By W Peter Hoyne
Study the evolution of Russian River Pinot Noir and the Rochioli name is often referenced as one of the most iconic pioneers and respected grape growers and wineries in the region. According to third generation Tom Rochioli, “Italians always made wine, that’s how I learned.” At the age of seven Tom was rolling wine barrels up a ramp and washing them for his father. At that time he had no idea that he would turn into a winemaker. Tom’s route to success was anything but a straight line.
The beginning of the Rochioli family history started with Tom’s grandfather, Joe Sr. He emigrated from Italy and started farming a 100-acre ranch in northern Sonoma called Fenton Acres in 1939. He was able to lease the land growing hops, prunes, vegetables and grapes up in the hills. What Tom describes as “a little bit of everything.” “The immigrant Italians were field workers who lived in cabins on the property. It’s a classic American success story. “
When the hops business worsened, Joe Sr. decided to plant string beans. After purchasing the ranch, Joe Sr. and his son Joe Jr. were always looking at the next crop to grow, while considering planting different grape varietals at the same time. Returning from college Joe Jr. suggested planting more premium, low yielding grapes rather than the commercial jug varietals. Joe Jr. got his father to approve of something new, so he traveled to UC Davis purchasing Sauvignon Blanc budwood. He would plant the vineyard in 1959. The original vineyard is still producing Sauvignon Blanc fruit today. They also tried their hand at Cabernet Sauvignon, but given the cool climate, the Cabernet Sauvignon wouldn’t ripen.
In the late 1960’s, Joe Jr. had been talking with some local farm advisors and asking them which red grapes would grow best in this region. They suggested cool climate varietals such as Pinot Noir.
In 1968, East Bock originated as their first planting of Pinot Noir after Tom’s father, Joe Jr. had received some cuttings from a Frenchman in Calistoga. The following year his father went to Karl Wente in Livermore, where they had been delivering some of their Sauvignon Blanc. Karl mentioned that he had a Pommard clone of Pinot Noir from France and asked his father if he wanted to try it. His father agreed and planted a four-acre test parcel, which became the infamous West Block. Tom admits “this vineyard is very special. This is what grand cru is, consistent.” He recalls “my father was always hung up on quality.”
According to Tom, the West Block is what put everyone on the map. In 1974 Davis Bynum purchased some West Block fruit from Rochioli labeling it Davis Bynum ‘Rochioli Vineyard” Pinot Noir. This became the first single-vineyard Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. Williams Selym and Gary Farrell followed garnering acclaim for their wines produced from Rochioli grapes.
At this time Tom had been pursuing his studies in college. He tried his hand at accounting, but switched his major to finance where he made the Dean’s list. Tom also recalls “I used to bring jug wine home from college. I drank Kenwood Big Red and Fetzer Ricetti Vneyard Zinfandel. Tom admits “he wasn’t into Pinot Noir, as it wasn’t very good.” After college, Tom was immediately recruited by Bank of America to work in corporate banking. He described the position as a combination of “high tech and agriculture.” He was offered a position in the large urban setting of San Francisco, but declined the opportunity as agriculture was in his blood.
Tom returned home to Russian River and came up with an idea to start a winery using the grapes that we were selling to other wineries. He presented the business plan to his father. The concept being “High quality, the best that we could be. We don’t need quantity.”
Tom didn’t like the Fenton Acre name. “I thought it should be Rochioli. We are paying tribute to the past. I told my Dad, I want a brand and I think it should be us. I want to go forward.”
He redesigned the label naming it after his grandfather, Joe Sr. and his father, which became J Rochioli. This name remains on the single vineyard designations. In 1984 Rochioli Winery was founded and the first Rochioli Pinot Noir was released in 1987. The Wine Spectator named it “The Best Pinot Noir in America.”
A pivotal moment in Tom’s life came about when he traveled to Beaune, France in 1990. “I got what burgundy was; talk about a revelation. We went to Domaine de la Romanée-Contee for a visit and that is when I was ready to join the church. We tasted all the wines out of barrel. Then, we go into the cellar with the cellar master. He pulled a moldy old bottle out. It started with a 79 Richbourg and it is wonderful. The next wine was a 1975 Echézeaux. I stopped spitting by then. Next was a 1972 Grands Echasaux. People were breaking bread, eating prosciutto and drinking. Here is where I saw God, he brought out a 1945 La Tâche. This wine struck every cord. This is the best thing that I ever had. Afterwards, out comes a 1964 Le Montrachet, Chardonnay. It was richly golden green, with a leesy complexity and an appely character with richness of acidity. I drank it. It was so tremendous. I tasted the Holy Grail.”
After visiting the vineyards and seeing how precise everything was, I realized, wow, I already have all my vineyards in separate barrels. I started keeping them separate and that is how the single vineyard program started. After returning, my perspective was different. The vineyard is what I needed to focus on. I got into the clones. I started working on not as much water for the vines. I tried to stress the roots to get them to grow deep. It keeps a certain amount of concentration in the grapes.
My whole idea changed completely. I will never claim to be French. I am not sure what is the French style. It is just the traditional method. I am not trying to bang out jugs of wine. I’m so into the process from the beginning to the final product in the bottle. It’s just a passion. When you get grapes that we have, they are just beautiful. I just do the orchestration.”
Tom also focused his talents on crafting high quality Chardonnay. When I started making Chardonnay, I was hanging around Steve Kistler (of Kistler Vineyards fame}. He taught me the traditional method. It’s exactly what Burgundy is doing. Barrel fermenting, full malolactic fermentation, and backing off on new oak. Steve Kistler got me on the right direction, before I went to Burgundy.” In fact, Tom is still trying to keep the original plantings of the 1972 Little Hill Chardonnay alive.
The fourth generation of the Rochioli legacy is Tom’s daughter Rachel and his son Ryan. “Rachel is more on the business end and Ryan is into production. The goal has always been to keep it in the family. They want to continue.”
Tom envisions the future of Rochioli, “I just want to make the best. I want to have the opportunity to make the best wine and have people enjoy it… I hope I can pass the baton and keep it going, high end.”