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Creativity Abounds

Author: Christina Julian
March, 2013 Issue

At Charter Oak Winery, it’s a marriage of art and wine.

 
Whether it’s the Charter Oak chicks pecking away in the backyard, the art of grapes into wine, or the slick cityscape paintings that dot the walls, creativity has flowed through the Ragghiantti Fanucci family since the early 1900s. The dynamic, fourth-generation husband-and-wife duo, Robert and Layla Fanucci, unite a multitude of art forms under the humble Charter Oak roof in St. Helena.
 
For visitors, this means not only a mouthful, but an eyeful, of wonderment. From the award-winning Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel to Layla’s renowned paintings, art and wine abound. Robert, together with son David, tends the grapes and winemaking while Layla paints with abandon, having exhibited all over the world and recently published her first book, Layla Fanucci City of Dreams Unabridged 1999-2011.
 
The vintage wine cellar and old world equipment that lay beneath the house stand as testament to the family’s commitment to the Old World tradition of winemaking. Robert leverages the same redwood wine bats and press that his grandfather, Guido Ragghianti, an immigrant from Lucca, Italy, used. The family’s American winemaking tradition began in a basement cellar in San Francisco, with grapes sourced from Napa Valley. So enchanted by the land and winemaking, Guido and his brother, Raffaello, bought the Charter Oak property in 1950, the same place where Layla and Robert, together with their three children, now operate the family’s winery and art studio. Not even Guido’s hand wine basket press has been put to rest in favor of today’s technically advanced equipment. Every vat of grapes used to produce the 600 to 800 annual cases of Charter Oak Wine is pressed through Guido’s press, just as it always has since Prohibition.
 

Two art forms under one roof

The winery’s name stems from not only its location on Charter Oak Avenue (which was given its name more than 100 years ago, far predating the winery), but also from the message Robert saw in the words: “I liked the name, since it has power and conveys the authenticity of the winery as being there for a long time—‘charter’—and because the word ‘oak’ is a powerful wine term and part of the aging process of every wine produced,” he explains.
 
On any given day, you’ll find the Fanuccis hard at work. Layla leading art and winery tours and tastings in between her average seven to 10 hours of painting, while Robert and David mind the grapes. Even as daughters Nicole and Michelle pursue careers as family therapist and “Dateline NBC” producer, respectively, they lend marketing and public relations support to the family business. And as if winemaking weren’t enough, Robert practices transactional law as a partner of Gagen, McCoy, McMahon, Markowitz, Koss and Raines, with locations in Danville and St. Helena.
 
Despite Robert’s familial roots in the wine business, it took an act of fate to bring things full circle. In 1986, the couple were living and thriving in New York, when Robert got laid off from his job at a securities firm. The serendipitous turn ultimately planted him in the vineyard right outside Guido’s Charter Oak home.
 
“The fruit was ripe and ready to go, so we went out in the 100-degree heat and started picking. Guido was 98 at the time, walking the vineyard carrying two five-gallon buckets,” says Robert. “We crushed by hand doing punch downs with a redwood bat made by my grandfather and then pressing out the grapes through a 110-year-old basket press. He taught me the whole process. I already had the drinking part down—that came first,” he chuckles. In early December 1986, just after handing down the family winemaking tradition, Guido passed away. “I’ve been mesmerized ever since. That season is when it took hold.” In 1990, the family made St. Helena its permanent home.
 
While winemaking and practicing law couldn’t be more different, Robert enjoys the dance between disciplines. “There’s a little left brain and right brain going on. One compliments the other. Wine is a passionate and creative outlet for me, where transactional law is more cerebral. I feed on that too.” As luck would have it, his practice fuels the wine business. “Through my practice, I represent wineries and vineyards, so I learn a lot. I’ve also been able to source excellent fruit as I represent some cult winemakers and vineyard owners. We share winemaking techniques and taste barrels.”
 
