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Coombsville or Tulocay?

Coombsville or Tulocay?

Farella-Park is an anchor in an emerging AVA

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Tulocay is one of the proposed American Viticultural Areas that is currently on hold pending review of recommendations offered by the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

But if Tom Farella has his way, the AVA would be called Coombsville. “I’m a proponent of ‘Coombsville,’” he said. “The name is geographical. ‘Coombsville’ is associated with wine. ‘Tulocay’ is associated a with cemetery.”

Farella wrote to the TTB protesting the move to call the appellation Tulocay, saying, “While there is a historical description of Rancho Tulocay and a few notations on various maps of this historic artifact, everyone in the wine trade has described the region (with identical boundaries) as ‘Coombsville.’”

He continued, “The name ‘Coombsville’ is the common neighborhood description for real estate, references to the area by the main local paper, the Napa Register, and the greater local public as well as a grape growing area.” He also cited an article in Wine & Spirits Magazine about the AVA petition, in which the author referred to “Coombsville” throughout.

He said that he had asked to discuss the matter in informal committee meetings, but his requests “were dismissed by the petitioners.”

“If the proposal proceeds with the name ‘Tulocay,’” he continued, “I strongly endorse the addition of ‘District’ to the named AVA. To call it simply ‘Tulocay’ would cause a great deal of confusion with the longtime brand Tulocay Winery.”

Part of Napa’s history

Coombsville is part of Napa’s history, he said. “The Coombs family is a big part of our history.” Although the name was never formalized, the area became known as Coombsville, a name that has stuck to this day.

Farella knows plenty about the area’s history — the 26-acre property he operates as Farella-Park vineyard was part of Nathan Coombs’ ranch and was purchased in the mid-1970s by his father, Frank Farella, from descendants of the Coombs family. The property, which lies at the base of the Vaca Mountains, also includes 30 acres of oak trees that surround the vineyard.

Asked how his father found the property, Tom replied, “I often asked him that and he always said, ‘Dumb luck.’ But I think it was more than that — like the oak trees. I’m sure the first time he came up here he was sold. It’s close to town, there’s wildlife, it’s serene, and it’s off the beaten track.” He said they didn’t take out any oak trees.

The vineyard,  planted in 1979, now grows cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, and Farella is thinking about budding a small block to malbec.

Most of the fruit is sold to 14 clients, including such prestigious labels as Far Niente, Lail Vineyards, Honig Vineyard, Pahlmeyer, Robert Keenan Winery, Realm Cellars and Luna Vineyards. “We work with the individual wineries” in growing to their specifications, Farella said, “and most contracts are by a handshake.” Specific areas and rows within the vineyard are designated for clients, and “sometimes we’ll have six or seven winemakers in the vineyard (at harvest time).”

In 1985 Frank Farella built a small winery and Tom began to make wine under the Farella-Park label. They outgrew the facilities and in 1997 they constructed a larger winery which they now occupy. In addition to the 1,200 cases per year produced under the Farella-Park label, four custom crush clients also make wine there. Farella also makes wine for Georg Rafael, a business associate of his father and a partner in the winery facility, under the Domain Georg Rafael label.

Interest is inherited

Tom may have inherited his interest in and knowledge of wine. Frank became interested in wine in the ’60s, about the time his career began to take off, Tom said, but he set aside his passion for wine to concentrate on his legal practice. Frank is a principal in Farella, Martel & Braun, a prestigious law firm in San Francisco, and has represented numerous wine industry clients, including Robert Mondavi.

When Tom was 12, his family traveled to Europe. “I already knew about wine,” Tom said. “I was exposed to it — the Italian influence, you know.” The family visited some of the top chateaux in France, and Tom said, “my mom made us kids keep journals, and later she found mine. My writing was dry until we got to Burgundy. I used descriptive phrases, like talking about the lees. That’s a strange subject for a 12-year-old kid. But I always was a science nerd as a kid.”

