This month, we are celebrating viticulturist Jack Tognetti’s 100th birthday!
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Jack, his son Robert and his grandson Michael in his Aloise Francisco vineyard a week before his hundredth birthday. It was a beautiful spring day in Los Carneros and the bees were buzzing in and out of the wisteria above our head. We talked on this patio for almost two hours while enjoying the latest Tognetti wines of course, and invite you to pull up a chair and enjoy his fascinating stories.
The stories began upon Jack’s graduation from UC Davis’ agricultural program. He intended to start a pig farm but was pulled away from agriculture by World War II. These fascinating stories can be found at the end of this post, but for now, let’s start with Jack’s vineyard.
Jack’s property lies on the Napa Valley side of the Los Carneros region, which is in the southern part of the valley (see map below). He bought the land in 1964, nearly 20 years before Los Carneros was given *AVA status, and years before it gained its reputation for outstanding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
We were curious to know how Jack landed such a desirable piece of property years before the Los Carneros region really took off. As it turns out, a man who is constantly at sea doesn’t want to live in a foggy location, and when a farmer can only have an acre of land in Marin County, his agricultural roots drive him up to Napa Valley. Hear Jack recount the story in the video below, and try not to be envious of the incredible investment he made in the 60s! (Apologies for the focus)
The property that Jack purchased in the 1960s was not a vineyard, but an orchard with 600 prune trees, 400 pear trees and ‘they threw in’ 30 head of sheep. Jack’s son Robert was all too familiar with the prunes, as he and his friends were tasked with picking prunes on weekends and received a whopping $0.50 per 60lb box! It’s no surprise that few friends came back more than once!
But, the evolution from orchard to vineyard would have to wait. At the time, Napa was a nights and weekends project, and Jack accepted the position of Managing Director of American President Lines in Hong Kong, relocating his family overseas until 1973.
As Jack told us, “everything doesn’t just run smooth, ya know. It works in intervals, same with the war.” In this case, the downside was missing out on an opportunity to purchase far more land surrounding his property, while the upside was a fantastic job and opportunity for his family abroad. Jack recount’s the missed opportunity, and the eventual decision to change from orchard to vineyard in the video below.
We now find ourselves in the 1970s. The Tognetti family is back in Napa Valley, and Jack has planted grapes on his property, which he sells to Acacia winery. It’s an easy sell because there were more wineries than vineyards at this point in time. Supply and demand is good, but what’s even better is a nod from one of the most revered wine consultants in the valley. Andre Tchelistcheff tasted Jack’s grapes while consulting for Clark Swanson at Swanson Vineyard. Andre advised Clark to buy Jack’s grapes, which resulted in a 12-year partnership.
Jack explains the allure, stating that he is “blessed that I have good soil, and we get cool breezes off the bay and that makes for high acid grape juice.”
After the Swanson era, Jack liked the idea of selling grapes destined to become sparkling wine because you pick earlier in the year, at 18-19% sugar rather than 26-27%. Thanks to the high acid grape juice mentioned above, which is excellent for sparkling wine production, Schramsberg purchased all of Jack’s grapes for their sparkling wine and they’ve been with them ever since. The video below tells the whole story from Jack’s perspective.
So how did Jack feel when his son wanted to use a portion of his world class grapes to start a family winery? Well, we couldn’t get a straight answer, but here’s how Tognetti Family Winery began:
As Jack mentioned in the video, Keith Hock was the winemaker at Schramsberg who renegotiated Jack’s lifetime grape contract, allowing him to keep some of the grapes for the family wine. As luck would have it, Keith left Schramsberg vineyard and is now the winemaker for Tognetti Family Winery. And that’s the (abridged) story of a family winery, almost 50 years in the making. Robert is now ready to let his children Michael, Matthew, Christina, and Jenny take the reins.
Today, the team is making a stunning Chardonnay (which is discounted through the month of April for Jack’s birthday) that received 94 points from the Wine Enthusiast and a Cabernet Sauvignon. We were very excited to learn that they also have juice destined to be their own sparkling wine, which has been aging for four years.
We asked Jack, Robert, and Michael what food they enjoyed pairing most with their wines. The consensus was poached salmon with the Chardonnay and Robert enjoys homemade meatballs & spaghetti with the Cabernet Sauvignon. Their favorite restaurants in wine country? Robert is a fan of Meadowood (long before it became Michelin starred), Michael likes SCOPA (but that’s closing soon so hurry in) and Jack enjoys the Marriot in Napa Valley.
And now, possibly the most important part of the interview, is Jack’s secret to a long, healthy life:
We would be remiss to omit these amazing stories from our time with Jack, Robert, and Michael.
The two words that were used to describe Jack most often were frugal and hardworking. It’s easy to understand why after hearing his childhood farm stories. Jack grew up in a house with no electricity, water or bathrooms, and he and his brother had to flip a coin for the clean bath water every Saturday night. He recounts his childhood on the farm here:
As mentioned, Jack graduated from UC Davis’ agriculture program but left for war before having the opportunity to start his pig farm. Jack recounts his time at sea during World War II in the video below:
And lastly, Jack and Robert recall their time in Hong Kong, which sounds amazing if I do say so myself:
What a fascinating 100 years, and we look forward to seeing their winery thrive for hundreds of years to come. Cheers!
*AVA: An American Viticultural Area (AVA) is a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States distinguishable by geographic features, with boundaries defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). As of March 2015, there were 230 AVAs in the United States.