Charter Oak Winery is a partnership between Rob Fanucci (local real estate and tax lawyer by day and vintner for many years), his wife Layla and their son David. Their winery is one of the more unique finds in the Napa Valley and is a complete throwback to the “old” days of winemaking. It is rare and actually quite refreshing to find a commercial winery in Napa Valley that does mostly everything by hand including pressing all their fruit in an old wooden basket press dating from 1900.
Rob still has all his grandfather’s old winemaking tools, the old basket press, homemade punch down tools including a well stained purple wooden piece that resembles an oversized baseball bat as well as an assortment of various other wine making implements. A typical punch-down tool used by contemporary wineries is one made of stainless steel featuring a much larger surface area.
Rob grew up in St. Helena and his winery cellar is under the same house where his grandfather Guido Ragghianti made home wine. Rob recalls Guido working in the vineyards next to their home on Charter Oak Avenue in St. Helena and being mesmerized at a young age by Guido’s winemaking. Rob’s grandparents moved to St. Helena in 1920 and Rob grew up around the vineyards but actually learned winemaking during his 98-year-old grandfathers last harvest in 1986. Guido spoke no English to Rob, so their primary language was Italian. Rob remembers the cost of making wine at that time (aside from their labor) coming out to about 25cents per bottle as they were given the grapes for free, they used recycled bottles and had no new oak costs.
Charter Oak is the definition of hand-crafted artisan wines. The wines are made in an elegant softer style, are well layered, balanced and generally do not display any harsh tannins, grippy structure or a finish that is overly drying. As a result, these are wines that are certainly approachable upon release. Part of the reason these wines do not have the harsh tannins lies with the basket press. Less juice can be gained from the grapes using this method of pressing. It is not physically possible to squeeze out extra juice like the automatic bladder presses can do and as a result there is no re-introduction of the final pressed juice which contains additional tannins. It should also be noted that using the basket press gives their wines excellent extraction. Their wines feature bright acidity and a resulting freshness.
The winemaking here, in today’s jargon, is purist in style but is really no different than wines that were made 90-100 years ago and earlier. Everything is done by hand; they don’t own any forklifts or pallet jacks. The wines are made unfined and unfiltered and indigenous yeasts are used for all fermentation. Even the malolactic fermentation is allowed to occur naturally. Once the wine has been pressed out from the seeds and skins it is then transferred by hand in buckets to the new and used French oak barrels for its aging.
Family members all help out with the winery operations. Rob is the winemaker, his son David is the assistant winemaker and at the time of our first visit many years ago, David was probably one of the youngest assistant winemakers in the valley at that time, at age 21. Former partner for 12 years, Jim White used to help oversee the marketing and sales side of the operations. Jim still runs www.napaman.com, an excellent blog and resource about Napa Valley which spotlights events, specific wines and other local happenings.
Everything about this winery is a throwback to how winemaking used to be conducted and even the vineyards they source fruit from have historic relevance. The estate 1/2 acre of Zinfandel is planted right next to the winery and this vineyard dates back over 100 years. Approximately another 1/2 acre on their property is planted to several other red varieties including Petite Sirah.
The historic Louis Martini Monte Rosso vineyard (now owned by GALLO) in Sonoma County used to supply the fruit for their Zinfandel. This vineyard is on the Sonoma County side of the Mayacamas mountains (the range that forms the western divide of the Napa Valley) and was first planted in the 1880’s. All the vineyards they use are extremely low in production ranging anywhere from merely a ton per acre up to 2 tons.
The 2021 Charter Oak Zinful Mind is blended with Petite Sirah, Carignane and Refosco – the Zinfandel is from their 1/2 acre growing on the property near the winery. This wine is deep ruby in color; the bouquet offers attractive aromatics of raspberry, fig, cherry and rose petals along with clove, nutmeg and a hint of chocolate. The aromatics smell both simultaneously fresh and fruity. A heavy, ripe, jammy, high alcohol wine of this variety? No, quite the opposite actually. It is bright, savory and refreshing across the palate featuring primarily red-fruited flavors including of cherry and red licorice accompanied by notes of dried herbs and white pepper. The energetic and mouth watering finish lingers with lightly textured but youthful tannins and a light drying and herbal character. This is a balanced and beautiful Zinfandel which shows the purity of its varietal character.
The 2018 Charter Oak Guido Ragghianti Old World Field Blend (named in honor of Rob’s grandfather) was created from four distinctive vineyards in the Napa Valley and is a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Petit Verdot. Offers aromatics of blackberry and boysenberry and as the wine opens further, additional more subtle desert spices are revealed including brown chocolate. A noticeable softness with a fine grip of tannins are broadly distributed across the palate; seamless and balanced this wine is very approachable early on. Very flavorful.
The 2016 Charter Oak Matilda Ragghianti Nonni’s Red Blend (named in honor of Rob’s grandmother) was created from Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc. This wine is deep ruby in color; it immediately offers intriguing, sweet aromatics including raspberry, Graham cracker and an herbal hint that initially shows but disappears as the wine evolves in the glass. This bottling packs plenty of flavor including blackberry; it is somewhat savory on the palate with mouthwatering acidity especially noticeable on the finish. And it showcases the hallmark Charter Oak texture, featuring supple and rounded tannins.
Another historic Napa Valley vineyard gem is the David Fulton Vineyard in St. Helena. This vineyard dates back to the 1860s on site of what is the second oldest active bonded winery in Napa Valley, Until the vineyard was sold in 2019 to Jayson Woodbridge, it was California’s oldest continuously owned and farmed family-owned vineyard. David Fulton used to make one of nicer Petite Sirah’s in the valley; Charter Oak was the only other producer representing this vineyard with a varietal designate of Petite Sirah.
