Villa Ragazzi, literally translated in Italian as the House of Boys is an informal term that refers to youth/kids and familiarity among a group of individuals. This winery was founded by husband and wife, Gregory (died in 2021) and Michaela Rodeno with their first commercial vintage in 1989. Both Michaela and Gregory met at UC Davis; she was in graduate school program and he was studying law. Gregory was a lawyer for many years; when a friend first moved to Napa, he informed Gregory there were a number of firms in the area looking for legal work. That invitation was the impetus for their move to the valley in 1972 as recently newlyweds.
They purchased a 22-acre property in Oakville in 1977 and then built a home on site in the mid 1980s. At the time of their purchase this property was not cared for; blackberries and run down vines were growing here. However, there were a number of vineyards already planted nearby – Christian Brothers Winery owned much of this area. Over the years the Rodeno’s have replanted the vineyards here with clonal selections being heavily influenced by their vineyard neighbors (Groth, Gargiulo and Saddleback Cellars). Today they grow 8/10ths of an acre of Sangiovese as well as several clones of Cabernet Sauvignon.
When Domaine Chandon opened their winery in Yountville in 1973, they placed an ad in the local St. Helena Star newspaper. Michaela (with little wine experience to that point, other than as a tour guide at Beaulieu Vineyard hosting visitors) applied for a job, was soon hired (only their second employee) and ultimately became one of their key employees – it certainly helped that she was fluent in French.
After 15 years at Domaine Chandon, she left to become the CEO of St. Supéry; she is no longer at St. Supéry but is as busy as ever including promoting Villa Ragazzi wines and being involved in a number of wine related organizations. And in 2015 she wrote a book, a must read for both Napaphiles and wine lovers alike, called From Bubbles to Boardrooms highlighting the early days at Domain Chandon (the first major French wine investment in the USA). The book is an engaging and unique insight into the creativity and energy that Domain Chandon’s early employees had and how they grew the brand, built a winery and became one of America’s sought after sparkling wine producers in a relatively short amount of time.
The roots for Villa Ragazzi began with their first trip to Italy. Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti (whose store the Rodeno’s used to frequent when they were in school at UC Davis) carefully planned out their itinerary to Piemonte and Tuscany. They met several vintners including Piero Antinori whose family runs one of the oldest continuously operating family businesses in the world (officially dates back to 1385). He influenced their decision to make Sangiovese and in later years Antinori offered to let his wine making team craft the wine at Antica Estate (his property on Atlas Peak) which is where the wine was made for a number of years.
You know you have been in the valley a long time when you have a clone named after yourself; such is the case with their Sangiovese, the Rodeno Clone. Cuttings for their clone came from a vines in Sonoma County which were already approximately 50 years old at the time. A close friend in Montepulciano told the Rodeno’s it most certainly was the Grosso Clone of Sangiovese, but they have never been able to officially identify its exact origins.
In 1980, Rodenos purchased a property in Pope Valley (east of Napa Valley). As Michaela recalls it contained sandy soils with very little available water and low nutrients. They planted Sangiovese here in 1985 which was among the first of now a number of contemporary plantings of this variety in Napa Valley. For reference, the Heitz family of Shypoke Vineyard in Calistoga already had Sangiovese dating from 1954 but eventually pulled it out in the early 2020s. The first several vintages of Villa Ragazzi were made by hand at their little “barn” winery nearby their home in Oakville.
The vines at their Pope Valley property would usually average around a ton an acre. Some years were “bonus” producing up to 5 tons per acre, but these were far and few between. The vineyard eventually succumbed to phylloxera in the late 1990s and had to be replanted with bud wood saved from original plantings. Based on the location and various regulations, it took them nearly 10 years to get this vineyard back into production. In 2010 they sold their Pope Valley vineyard to Peju Winery, and subsequently purchased some of the Sangiovese from the Peju’s to blend into the Villa Ragazzi wine.
Sangiovese is the variety they started with and is still the flagship of their wine portfolio. This is not a variety commonly grown in Napa Valley. The only other Sangiovese that the Rodeno’s know of in Oakville, and that we have tasted, is from Gargiulo Vineyards. Gregory gave Sangiovese cuttings to several vineyard owners in the 1990s. He later discovered vines of this same clone growing in Calistoga. For several years they produced Sangiovese from three vineyard sites: their original Pope Valley Sangiovese vineyard, Calistoga and vines growing at their Oakville property. Michaela noticed marked differences in cluster sizes and other variations in the grapes, despite each property planted to the exact same clone.
Their first vintage of Sangiovese was a tiny amount in 1988; they did not bottle this wine commercially. The following year they produced a whopping 14 cases and then doubled that to 28 cases. While their production of each wine is tiny, the production of this wine will remain especially small. Total amounts for all three wines currently produced at the time of our latest update to this review is under 150 cases annually with the intention to grow production.
Over the years a number of well-respected winemakers have crafted their wines including Charles Thomas, Cathy Corison (a Cabernet Sauvignon for one year – 2005), Celia Welch, Nate Weiss and Robert Pepi.
One constant hallmark of all their wines is their excellent acidity. As Michaela says, “you don’t spend 15 years working at a sparkling wine producer (Domaine Chandon) and not realize the value that acidity brings to a quality wine”. And not to mention, Sangiovese is a variety that has excellent inherent natural acidity.
