David Castrucci, along with his partner and wife Dawn – have owned and operated Castrucci vineyards in Napa Valley since 2013. Along with collaborator, accomplice and winemaker Steve Matthiason, the trio has managed to craft a unique niche for themselves in the far Southeastern end of Napa Valley.
As a matter of personal opinion, David and his team have managed to not only craft delectable varieties that aren’t traditionally grown in Napa – they’ve managed to make wine personal again. In the process of removing the sense of exclusivity associated with many winemakers in the Napa region, they’ve also managed to appeal to millennials and craft a brand that’s accessible. Something that many other Napa winemakers have tried, or bypassed completely, in their endeavor to create a name for themselves in one of the most competitive wine growing regions in the world.
Castrucci Wines – Tucked Away in Southeast Napa
The Castrucci vineyard and property is located within a relatively new location deep within Southeastern Napa Valley. The vineyard was only just acquired in 2011, with Castrucci beginning to produce wine in 2013 after picking up a piece of property just East of Carneros, right across from the Napa River. It’s here that the river and bay come together, just a couple miles from the inlet at the base of the hills.
This new Napa sub-region is unique. It’s cool enough that finicky varietals such as as Pinot Noir are able to grow here, given that there’s a fair amount of fog and a refreshingly cool afternoon sea breeze.
Now is the opportunity for wine enthusiasts to explore this picturesque and flavor prone area, as most visitors to the region pass through or around it – not even bothering to sample some of the gorgeous wines that young boutique vintners here are beginning to produce.
So what varietals is Castrucci crafting currently? David tells me that Pinot Noir, Rosé of Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay – which are all produced at the estate – separately from a Cabernet Sauvignon (sourced from Coombsville), have been their primary focus as of late. All of which have done particularly well among tasters and restaurants in the area, especially given their recent beginning.
Aside from the climate itself – the soil provides a unique flavor to the young vines growing across the Castrucci property. It’s predominately volcanic, which is considerably different from further up North in the Valley. Volcanic soil is one of my favorite compositions, and it offers Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – two of Castrucci’s flagship varietals – a refreshingly mineral tilt that accentuates the clean and crisp style in their wines.
I had the opportunity to speak with David recently in an effort to discover what inspired this native New Englander to take a leap of faith and explore the cutthroat wine market that is Napa Valley.
Checkout the interview below, and if you’re able to make it out to Napa Valley, be sure to stop by Castrucci Vineyards and sample a few styles of wine that deviate from the Napa norm (edited for clarity).
Interview with David Castrucci
WL: You told me a bit about your story. I was hoping you could elaborate a little bit about what got you interested in wine personally, as I know you were originally in the cycling industry and a beer drinker from Boston.
D: I am still in the cycling industry full time. I’m a Managing Director for Dynacraft – a major US distributor of bicycles and ride-ons to the mass market. So I have taken on a second job with our wine venture.
I started with the company in 1992 and moved to Marin county in 1998 from the Boston area. Over time we moved the company in 2004 to American Canyon, CA – in Napa county. We then purchased two buildings with my other partners. The company resides there to this day.
I became more interested in wine as our retail customers would come to CA to work with us. Of course part of the process would be to take a day to go to Napa and explore wine country. It was new to me, but I thoroughly enjoyed each visit. I was absolutely taken aback by the vastness and differentiation each winery possessed. Over the years I would spend more and more time in Napa with my wife exploring all the valley had to give. After meeting more and more people in the business – I wanted to learn more about it. I also discovered where my palate set and what my likes and dislikes were. From there I made a commitmtnet to be open minded to what I may find along the way.
WL: What’s the most valuable impression you hope tasters who come to your property will leave with?
D: Our goal is to give people a relaxed environment to taste our wines and enjoy the property and views at the same time. What we want them to come away with is an understanding of what we are trying to do. What kind of wines we’re trying to make…
Our wines aren’t big bodied, and they have a little less alcohol. They’re starting to resonate with consumers, and we only started by selling to the local market. People seem to really enjoy the style. They’ll call me and say how they can’t believe how good the wine is. Our Pinot is a little bit lighter, while our Chardonnay is diverse. Aged with a little bit of new oak, year old oak and neutral oak – usually for under 12 months. It gives a slight hint of color but no overwhelming oaky taste.
At the end of the day, we hope our customers walk away excited and surprised about what they’ve just experienced – an elegant, beautiful style of wine that breaks away from some of the more traditional styles of Napa wine they may have experienced previously.
Our goal is to provide our customers with a nice experience. We don’t rush them, and we don’t charge them to taste our wines. So far, we’ve entered into a bunch of contests in which our wines have medaled.
WL: How did Castrucci get off the ground, and what elements helped make the brand what it is today?
D: I do a lot of work with the University of New Hampshire where I graduated college. At the same time, I had been farming in the Napa region for 4-5 years prior to making our own wine. The fruit we were growing was great, but no one was really sure how it was going to turn out when it hit the bottle. We’d been sourcing our grapes to various wineries in the region, who would then turn it into bottles of Pinot at over $60 a piece.
After a while, I said to myself, “why don’t I get some grad students to work for me?” It would give back to the school, while at the same time help give me a vision about what millennials were looking for in wine. I wanted true honest feedback about what these kids wanted. The associate dean also had a huge wine background, which made it a little easier to bring these graduate students out to Napa for a couple of months at a time. I figured, what’s the worst that could happen? All of these students, coming out here from NY, Boston and North Carolina, they just said “wow.”