The 2019 Charter Oak Napa Valley Old Vine Petite Sirah from the David Fulton Vineyard is a blend of 85% Petite Sirah with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is deep ruby in color and nearly opaque; the bouquet offers an opulent diversity of both primary fruit aromas and secondary aromatic influences. These include scents of ripe dark plum, black cherry, blackberry, layers of chocolate, mocha, vanilla, espresso and toasted oak. Richly flavored across the palate this wine offers notes of dark cherry, black raspberry and boysenberry. This bottling is high octane as this variety often is, both in terms of alcohol (15%) and intensity of flavor. But the tannins are managed extremely well; their textural feel is gravelly and rounded and they are well integrated into the long slightly dusty finish.
Like previous vintages of this variety, the 2017 Napa Valley Old Vine Petite Sirah was blended slightly with some Petit Verdot. This bottling offers a prominent bouquet with plenty of layered aromatics. It is the most robust of the Charter Oak wines we tried but still shows some restraint especially on the finish. The tannins sport some noticeable grip but are not course and not overly muscular as sometimes are found with wines from this variety.
The 2007 Charter Oak Petite Sirah is 100% varietal showing notes of white pepper, raspberry, baking spices and subtle undertones of mocha. It is smooth upon the entry, and then sits softly on the palate delivering sweet, layered fruit; big flavors of blueberry, raspberry and cherry are the core of this wine. This is a varietal that often has big structure especially on the finish; this wine’s structure is decidedly bigger than the Zinfandel but is not overwhelming and is certainly in balance with the fruit. This wine over delivers for the price.
The 2006 Charter Oak Monte Rosso Zinfandel offers a bouquet that envelops the glass and beyond; it is extremely aromatic with notes of cranberry, raspberry and white pepper as well as loads of floral overtones. While this wine is concentrated, the mouth feel is rather soft and plush especially upon the entry and on the finish. The palate shows red plum, raspberry and blackberry. It is a big Zinfandel with a finish of considerable length however is anchored by tannins that are fairly smooth and delicate. This is a wine that continues to evolve and show well once it has had some time to breathe. Unfortunately, the 2014 vintage of Monte Rosso was the last made by Charter Oak from this vineyard.
The 2007 Charter Oak Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% varietal and was sourced from a vineyard located at about 1,400 feet on the slopes of Mt. Veeder. This is a very dark wine; the nose is full of black fruit including blackberry, cherry and black licorice with just a hint of sage. Again, for mountain grown wine the tannins are reasonably structured and in balance.
Layla Fanucci Art
Some of the labels that appear on the Charter Oak wines are from paintings created by Rob’s wife Layla, an internationally recognized artist specializing in urban cityscape scenes (often of New York City). She has a long relationship with the Walter Wickiser Gallery in New York City which displays and sells selected works. Her paintings are highly reflective of her particular style – featuring layers of city scenes painted on top of each other with a layer of color in between ranging from small pieces to large canvas works.
She told us that her success as an artist really took off when she began to create works of art unique from other artists – her own style. She has created numerous commissions and her works are in private galleries around the country and in select locations internationally. As of our latest update to this review, several of her paintings hang inside The Prisoner Winery. Conveniently her studio is located above the winery in the old house dating from 1900 that Rob’s grandparents used to live in. She hosts a limited number of receptions for her art each year at select locations around the country.
Layla has been the subject of or profiled in several books including The City of Dreams, Unabridged by Valerie Gladstone and It Ain’t Over… Till It’s over: Reinventing Your Life – and Realizing Your Dreams – Anytime, at Any Age by Marlo Thomas. And she has been the subject of several prominent interviews including on The Today Show and CNN. For more information, visit: www.laylafanucci.com.
And like Rob’s family, Layla’s family also produces wine. Her uncle’s family owns La Cave de Gan Jurancon Winery at 53 Avenue Henri IV in Gan, France (about a 2.5 hour drive south of the city of Bordeaux).
In late summer 2014, Charter Oak opened two small ‘charter’ houses, one an 800 square foot house with a remodeled kitchen, living room, bathroom with shower, laundry room and bedroom. The bedroom has a king size bed, perfect accommodations for 2 guests only. And a smaller approximately 500-foot guesthouse next door. Any guests who stay at either of these homes are given a complimentary bottle of Charter Oak Wine. Inquire for details and pricing.
Charter Oak’s total production averages about 1,000 cases annually and is primarily sold direct to consumer; over the years Rob has cut back on distribution and today is only distributed in select major markets including Florida, New York and Texas. Their wines have been well accepted at a number of premium restaurants including Per Se in New York and several national steak houses. For a truly artisan producer, their top vineyard sources and the quality of wines, their prices are quite reasonable.
Visits to the winery are typically hosted by Layla with a visit to the historic cellar underneath the main house, followed by a tasting and then culminating with a visit to her art studio. Following a visit to Charter Oak, guests may also be interested in visiting St. Helena Olive Oil and its diverse selection of food provisions located in a white barn across the street from Charter Oak Winery. One of Layla’s prints hangs near the entrance.
Locally they have limited distribution; one can sometimes find their wines at ACME Wine shop in St. Helena or the Oakville Grocery. Visits are typically reserved for mailing list customers however often people can taste their wines at the Family Winemaker tastings and the ZAP tasting (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers). Each wine is typically produced in quantities of only 100 to 300 cases. Some wines are held back each year for later library releases to club members.
To join the mailing list, to purchase wine, to signup for their wine club and for more information visit: www.charteroakwine.com
Layla Fanucci Art Studio