Jack Tognetti is the owner and winegrower at Aloise Francisco Vineyards in the Carneros region of Napa. He’s also in his early 90s—but looks and acts decades younger. He lives with his wife, Camille, in a modest farmhouse surrounded by fruit trees and vineyards. There are figs, plums, pears, apples, peaches and his well-tended Chardonnay vineyards, the fruit from which is sold exclusively to Schramsberg Vineyards. Aloise and Francisco are Camille and Jack’s middle names.
“His fruit is among the best we’ve worked with,” says Hugh Davies, Schramsberg’s president. “It’s unique because it has a good concentration of flavor, even at a lower ripeness level, and great acidity—bingo; that’s what we’re looking for.”
“When we arrive to sample the grapes, he’s always there and has a lot of stories and opinions about things,” says Keith Hock, Schramsberg’s associate winemaker. “You can’t just get in and out quickly. It’s like he has sonar that tells him you’re there, and then he comes over on his ATV when he senses you. We look forward to it, too. It’s all about relationships, and this one works great for us.”
Hock has been working with Tognetti to do some replanting at the vineyard over time, but some of the vines there are still close to 30 years old. “I like the older section because of its character,” says Hock. “It has intense tropical flavors and acidity plus a high mineral content. All that transfers into the wines.”
“Jack has great attention to detail,” adds Davies. “His fruit is in our top wine, J Schram. The proof is in the pudding that it works.”
And Tognetti is happy to give the winery what it wants. “He [Hock] had a special, French clone he wanted. It cost me $0.24 per vine. But it’s good. It tastes like candy,” he says with a smile.
A matter of time
Prior to being a grapegrower, Tognetti spent many years at sea. He started as a junior pursor, then became a finance officer on the President Cleveland during WWII. Following the war, he worked for American President Lines (APL) for 40 years. He started in the freight department, then worked his way up to director of marketing and traffic for Korea to Karachei. While still working for APL, he purchased his current property, and began planting grapes in 1980. In retrospect, Tognetti says, “Maybe it was a mistake to work in the steamship industry. I like farming. I went to UC Davis, and always thought I’d be a farmer.”
He says they purchased the Carneros property because, at the time, it was inexpensive. “But then it turned out to be one of the best regions around for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. So it was a matter of luck,” he says. “Sometimes it’s miserable out here with the strong wind, but that’s the cool air that makes this area unique.”
Their first harvests were sold to Swanson Vineyards. Tognetti had told the Carneros Quality Alliance that if a winemaker wanted his grapes, he’d sell them for $700 per ton. “Swanson’s winemaker came out the next day. I said, ‘Never heard of ’em [Swanson], but I’ll sell you what you need.’” When Swanson eventually phased out its Chardonnay program, it continued to purchase Tognetti’s grapes and then resold them to other wineries. “I told them I’d like them to sell a portion of the grapes for sparkling wine,” says Tognetti. “So they chose to sell some to Schramsberg. Then [in 1998] when Schramsberg learned all the grapes would be available, they said they’d take them.” And he’s been selling to them exclusively ever since.
“We were working with some of the neighboring vineyards, so when Jack’s fruit became available, we were right there,” says Davies. “He has great attention to detail and works closely with our winemaker. His vineyard has several individual blocks, with different Chardonnay clones, each with its own character.”
“He’s one of our favorite growers,” says Hock. “He has such a great personality. And sometimes we get as much as 70 tons of fruit from his property.”
The finished product
The Schramsberg estate (www.schramsberg.com) was originally founded by Jacob Schram in 1862. In 1965, Hugh Davies’ parents, Jack and Jamie, purchased the 220-acre Diamond Mountain property and established Schramsberg as a sparkling wine producer. They started out with Blanc de Blanc, then Blanc de Noirs, and now produce nine different sparkling wines using the Méthode Champenoise technique. The grapes are sourced from cool-climate vineyards spanning Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. Once bottled, the wine is aged for two to seven years in Schramsberg’s 30,000-square-feet of hillside caves, which were originally built in the 1880s. (The caves are an amazing part of the estate; they wind through the hillside in a sort of maze, and close to 2 million bottles are stacked floor-to-ceiling in most of the nooks and crannies.)
One of the most significant moments in the winery’s history was when President Nixon took its Blanc de Blanc to China for a “Toast to Peace” in 1972. Since then, every presidential administration has poured Schramsberg wine at official functions.
The property also has its own vineyards, which are used exclusively for its red wine program, J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon (a Bordeaux-style blend, named after Jack Davies). The current release of the 2004 vintage is only the fourth year the wine has been available. It’s the result of about 12 years of experimentation with vineyard layout, rootstock and clonal and grape variety within the 42 planted acres.
Up close and personal
Tognetti works closely with Schramsberg to plan what’s planted and how. “At first,” he says, “we planted the vines 7 feet apart. Now, with the demand for grapes and the shortage of good land, all the growers are planting closer, sometimes as little as 4 feet. In my case, I’ve placed them 5 feet apart—you get almost double the fruit this way, but without stressing the vines too much.” As he walks through the vineyard, it’s clear to see this is a man who absolutely loves what he does.
In the springtime, he uses wind machines to prevent frost. “I get up at 2 a.m. to turn them on,” he says. Now that’s dedication. He also does his own disking, and says it’s one of his favorite parts of growing grapes. “I should like harvest more, but I really don’t. I hire a vineyard management company to do that and also to do the pruning.”
The cover crops he uses are common vetch, clover and barley. He uses a double-wire trellising system on the vines, which allows more growth than single wires. The vines are also trained so the leaves protect the grapes from direct sunlight as much as possible.
Variety is certainly one of the spices of this vineyard. Another is most definitely its owner’s inherent charm.
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