley relevance, which has been somewhat difficult to achieve an hour north.

“Anybody can make wine and I think the thing that’s always been a challenge for us is where you do it. When you say Sacramento, people look at you like, ‘Are you serious?’ But I can still produce some of the best quality wines possible,” said Spoto.

“I don’t have to live in Napa Valley and spend millions of dollars on a winery. The model has worked for us, it’s really worked well, but it’s taken maybe five times longer to be recognized, or taken seriously. Out of sight out of mind, but don’t underestimate an out-of-Napa winery.”

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