The 2022 Villa Ragazzi Rosé of Sangiovese is medium salmon in color; this wine is highly aromatic and becomes even more so as its allowed to evolve in the glass. It offers scents of rose petal, apricot, peach and watermelon jolly rancher candy. If we were to use one word to describe its flavor profile it would simply be, ‘yummy’. The union between flavor and acidity is what makes this an intriguing rosé. It offers mineralities and flavors of raspberry, watermelon, white peach and grapefruit. Lingers rich with a mouthwatering finish. Their rosé is always bottled with a screw cap, but not this year due to supply issues. Rather they bottled this wine by hand. 11.4% alcohol.
The first vintage of rosé bottled under Villa Ragazzi was in 2014. Their winemaker at the time Nate Weiss suggested they produce a rose of Sangiovese by saignée (bleeding off some juice from the seeds and skins soon after harvesting). They have produced a rosé of Sangiovese every year since, however, this bottling is now made from grapes grown specifically for this bottling.
The 2019 Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese (100% varietal) is medium ruby in color – a consistent color that Gregory used to refer to as, “Ferrari red”. The bouquet offers initial spices including of white pepper, sweet tobacco and an herb note including light oregano and rosemary. This herb note persists as the wine opens. One of the characteristics of their Sangiovese is how quickly the bouquet becomes more expressive of its fruit almost immediately after opening the bottle – and this vintage is a good example of that. The palate offers flavors of cranberry, black raspberry, cherry cola and a light note of white pepper on the juicy finish. The texture of this wine is consistent every vintage; it offers supple, rounded and well-integrated tannins.
The 2010 Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese (100% varietal) is light color in the glass with attractive aromatics that become livelier as this wine breathes. The wine is pleasing on the palate – lighter bodied but with plenty of flavor. The entry is delicate and shows mostly red fruit including red currant and red cherry. Mouthwatering acidity. Sports a pleasing finish that lasts, not in structure, but with a tender softness. This wine shows a nice balance between tartness and fruit and is a wine that is certainly meant to be paired with food.
Their 2012 Sangiovese was served at the White House for a State Dinner for the Italian Prime Minister in October 2016.
The 2018 Villa Ragazzi Faraona is a blend of 92% Sangiovese and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon. This vintage has the lowest amount of Cabernet Sauvignon of any of their Faroana bottlings. This wine is medium to deep ruby in color; the bouquet offers a diversity of both fruit and other aromatics including initially of parchment paper and a persistent herbal note which continues to show as the wine breathes. It also offers scents of violets, bramble, red cherry and plum and as the wine opens a hint of mocha/vanilla. A darker spice note (perhaps tobacco) is also present, which adds to the aromatic savory character. The palate is bright, vibrant and balanced. The hallmark tannins of this wine and every vintage are integrated soft and rounded. This wine lingers with a note of tobacco spice. Sangiovese is such a versatile and food friendly wine due to its inherent acidity; Michaela recommends pairing Sangiovese with a variety of foods including grilled meats and roasted vegetables.
The 2010 Villa Ragazzi Faraona (inaugural vintage) is 75% Sangiovese and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. During the blending sessions they tried many different percentages of Cabernet but found the sweet spot with 25%; more than that and the Cabernet Sauvignon was starting to dominate the wine. And since their early vintages this wine is blended with even less Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2010 bottling has an elegant nose with aromas of sandalwood, cedar chest and is somewhat floral with appealing perfume characteristics. It also shows an almost an earthy component to the aromatics. As the wine breathes hints of cocoa come forth. Bright fruit mixed with some spice and inviting tender tannins anchor the supple finish.
During a particularly memorable meal in Tuscany one evening Michaela and Gregory enjoyed an entre of guinea fowl. Faraona in Italian means guinea fowl and certainly sounds better for a wine label than its English counterpart. During a later trip to Italy, Michaela brought bottles of Faraona to give away as gifts to wineries she visited. No one commented about the name for the first few bottles she gave away, but then one vintner asked, “why did you name your wine after a chicken”.
The 2010 Villa Ragazzi Cabernet Sauvignon reveals an inviting nose that shows a mix of both red and black fruit. It is dark ruby color in the glass. There is a holiday spice component on the palate – this wine has plenty of life and good acidity. It is certainly a bigger wine than the Sangiovese and the Faraono but the structure is well managed. This wine is more about elegance rather than power.
The Villa Ragazzi wine label was originally designed for St. Supery as part of 9 different label designs. For a larger production wine, the challenges of printing a label with 16 individual ‘spike cutouts’ would be impossible on a bottling line. St. Supery ended up choosing a second label. But then the label designer, Melanie Doherty gifted this label to Michaela and Greg. For years Michaela would hand label all the bottles, reaching the point where using the glue machine would be able to label one case (12 bottles in an hour). Finally Greg and their son John lobbied to come up with a design which would be easier to print – they chose a black background filling in around the gold spikes.
With such a small distribution, most of their wine is sold direct to consumer. One of their big proponents in the valley has been Dan Dawson, the former founder and owner of Backroom Wines in the city of Napa and current owner of Outerspace Wines located in the original building that Backroom Wines was founded in. Select bottlings of Villa Ragazzi are also available at several restaurants in the city of Napa and we have seen their wine at the Oakville Grocery. Villa Ragazzi has one international exposure in London at the M Restaurant Group.
Visits are for serious wine enthusiasts by appointment and are always hosted by family. For more information, to schedule a visit or to purchase wine, visit: www.villaragazzi.wine