Back From The Fire: New Winery, New Winemaking Team. So Signorello’s New Winemaker Does a Road Tour.
Updated: Mar 3
by Andrew Chalk
On October 8th, 2017 the winery of Signorello Estate was burned down by the fires that swept northern California. It was a total loss of the structure, with just sealed stainless steel tanks full of wine safe from the fire’s wrath. The area was evacuated and when Ray Signorello Jr. got in the following day it was by piggy-backing on a national TV news team. He had been in Canada when the fires erupted and now took his first look at the damage. Someone who accompanied him reported “No one was hurt or injured and the vines look to be in pretty good shape. We can rebuild the winery but we can’t replant 30-40 year old vine. We are so fortunate.”
Scroll forward to 2020 and many things have changed at Signorello
A new winery is in planning with completion planned for 2022-3. It eliminates all the things that Signorello and his father Ray Signorello Sr. found they did wrong in the design of the original 1977 winery. It doubles the available space to support the 6,000 case output and incorporates caves dug into the hill behind the building for wine storage. Napa County officials like caves because they avoid putting buildings above ground, preserving the bucolic landscape of the Napa Valley. Wineries like them because, as they have done for centuries in Europe, they can store wine at cool temperatures created naturally, with no fuel burn or utility costs.
New Winemaking Team
Long-serving winemaker, Pierre Birebent, announced his retirement in February 2019 and that was the catalyst for Signorello to put in place a new winemaking team. Priyanka French became winemaker, Celia Welch became consulting director of winemaking, and Steve Matthiasson became viticulturist.
French was born and raised in Mumbai, India and had stints earlier in her career in France and New Zealand. She came to Signorello from Dalla Valle where she worked with winemaker Andy Erickson and the world’s most famous consulting enologist, Michel Rolland. Academically she obtained a Master of Science in Viticulture and Enology from the country’s most renowned wine school, the University of California, Davis.
Recently she came through town, maybe by way of saying to the Texas trade, “Hey, we are still here. And the postfire wines will be as good as ever.” We tasted the first wines made at Signorello under her tutelage, and some older vintages to establish the lineage.
We started with the winery’s chardonnay, from the 5.12 acre estate vineyard named after Signorello’s mother, Hope’s Vineyard. Then we tasted three vintages of their flagship red, Padrone.
At 14-years, 95% of California chardonnay is denuded of fruit, maybe oxidized, and just a shell of the expressive youngster it once was. This wine was not. It showed its age, for sure. But through a delicious honeyed nose and aromas of very ripe apricot. True, there was some oxidation but it was a veneer on a still-strong body. The phenolics have softened as well.
The result is a wine that was complementary to an appetizer of blackened octopus, but rather submerged under a rich lobster bisque. Personally, I would just quaff this wine. Taking small sips that bathe the inside of the mouth. That is the best way to savor its long ripe finish.
This is the current release of the Hope’s Cuvée and it is consequently much more in the mainstream of upper-end California chardonnay. It has bright citrus fruit in the nose, with hints of apricot, cream soda, and honey. On the palate, apricot pie, firm acidity, and a recognizable phenolic core. This wine actually paired best with the lobster bisque and also worked with the blackened octopus, where it seemed a little like overkill.
The wine was whole cluster pressed, then barrel fermented on native yeast and treated with battonage. Malolactic fermentation was kept at 50% and then the wine aged sur lie in 50% new French oak for 8 months. The partial malolactic doubtless contributed to its bright freshness and should enable it to age well.
A case of 15 years young. I got the impression that this wine will continue to age rewardingly for another decade. The tannins are still firm, the fruit vibrant, being mainly black cherry. In the nose there is a Bordeaux-style cedar component that contributes to the undeniable complexity.
This wine is almost 100% cabernet sauvignon with trace amounts of merlot and cabernet franc. Looking back at the records through the murkiness of time, Priyanka found “The cabernet sauvignon blocks that form the main blend of the Padrone were planted in 1992 so the vines were 13 years old. The winemaking has always been European in style; under the direction of Pierre Birebent. Wines were always aged in French Oak for 18 months and 1 year bottle age prior to release.”
This, the current release, is overshadowed by the other two vintages here. The tannins are very soft, creating, for my palate, a lack of grip. The fruit is very ripe and more red fruit in character (raspberry) than its older brethren. Not a bad wine, just not my style. Your palate, of course, may differ.
Priyanka reports “I can speak better to the 2016 vintage. As a growing season, it was one of the best vintages Napa Valley has had. Even growing conditions with mild and moderate weather allowed for optimum ripening and a great hang time giving winemakers a real opportunity to harvest at premium ripeness. The extraction methods were changed to a more restrained style which can be seen in the softer, suppler tannins, more balanced fruit and nuanced acid profile. The vineyards were organically farmed under the Napa Green certification program, with the vines now 24 years in age. Wines were produced and bottled on site. The wine is 92% cabernet sauvignon and 8% Merlot.”
The only wine here which Priyanka had any involvement with. She was parachuted in from Dalla Valle in March 2019 at which time the wine was undergoing malolactic fermentation. She reports “The 2018 vintage was another spectacular one for Napa. We received plenty of rainfall during the winter and the vines show an incredible generosity of fruit, ample breadth in acid and tannin structure. The wines were picked, triple sorted on line and fermented on site (The cellar was fixed back up post the fires to allow the winemaking to go through uninterrupted as new plans for the winery were developed). The cabernet sauvignon vines were mostly 16-26 year old vines. The wines are currently ageing in French oak with an average of 50% new barrels being incorporated into the wines. The sneak peak that you tried was 96% cabernet sauvignon, 2% Merlot, 2% Malbec.”
Looking forward she says “ We have been very excited to follow these wines the past year as we study flavor development and quality aspects of the different vineyard blocks. It has also helped us tremendously to study the different cooperages and develop changes in the program for the future.”
To my palate this wine is very promising. Obviously, being a barrel sample, there is “many a change ‘tween barrel and lip” but it has structure, concentration and complexity in the mouth. Dark fruit, herbs and wood predominate and I look forward to re-tasting this on release. It is somewhat remarkable how well it turned out as it was made in the ashes of the 2017 fires.
Signorello wines are available online and through serious wine retailers. At restaurants, look to upscale steak houses (Del Frisco’s steak houses are one) and New American restaurants.