WL: As a relatively new wine maker, have you found that your palate has changed since you began crafting your own brand?
D: My palate goes through different stages. One day I want to drink a Sauvignon Blanc, then Pinot Noir or a blend. What I can say is that my palate hasnt changed so much as it has become more fined tuned. It really loves the style of wines we are making!
WL: Can you tell me a little bit more about Steve Matthiasson, where he comes from and how he helps make Castrucci special?
D: Steve is a Napa resident with an extensive resume in vineyard managemnet and winemaking. He was the SF Chronicle Winemaker of the year in 2014. He has a tremendous skill set for working with and crafting wines that are very different from the typical Napa style of wines. Steve has been described as a “Maverick” for the trail he is blazing and his ability to bring attention to wines that are slightly lower in alcohol, with a focus on pairing them with food.
When we first sat down with Steve, I quickly learned that he’s the sort of guy you want just to go out and have a beer with. Just a normal guy. I said to him, “I’ve I got this Pinot here, and we have this beautiful Chardonnay, what about a Rosé? I want to do something to quietly get our name out there, so let’s do a couple barrels.” The Pinot Noir / Rosé was the first thing we did in 2013. It was hugely successful and we sold it all right away. The reception was really good, and we won a medal at the San Francisco Chronicle.
Steve is a brilliant young winemaker and one of the best people I have ever worked with. He makes us special because we share similar thoughts in terms of where wine is going and what styles are different / becoming more relevant to the consumer. He understands the character of our vineyard and its soils, along with how to capture that in our wines. I could go on forever and would suggest you visit to his website Matthiassonwines.com to get a real feel for Steve and his style of wine in his own words.
WL: What inspired your branding aside from family name?
D: We’ve been building a brand a bottle at a time – not a case at a time – a bottle at a time. The graduate students we engaged for this project wore me down and finally convinced me to put our name on the bottle. I initially did not want that – it felt too easy. They did surveys and focus groups based on many different thoughts we had around branding and what we would call our wines. At the end of the day, they said, “It has to be Castrucci, it’s perfect!”
Anything you do is personal. When you add your name to something, it becomes even more personal. I wanted to challenge ourselves to be open to other ideas, but when it was all said and done it made all the sense in the world to put our name on it.
WL: What differentiates Castrucci from the competition in the region?
D: Dawn and I handle Napa personally. How many people who pour here are the actual owners and also engage with the business on an intimate level? We can actually answer your questions. We have had a lot of success in letting the wine speak for itself – we can tell if you come and taste and don’t like the wine. But we don’t hear that. We hear them say, “tell me more about your story.” Tasters know who Steve is, they know his talent, and we’re fortunate to have the right combination. The wine resonates with the consumer, and the Somms who have come to try it are very open minded.
We recently poured for 1313 Main Restaurant & Wine Bar, a major Napa restaurant with one of the most diverse wine lists in the valley. Restaurant Director Jordan Nova said “holy cow, I want this Chard on my by the glass list – I love what you’re doing.”
WL: As a young vintner, what are some of the biggest challenges you expect to face in such a cutthroat industry? Especially one as competitive as the region of Napa?
D: A lot of establishing yourself has to do with who you know, the willingness for people to see you and carving out the right story in your introduction. It’s about the authenticity. We’re just who we are. We’re straight forward and we have an authentic story. We know there’s a need for the wines we’re making. Busting down doors has been tough, but we’ve done a really good job with the branding and the price points of our wines are right there. I think we’ve done a great job with our presentation, and we try to be smart and have good positive attitude about it. We let the wine do the talking.
WL: Where does Castrucci go from here?
D: I really believe wine is an art form. I don’t want to miss the opportunity as I get older. I’m engaged and took a different approach in an attempt to reach older millennials. This day and age they know what they want – they want fine wine. Right now, anyone who’s willing to come in, we’ll be happy to pour for them. When they have my wine on their table, it gets emotional for me. The fact that they went out and bought it, that’s huge for me. When all you know is big and bold, you need to change it up a bit. I still love those (Napa) wines, but I’ve become more cognizant about how they spend time with people and recognized a need for a style that older millennials are looking for.
At this point, we’ve been scaling up a bit and we’re going to do close to 950 cases this year. At the same time, we’re going to continue to take that grassroots approach. We want to be careful, estate wines are huge to us. If they take off, we’ll look for similar properties and expand from there. We’re just having fun with it and we’re working really hard at it.
WL: If you could provide any advice to millennials looking to break into winemaking, what would it be?
D: Taste and learn, get the right degree, find the right mentor and never stop asking questions. Get your hands dirty and push yourself every day to make it (your product) better. Dare to be better! Know what you want and be committed to seeing it through…
If you do the right things and take care of your business, good things will come. But you need to be smart about it, and you need to get lucky, everything comes together.
I sit and read about guys all the time who come out to Napa with no wine experience. They end up making 1000 cases but only sell 50. I don’t want to be that. With 100-150 cases, we know that inventory is like fish. The last thing I (or you) would want is to be sitting there with 1000 cases that won’t sell. That being said, purposely starting small worked for us.
WL: Any plans to create more mono-varietal wines in the future? Blends? Or are you sticking with Chardonnay, Pinot and Rose for now?
D: We are indeed thinking of other wines, but I need to keep that to myself at this time. I want it to be right and perfect for our brand before making a public comment. Stay tuned and follow us, as we will keep you all posted as we get there. Castrucci will be releaseing our 2014 Estate Reserve Chardonnay in late April. Hope you can make the party!!