by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
Paul Foppiano is hardly the image of what you would expect of a company president. There’s no Brooks Brothers’ pinstripe suit, spacious office or aides who bustle in with spreadsheets and strategic plans. You won’t find him pondering a merger behind a desk either.
“My mind gets made up on the hood of a tractor or truck. That’s my office,” he said in a recent phone interview.
And that pinstripe suit?
“I’m in a pair of blue jeans with a hole in them and hydraulic stains all over.”
That’s how the business of growing grapes and making wine has been done for generations at Foppiano Vineyards. Paul is the fifth-generation to lead the company, one of the oldest continually operated, family owned wineries in Sonoma County. As families squabble acrimoniously and sell their fractured wineries to large Wall Street beverage companies, Foppiano remains a survivor. Its wines may not have the cache or cult following of prestigious Napa Valley labels, but instead the winery stays on a course of making reliable, affordable wines. This is particularly the case with its iconic petite sirah, a flagship wine introduced by his Italian ancestors.
Founded in 1896 by Genoa immigrant Giovanni Foppiano, the business survived Prohibition by selling home winemaking kits. The operation was passed down to new generations, but Paul was only nine when his father died in 1984. He eventually went to work at Sausal Vineyard with another Genoa immigrant and then returned to Foppiano in 1999. He assumed the president title when his grandfather retired about 10 years ago.
There aren’t many family wineries left intact today. Three conglomerates have swallowed up many of the operations that established the California wine industry. Most recently Sebastiani was purchased by Foley Family Winery and its historic facility in Sonoma was closed.
Paul said the closing of an iconic building in town hit him hard. “I drove by there the other day one last time,” he said. He lamented the number of people who have lost their jobs.
He struggled to find advantages to being family owned – “no one fights better than families,” he said – but he likes that decisions can be quickly made and that everyone on his small staff can perform every chore.
“Everyone gets their fingers in the Kool-aid one way or another,” he said. “I wouldn’t ask any employee to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. We work as a team, and you don’t always see that in corporate.”
Now the only Foppiano still involved in the winery, Paul is more than happy to keep the business humming. But if it was up to him, he’d spend his entire time in the vineyards.
Knowledge was passed down through generations, but Paul admitted times have changed since horses plowed his family’s vineyards. He pointed to irrigation and organic farming as among the most significant advances. But the region’s lack of water is among the most serious challenges. One of his wells has been ordered to shut down in a regional effort to conserve water.
“We are probably in the worst drought ever,” he said. “The Russian River may go dry this year. Young vineyards can’t survive if you don’t irrigate.”
We pull for wineries like Foppiano. It’s more than just preserving tradition created by hard-working pioneers. It’s about the wines that reflect a personal dedication and not the formula-driven recipes embraced by impersonal corporations.
Here are some of the Foppiano wines to try:
Foppiano Estate Zinfandel 2017 ($28). Classic raspberry and spice aromas with plum and blueberry flavors with easy tannins. This is a better food wine than most extracted zinfandels.
Foppiano Estate Petite Sirah 2017 ($25). Foppiano’s crowning achievement year after year, this petite sirah has elegance and structure. Effusive clove and pepper aromas are followed by ripe strawberry, blueberry flavors with a hint of chocolate.
Foppiano 1896 California Red Blend 2018 ($13). The beauty of this quaffable wine is in its simplicity. Red berry fruit and a perfect match to grilled burgers.
Foppiano Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2019 ($25). Pear and apple notes with a dash of spice give this chardonnay a nice lift.
Capensis Silene Chardonnay 2017 ($40). We loved this aromatic chardonnay from mountain vineyards in the Stellenbosch winegrowing region of South Africa. Rich, citrusy and intriguing.
Hahn SLH Chardonnay 2018 ($25). From the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey, this rich and buttery chardonnay exudes luxury. Apple and mango notes dominate the palate.
Vigne Surrau Naracu Cannonau di Sardegna DOC 2019 ($16). Named after the remnants of ancient fortresses whose ruins can still be seen in Sardinia, this simple but pleasing wine is made from cannonau grapes. Fresh, red berry fruit.
Vigne Surrau Limizzani Vermentino di Gallura DOCG 2020 ($16). Home to Sardinia’s only DOCG, this special vermentino is a blend from all of the producer’s estate vineyards. Fermented in stainless steel, it retains its fresh tropical fruit character.