Jack Tognetti at 100: A farmer's perspective

According to John F. “Jack “ Tognetti, owner of the Aloise Francisco Vineyards in Los Carneros, the secret to a long life is moderation, hard work and a little wine.

“People who eat too much or who run on concrete put too much stress on their bodies,” Tognetti said on the patio of his Los Carneros home just south of the town of Napa.

“The key is moderation and being good to your body, but it’s also important to get out there and do some physical work every day — our bodies and minds were made for working. I eat small meals — a simple salad and a small piece of fish, for example, and I only have small amounts of wine when I do drink.”

Tognetti, who turned 100 this year, talked about his life and his philosophy as the afternoon Carneros breeze began to pick up, rustling the leaves of the fig, plum, pear, apple and peach trees that border the house, beyond which the meticulously farmed Chardonnay vines fade into the distance.

“I’m out in the vineyard every day — there’s always something to do,” Tognetti said. “At the moment, we’ve just finished disking and done some fine-tuning on the pruning. To get the grapes to ripen without sun damage, we manage how the leaves of the vine interact with the grape clusters. The most important thing is to be out there doing the work, understanding your place.”

Born in 1917, he grew up in San Francisco and spent summers on his grandfather’s farm in Watsonville.

“My grandfather had come from the Italian-Swiss border region of Italy (near Lake Como) in the early 1880s and settled in Watsonville before bringing over my grandmother and father, who was about 12 at the time,” Tognetti said. “They lived in a cottage without running water or a toilet and had only a wood stove to heat the place. They made their own bread, butter and cheese and taught me how to be frugal. My brother hated it, but it’s when I first fell in love with farming.”

At the Watsonville farm, Tognetti helped harvest apples and apricots, and he also took care of the livestock that included sheep, pigs and chickens. Life was not easy.

“My grandmother would make a big pot of soup, with beans and rice — so thick you could walk on it — and we’d eat that for the week,” Tognetti said. “Every Sunday, she might kill a chicken or rooster to eat, but that was a big deal for them. They always grew their own grapes and made a little wine, but my grandmother would give my grandfather a hard time if he drank too much.”

Back at high school in San Francisco, he met his future wife, Camille, and they started dating, which continued while Tognetti studied agriculture at UC Davis.

“After high school, my mother took me to Davis and said, ‘This is where you are going,’” Tognetti said. “At that time Davis was not what it is now. It was called ‘Cow College’ and there were only about 1,000 students.”

World War II was percolating in Europe and the draft was looming, so after graduation Tognetti took a job with the American President Lines (APL) shipping fleet.

“My father worked for APL, and we thought it made a lot of sense for me to work there while the war was heating up,” Tognetti said. “Eventually, the military took over APL to transport soldiers to the battlefields and they offered me a position, which I was happy to take, but there were some close calls.”

Tognetti said he had been scheduled to be in Pearl Harbor on the day it was attacked, but his ship had been delayed and missed the devastating bombardment.

After the war, Tognetti rejoined APL and rose in the ranks. Eventually he moved the family to Hong Kong, where he oversaw the shipping fleet from Korea to Karachi. But he longed for the farming life with which he’d grown up, so on a trip back to the United States he purchased the Carneros property in 1966.

“The property already had this small house, a barn and a well, so I thought this would be perfect,” he said. “I told the real estate agent that I was getting old (he was in his mid 40s at the time) and that I didn’t feel like building things up from scratch. I also liked that there were 600 prune and 400 pear trees that could produce a little income.”

By the 1980s, Tognetti had determined that grapes were the crop of the future and that because of the cooler weather in Carneros it was important to plant chardonnay grapes.

Most of the grapes grown on the vineyard are now sold to Schramsberg Vineyards, which makes sparkling wines, but that wasn’t always the case.

“For a while I was selling the grapes to some pretty well-known chardonnay-makers,” Tognetti said. “But they’d want the grapes to hang out there drying up in the sun for months before picking them. At one point, I thought, ‘why not just sell the grapes to a sparkling producer?’ That way we could pick early at 18 or 19 brix and not lose all that money from dehydration. That’s when I started selling to Schramsberg. Now, we sell our 135 tons to them at about $2,500 per, and that’s more money than I’ve ever made at any of my previous jobs.”

“Jack’s chardonnay grapes come from a pocket on Bayview Avenue adjacent to Carneros Creek that has worked really well for us for many years,” said Hugh Davies, Schramsberg’s president.

“This relatively cool pocket of Napa Valley, with its dark, loamy soils allow for really high acid retention in the fruit,” he added. “These grapes consistently deliver vibrant, tasty and tart fruit that helps carry a wine’s palate and deliver long-aging potential as well. And beyond the quality of fruit, the grapes come from the vineyard of one of the coolest guys I know.”

Tognetti’s wife, Camille, passed away a few years ago. But one of their sons, Robert, and their daughter, Wendy, launched the Tognetti Family Winery in 2012, producing a few hundred cases of chardonnay a year.

“For over 30 years, Dad has grown some pretty spectacular grapes here, but we wanted to make a little wine from them, too,” Robert said. “We started making wine in 2000, and our first public release was the 2012 vintage. It is nice to have the family name on a wine label, and our kids are also getting involved, which makes this a three-generation endeavor.”

The 2014 Aloise Francisco Vineyard (Aloise and Francisco are Camille and Jack’s middle names) Chardonnay ($55 per bottle) is gold in color with aromas of spiced pear, hazelnut and buttered toast. The flavor profile is a contrast of sweet baked apple quickly followed by acidic spiced lemon and a chalky minearlity in the finish.

Tognetti grapes can also be found in a limited-release sparkling wine, the Schramsberg Tognetti Vineyard Blanc de Blancs.

“We have produced a couple of vintages so far,” Davies said. “The 2009 was released a few years ago, while the 2012 is a new release. We produced about 1,000 cases of the 2012. It was included in one of our cellar club shipments this year, and is otherwise available at the winery for $80 a bottle.”

“It might not always be evident that the success of our wines and our industry has been built on long-term relationships,” Davies said. “Grape-growing and winemaking are really long-term propositions. Vineyards are planted with 25 to 30 year horizons in mind, sometimes even longer. We’ve worked with Jack and his family to replant his whole property to five different clones of chardonnay in order to maximize the range of fruit depth that we might be able grow there.

“We’ve learned from him as we’ve gone and he’s learned from us. We’ve developed a connection and a partnership that has endured for over 20 years. We’ve come to know his children and grandchildren, and similarly he’s known three generations of our family. You know that you’ve tapped into something pretty special when you experience those bonds that commenced before you were present and that you sense will be there after you’re gone.”

“This valley and the Davies have been good to us,” Tognetti said. “We are blessed to have been a part of this place during an exciting time in the wine business. I’m not sure what the future holds for this place, with so many people coming, but that’s not up to me. My hope is that we’ve added some good to the place and have lived frugally, without taking more than we gave. And hell, it’s been a pretty good run so far.”


Originally published in the Napa Register, July 2