It’s exhausting just listening to the Fanuccis explain their day-to-day life, I can’t imagine what it must be like to live it. “The downside is, we work seven days per week,” says Robert. “The good news is, we love what we do,” says Layla, “but there’s no golfing for us. When you love what you do, it’s OK.”
 
Layla’s artistic journey, much like Robert’s, hinges on family history and a willingness to take a chance. With a Turkish architect for a father and a teaching mother from France, Layla’s parents instilled a love of language and culture early on. By the time she was five, Layla already played the piano and was well on her way with clarinet and guitar. When she began studies at San Francisco State University, she’d already been performing and teaching for many years. During her time as a student, she met Robert (also a SFSU student) at one of her church choir performances in Menlo Park. They wed in 1979, Layla graduated in 1981 with a degree in sociology, and a marriage ripe with art soon emerged.
 

The newest varietal

When the family relocated to St. Helena, Layla immersed herself in the community, teaching choir, voice and guitar in the local schools and churches, which she continued to do for the next 25 years—until a “calling” of a different varietal changed her life course. “I always thought it would be a music path. But jumping from music to art, that was a surprise,” she says.
 
An innocuous search for a bright and bold original work of art to dress up a living room wall changed everything. Unable to find anything that struck her, Layla decided to paint something of her own. Then, so inspired by the experience and fueled by others’ positive reactions to her work, she quit her teaching job in 1991 to pursue painting full-time. “I remember Robert saying, ‘I feel like we’re on the Titanic, and you just jumped ship.’ I gave myself two years to make something happen with my art. I was told that there’s no business in art, that only 5 percent of artists make money from their work. With three kids, I needed to be in that 5 percent.”
 
Despite the inherent challenges of an artistic life, Layla charged ahead producing 200 paintings, which she assembled in a binder to present to one of the best art consultants in the world. While the New York consultant prefers to remain anonymous, Layla divulges a few tidbits, “If you saw the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”—[Meryl Streep’s character] the editor was her. She studied my work, as I sat quietly. Then she closed the book and said, ‘Good, and we don’t care.’”
 
The consultant explained that Layla’s earlier, figurative works were painted in a style that had been done before. “She told me, ‘In order to market, you have to paint a style of work that nobody in the world does.’ I remember being on that couch thinking doing that would be a little bit hard.” But Layla persevered with a promise to produce 17 new paintings in five months. She did that and then followed on with another 14, during which time an artistic style all her own emerged. “I layer color on the canvas, and then paint the city with a brush that I cut thick or thin. Then I paint a city’s architectural design in black oil.”
 
Much like Robert’s approach to winemaking, Layla’s work evolves through an iterative process. “On top of that first city, I paint another city, and then another.” She may go on to layer as many as three cities on top of the original, toggling between four to five other paintings while the city layers dry. “It’s a style that nobody paints. If you look up close you can see the other cities, cars and people bleeding through. And you can see the texture and depth. The painting has changed because you see all the cities under there. Each painting would not be what you see without the layering.”
 

Two forms, one technique

The family not only thrives on the convergence of art forms, it’s the measure by which all hearts in the Charter Oak house beat. “During that summer with Guido, he taught me how to top each barrel in a certain way, leaving the bung off the barrel for 45 days. The wine would bubble over the barrel. It was like a symphony,” Robert shares.
 
Despite the rise of technology in the wine business, the family still opts to adhere to Guido’s Old World approach. “The combination of the natural yeast fermentation gives the wine a lot of flavor. Crafting the wine is like a stew, you’re constantly stirring. We use the hand basket press, so it’s a soft, gentle extraction. The grapes are always getting lots of attention,” says Robert. “With Layla, she has an unbelievable talent to blend color and technique, where for me, I blend different varietals of wine and barrels. Not all blends make it into the final blend. I want to identify the best barrel and the ones that are adding to or detracting from the blend.”
 
