Casa Piena, or in Italian, “Full House” is a Napa Valley producer founded by Carmen Policy and his wife Gail. Those who follow American football will know about Carmen’s lengthy involvement with the San Francisco 49ers during the 1980s and 1990s including serving as the team’s president and CEO. During his time in their front office the team was extremely successful, winning 5 Super Bowls.
Throughout a successful career in both law and the National Football League, Carmen also served as President and CEO of the Cleveland Browns, was involved with early developments on building a football stadium in Los Angeles and more recently was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
While Carmen is from Youngstown Ohio, during his time with the San Francisco 49ers, he fell in love with Northern California – and he and Carmen moved to San Francisco full-time in 1991. While living San Francisco Carmen and Gail often felt the call of wine country from the wines they enjoyed drinking to the country lifestyle and the region’s culinary treasures. Tuscany is one of their favorite wine country destinations and parts of the Napa Valley are certainly similar in appearance.
It is no surprise then that they gravitated toward the Napa Valley. When looking to purchase land here, they examined numerous properties before deciding on a specific site in Yountville. The Policy Vineyard is 14 acres of which 10 acres are planted to vine – almost entirely to four Cabernet Sauvignon clones but also with a very tiny block of Cabernet Franc. Incidentally their property used to be owned by Peter Mondavi (Charles Krug). The vineyard was planted from scratch in 2003, allowing full control including vineyard layout, variety, roostock and clonal selections. A nearby knoll helps create a microclimate unique to their particular vineyard.
Jim Barbour (Vineyard Manager)
Even before they owned a vineyard, the Policy’s hired highly respected vineyard manager Jim Barbour. Jim wasn’t always sure he wanted to work in the wine industry. Prior to college he was leaning towards being a parole officer and actually attended Chico State in their criminal justice program. Learning about the low pay and tough job conditions, Jim then transferred to UC Davis.
At UC Davis he completed his studies and upon graduating with a degree in plant science, returned to Napa Valley. He worked for Napa vineyard management pioneer Frank (Laurie) Wood from 1975 to 1989 helping control 1200 acres of area vineyards. After Laurie retired in 1990, that same year Jim branched out on his own and began Barbour Vineyard management company; today his company manages over 500 vineyard acres in Napa and he has been responsible for either planting or maintaining some of the top vineyards in the valley including Blankiet, Fantesca, Grace Family, Chiarello, Casa Piena, Hundred Acre and many more. And over the years Jim has worked with some of the top winemakers in all of Napa Valley.
Thomas Brown, Winemaker
Early on, Carmen was very focused on creating a specific style of wine – one that was elegant in nature – a wine that would pair well with a variety of foods. He hired Thomas Brown as the winemaker – as with Thomas’s other clients the Casa Piena wines are made at the state-of-the-art Outpost Winery on Howell Mountain. Besides making the wine, Thomas also works very closely in the vineyards with Barbour.
Thomas is one of the busiest wine makers in the Napa Valley. Several producers have showed us lists of all the Napa brands that he consults for and or provides direct winemaking services; this is an extensive list. He is from South Carolina and developed an interest in wine while attending the University of Virginia where his major was not wine related (he studied English and Economics).
He moved to the Napa Valley in 1996 and took a job at All Seasons Bistro in Calistoga (known for their California cuisine, wine selection and long time in business – but unfortunately permanently closed in 2020). While there, Thomas met winemaker Ehren Jordan who was working for Larry Turley at the time of Turley Wine Cellars. Thomas took a job with Ehren in the cellar at Turley in 1997 – spent several years there before beginning his own career and starting to consult for various clients (some of which were clients that Ehren was already working with).
And within only 10 years of making wine in Napa Valley Thomas received two 100-point scores from Robert Parker – regardless of what your perception is of scores, creating several wines within a short period of time that receive 100 points from Parker was a watershed moment in Thomas’s consulting career.
Today Thomas is highly sought after for his winemaking services, experience and access to premium area vineyards. And while he was once the student, over the years he has become the teacher. We have met with a number of winemakers who worked under Thomas – and consider him one of their mentors. These are winemakers who have gone on to establish their own brands or consult for other Napa based brands.
The first vintage of Casa Piena was from 2006 and was released in April 2009. This first vintage is hard to find because of the limited production, however their next few vintages successively increased in production as additional blocks came into production.
There are many Napa wine producers with last names on the label, however not wanting to use their last name, the Policy’s came up with a creative name that ties together family and lifestyle. With three boys and 2 girls, they have a “full house” (not to mention the grandchildren) and this was the ideal easy to say name in Italian (also reflecting their heritage).
Being of Italian descent and growing up in Youngstown Ohio with its fairly large Italian American population, Carmen has been around wine for many years. He remembers family and neighbors driving their trucks down to the railroad yards to pick crates of grapes that had made the long trek across the USA surviving temperature extremes before finally being delivered in Youngstown, Ohio. Incidentally these grapes came from California’s Central Valley. Deliver trucks would then deliver small quantities of grapes to each of the families.
The same barrel and press were often used by each family year after year. After pressing the somewhat “aged” grapes (by the time they reached Youngstown), the families would ferment the fruit and then bottle soon thereafter in jugs – and typically have wine on the table in time for the Easter holiday. Carmen recalls how competitive this family winemaking became with families bragging that their individual wines could beat anything made by Mr. Mondavi or Mr. Gallo. These home winemakers all thought they had the “best” wine; however regardless of disagreements about quality – wine was always an integral part of their family life to be enjoyed socially with food. Once you have those experiences in your “blood” so to say, the memories never leave.
The 2006 inaugural vintage (3rd leaf) Cabernet Sauvignon is drinking well at the time of this review despite its still young age. The bouquet is elegant and initially shows aromas of black cherry, baking spices and as it opens a hint of crushed rock or minerality. This is a nose that keeps evolving nicely as it breathes. The palate is well integrated between fruit and structure and offers flavors of blackberry and hints of toasted cedar and vanilla. It has excellent depth of flavor and concentration from start to finish. The wine is balanced with smoky, broad and somewhat dusty tannins anchoring the long finish.
If one were to describe this wine in three words – a good choice would be: elegant, structured and balanced. This is an approachable wine with firm structure – yet the “backbone” of the wine does not take detract from its other characteristics. Only 250 cases of this wine were produced.
Note: in summer 2019 the Policy Estate and Policy Vineyard was sold to Donna Walker and Mark Pulido (the founders of Pulido Walker wine brand). This does not affect the Casa Piena winery operations in any way as there never was a winery on property – Casa Piena will continue to be produced from the same vineyards and will continue to be labeled as estate grown. Visitors interested in tasting the wines can do so by requesting an appointment through their website. As of the latest update to this review, all Casa Piena tastings are hosted at Mending Wall in the north part of the valley along the Silverado Trail.
Due to their small production, they are distributed in select locations including locally at what was their initial retail outlet, V Wine Cellar in Yountville and at Dean and Deluca in St. Helena. For more information, to join their mailing list or to purchase wine, visit: www.casapiena.com
Jaime Jones says
Please call one of your 49er alums and my uncle/god father #23 Ray Norton (RB- 1960 class and San Jose State Spartan) at his home in Reno, NV at 1-775-636-1115 and email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jaime F. Jones
Chuck Ruth says
Hello Carmen: just read the article on Casa Piena great story of how you and your wife developed the winery. Also while my wife and I were in Cleveland I heard you on the radio when Triv passed away.
Still we’re still living in South Carolina. Take care my friend.