A new moon is rising over Sonoma from a family that has been a part of the Northern California wine scene for decades. Dan Zepponi, along with business partner Tony Stewart, acquired the historic Valley of the Moon winery in Sonoma Valley late summer last year. Recently Dan was in Dallas to help launch the release of their first vintage of the new Valley of the Moon wines. I had a chance to visit with him and taste some of these new releases as his guest.
Dan Zepponi’s Italian grandparents settled in Northern California in the 1940’s making wine in their basement and barn for their personal consumption, which surely factored into his former aerospace engineering father, Gino Zepponi, founding ZD Winery with Norman de Leuze in 1969. Dan grew up a part of the young Napa culture, one of the original wine brats growing up beside the Sebastiani kids, Cakebread boys, Koerner Rombauer III, and all of the Mondavis. The Napa kids of the time learned the family wine business working as cellar rats and vineyard hands. Like some of this generation Dan decided to originally pursue a path outside of wine, earning an engineering degree and working in the aviation field for Delta in Atlanta for some time.
Long time friend Ed Sbragia, the beloved former winemaker for Beringer and owner of Sbragia Winery in Sonoma, lured him back into the wine field, and back to California, then to run operations for the Beringer sister winery Meridian. He also worked on the operations side of Domaine Chandon, then headed north up to the Okanagan, working with one of the largest producers in British Columbia, Mission Hill. There he met Tony Stewart, CEO of Quail’s Gate, his family owned and operated winery also in the Okanagan. The two developed a friendship that eventually has turned into a partnership, first creating an import business into Canada, then two years ago launching their first brand, Plume, a small production, high end Napa Valley Cabernet.
A year ago, after an exhaustive search for the perfect California winery that would ideally reflect a sense of place, the duo acquired Valley of the Moon Winery, the longest continually producing winery in Glen Ellen with some of the oldest vines. Started in 1863, the vineyards and winery are located at the base of Sonoma Valley with the Macaymas and Sonoma Mountains rising to either side. The name is derived from the Native American meaning of Sonoma, with the local Miwok Indian legend noting “Valley of the Moon” described the way the moon appears to rise many times over the jagged peaks of the Mayacamas Mountains to the east.
The winery was started by George Whitman, a bit of a pioneer at the time, creating a successful wine and brandy business producing over 50,000 gallons of wine just 4 years after planting his vines. The winery changed hands many times over the next 150 years, including being owned by Senator George Hearst, father of William Randolph Hearst, and then remaining in operation during prohibition making sacramental wine.
Dan had been familiar with the winery most of his life, his brother had worked there when Dan was just eight years old, and more recently he knew the winery as a secondary production facility for former owner Korbel, with fruit grown for either bulk wine to be sold off to wineries for their second-labels or to make high-production wine for Valley of the Moon. Not bad wine, just not as distinct, concentrated or refined as what Dan had in mind. He wanted wines that reflected their sense of place and with the history Valley of the Moon possesses, the site was perfect to reflect this goal, they just needed a bit of tweaking.
Their acquisition went fast, completing the deal in just about 50 days, taking control of the winery in August of last year just before harvest. He and Tony, along with winemaker Greg Winter, formerly with Schramsberg and E.H. Phillips, and consulting winemaker, Scott McLeod, former winemaker and vineyard manager for Rubicon Estate, immediately set about changing things, cutting tons per acre of fruit grown/harvested in half or more for their estate vineyards and adjusting contracts with non-estate vineyards they worked with, paying for the acre instead of by the weight of the fruit. This change results in more flavor, concentration, structure and intensity in the fruit, and leads to better, higher quality wine. He also began a massive campaign to update the winery brand, both at the facility and via their online presence and with new labeling, creating a modern and elegant look for their wines, capturing the essence of the land and their unique story.
The biggest job at hand they had right after acquisition was making the wines of the new Valley of the Moon, taking only the best barrels of the then aging 2010 red wines to make their first release and managing the harvest of all of the 2012 fruit. They sold off anything from 2010 that didn’t meet the quality standards they put in place, which also meant selling off everything from 2011 as it didn’t satisfy their guidelines.
The result, much rounder, fleshier and robust wines than those of the past, with texture and richness that the wines of the past didn’t have. Prices for a bottle have gone up a bit as well, as their process is has improved ultimately producing better wines, yet the high end of everything in the Valley of the Moon portfolio is just $35-45 a bottle. The 2010 red vintages and 2012 whites, also their first white vintage, are available now via their website and at some local retail stores throughout Dallas.
2012 Valley of the Moon Pinot Blanc, stainless steel fermentation and partially aged in French oak giving the crisp, citrus filled wine a creaminess and texture not often found in a Pinot Blanc. Filled with layers of honeysuckle, honeydew melon and juicy lemon the wine is balanced, fresh and inviting, perfect for starting an evening.
2010 Valley of the Moon Zinfandel, much of the fruit for this wine comes from old vines on the estate, some dating back to the 1930’s, opens with the familiar aromas of old vine Zinfandel with concentrated blackberry and cherry jam, toasted nutmeg and clove, milk chocolate and vanilla and a touch of fresh red berries on the nose. Juicy yet structured and balanced, a good food wine to pair with anything from barbecue to grilled steaks.
2010 Valley of the Moon Cabernet Sauvignon, from three different vineyard sites in Sonoma County blended for a balanced, nicely structured wine filled with black cherry, ripe black plum and black licorice notes with peppery spice, notes of mocha and toffee, finishing smooth and silky.