Layla blends city upon city, never knowing which one will be the final layer to complete the picture. “I enjoy the whole process but my favorite part is when I finish the last city and know, that the layer is the one. It’s a magic thing that happens. It’s not planned, I just know. I have to listen inside to what I want and feel.”
 
Robert shares some magical moments in the winemaking realm. “I like when it comes time to pick the grapes. You spend the whole day out in the vineyard. It’s so serene and therapeutic. I really like the hands-on art we use with the old world tools. And I enjoy tasting the wine as it develops and making the blends. I guess I like it all,” he laughs.
 
Despite years spent juggling the business of wine and art, the Fanuccis still yearn for more, a calling that inspired their latest merger—The Zinfandel Mind—a blend of wine and art. “I’ve done painted labels that are more art pieces etched into the bottle, but this merger of Rob’s wine and my art is our only art series wine. It’s my version of what happens when you drink too much wine.” One glance at the bottle and sip of the wine is indeed a dizzying affair, revealing subtle notes of boysenberry pie and tart cherry with baked spice. This year, the Fanuccis will release their next art label wine, featuring Layla’s Uncle George, whose family owns a 5 million case winery in France called Cave de Gan (the label is Jurancon).
 

The next frontier

Since “jumping off the Titanic,” the family is left with little time to question said leap, as they’ve been too busy swimming in accolades. In 2010, David was named Top Young Winemaker during the Next Gen Wine Competition where the Monte Rosso Vineyard 2007 Zinfandel took Best of Show, beating out nearly 750 other competing wines. Most recently, the 2009 Monto Rosso was called out as one of the top seven wines from the 2012 ZAP Grand Tasting.
 
The Fanuccis are interviewed regularly about their eclectic marriage of art and wine, including spots on the “Today Show,” Martha Stewart Living radio, CNN, KRON Channel 4 and WBGO radio in New York, among others. Layla’s work has been exhibited all over the world in places as diverse as New York City and Morocco, with pieces on display at nine galleries, along with an opening at Robert Mondavi Winery last fall.
 
In between sips of the Guido Ragghianti Old World Field Blend, which balances juicy dried berry with Bing cherry and cracked white pepper smoke, the couple swaps stories about Layla’s recent success streak, which sprouted when two couples spotted her work at 750 Wines, a retail wine shop in St. Helena. The group was so taken with her paintings they dashed over to the winery to see more of the collection. By the end of the visit, her largest work to date, “City of the World, Opus II,” measuring 14’ x 9’, sold for an unprecedented $100,000. She went on to sell an additional $200,000 worth of work in that same month. Turns out jumping ship might not have been such a bad idea after all.
 
“It was really exciting, though I was in shock,” says Robert. “When something like this happens, you don’t realize the importance until weeks later, it’s surreal. I still can’t believe it. It’s that same feeling as when we got Best in Show for the Monto Rosso. That was a huge honor.”
 
Layla is equally ecstatic about the evolution. “Creating is part of the joy and sharing it with people. I feel honored that they would want so many of my pieces.”
 

A day is just a day

While the Fanuccis’ success of late has been nothing short of epic, little has changed in the day-to-day operations. Layla is still up early with the Charter Oak chicks, then on to a day filled with painting, tours and tastings. Robert continues to split time between his law practice and winemaking.
 
When asked what the next frontier holds, they exchange a glance, and Robert shares, “We’ll continue to source excellent fruit and continue in the Old World tradition of making wine.” As for Layla, she has work to do. “I paint for nine galleries and I have no paintings left!” A good problem to have as an artist. “So my goal is to get a body of work together. I need to work!” she hails, as if hard work is foreign terrain for this dynamic duo.
 
She leaves me with one last nugget for all the aspiring artists and dream catchers out there: “The key is to follow your passion—keep going. People tend to work because they have to, not for joy and passion. I believe we all have more than one passion. It can change and grow as long as it’s in your heart. Money follows passion. Imagine what I would have missed.”
 

 

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