That was a profound experience, he said, and later in his career he worked in Burgundy. “I have a love of Burgundy,” he said, although he does not produce any Burgundy-style wines for himself. He does make some pinot noir for Mary Elke, of Elke Vineyards, a neighbor in Coombsville, from her vineyard in Anderson Valley in Mendocino County.

One day, as the family drove to Lake Tahoe for a ski trip and passed UC Davis, Frank Farella pointed to it and told Tom he should go there and become a winemaker. “After two years at other schools, I transferred to UC Davis,” Tom said. He ended up with a degree in enology and viticulture. While going to school he worked weekends and during harvest with Neyers Vineyard and Flora Springs Winery, and after graduation in 1983 he made wine at Preston Vineyards in Sonoma County. He then returned to Burgundy, this time to work there.

“No self-respecting winemaker can stay in California all his life,” he said. “You must go back to the Mother Country,” referring to France.

Return to the U.S.

After his French adventure, he still had the travel bug, so he headed for Oregon to work a harvest at Ponzi Vineyards, and in 1990, he returned to Napa Valley and took over duties at Farella-Park.

Apparently the desire to travel has left him, because now he said he loves everything about the wine business except the traveling, which winemakers often do to help sell the wine. He travels now only for fun with his family, including 4-year-old Gabriel and 6-year-old Daisy. He makes ski trips and heads out on backpacking adventures in the Sierra with buddies.

About 25 percent of his production is sold direct, and although the winery is a bit difficult to find, he encourages visitors. “We like to show visitors the vineyard and have them taste the wine. We’re trying to provide an alternative to the Napa Valley juggernaut,” he said, referring to the mass of wineries along Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. “In France they taste out of the barrel, and the selling is done right out of the cellars.”

Asked if he gets many visitors, he replied, “It ebbs and flows. People find out about us through word of mouth and some stumble on my blog.” Another wine blog, Vinography, wrote favorable reviews about his wines, and that helped to bring people, he said.

He distributes in Southern California through a broker, and has some distribution in Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma.

Shifts to modern profile

Some of Farella’s current releases are of the 2002 vintage, and he said the original idea was to sell to restaurants. “Wine in a bottle for a couple of (extra) years goes so much better with food,” he said, but he acknowledged that things have changed now. “We’re shifting our wine style to the modern profile. I’m (still) trying to make wine that goes with food, to have a foot in both worlds. A chef’s accolades mean more to me than reviews. Sommeliers and chefs seem to recognize what we’re doing.”

To accentuate the point, he sells shirts in the tasting room emblazoned with “Farella With Food.”

Talking about wine reviews, he said, “They rarely give credit for style. They rarely recognize or make a comment on style. I’m aiming for layers, rather than single characteristics.”

Farella’s portfolio consists of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and sauvignon blanc, and he has created a red blend he calls Alta from 70 percent cabernet sauvignon and 30 percent merlot. He separates cab from four or five blocks and after they have aged, uses them in the blend for Alta and his cabernet sauvignon, depending on the wine profile

Creation of Alta

The idea to create Alta came after Farella tasted a 1999 Massetto from Italy. He wrote in his tasting notes, “There was something about the complex aroma and depth that was very compelling but, moreover, the smooth arc of flavor and structure really caught my attention.” He said it made a great impression and had a lasting finish, and he knew he had the raw materials from the cellar from both older and newer blocks to make a wine like that.

He made it for the first time in 2001, and the 2002 vintage has won numerous awards.

To separate Alta and any future proprietary blends from his other wines (a syrah blend is in the works), he created a new brand — Farella — but the other wines will continue to be known as Farella-Park.

Why did he call the blend Alta?

“The name has a triple entendre,” he explained. “One, the word means ‘upper.’ Two, I’m a skier, and Alta (Utah) is the ultimate place, and three, I live in Alta Heights, two blocks from Alta Street.”

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