Born in Mexico, Rafa's father introduced him to the wine industry and his first bottle—California Merlot.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Mexico, Churintzio in Michoacan, but came to the United States when I was about a month old. I have lived in Calistoga ever since.
What got you hooked on wine?
My father was in the wine industry, he worked as a Field Hand/Truck Driver for Beringer at their Knights Valley vineyard prior to his retirement in 2012. When I finished high school I looked to the wine industry as an opportunity to launch my career. My first wine epiphany was a $5 bottle of 2007 Stone Cellars California Merlot. My dad had a case in the back of our pantry and I opened a bottle in 2015. I remember I tasted the wine at our kitchen table, laughed and thought, “This wine has no business tasting like this!” It was the best $5 bottle of wine I’ve ever had.
Tell us about your career before coming to Knights Bridge.
My first job in the wine industry was working as a Logistics Coordinator for Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford. I joined the production team at Knights Bridge in July 2022.
What is your favorite part of the Knights Bridge property?
The property is immaculate, so it’s difficult to choose just one space. The entire property has a lot to offer. I love the tranquil overlook above the Cabernet in Block 14. It takes effort and a steep hike to reach the top, but once you’re there, you’re rewarded with the most amazing view of Knights Valley.
From your perspective, what makes Knights Bridge unique?
What sets Knights Bridge apart is our natural connection to the vineyard. The team respects the vineyard and strives to bring out the truest expression of what the estate has to offer. Great wine begins in the vineyard, and through our sustainable and organic farming practices we craft wines with personality that echo our passion and love of the estate.
Which wine are you most excited about in 2023?
I’m excited for the Cabernet from Block 15.
How is the growing season shaping up?
The Knights Valley winter has really surprised me this year. It’s been a wet winter and we had a record snow fall blanket the valley floor and cover the entire mountain range for the first time in my lifetime. The cooler temperatures pushed back budbreak a few weeks, which is nice to see because we’ve had warm winters over the last few years and the vines have been accustomed to budding during the last few days of March. Prior to that, March budbreak was almost unheard of, but it has been a common recurrence over the last five years. It’s nice to take a step back and slow things down a little. The season is shaping up beautifully so far. The ground is saturated with water, so I don’t foresee the vines being too stressed. I look forward to a continued healthy growing season.
What's happening at the winery?
This year we’re receiving five new stainless-steel tanks equipped with automatic pump-over devices to help us achieve the desired extraction and maceration. We’re always working to perfect our procedures and learn from previous vintages to continue making wine that best represents our estate vineyard.
Favorite drink besides wine?
A classic Old Fashioned.
“We created this scholarship because we are in an extraordinary time period, including the pandemic and the emotions laid bare by the racial reckoning this summer, that has led many of us to re-examine our actions and priorities. It seemed that honoring a terrific person who influenced so many people, including me, and who was all about bringing people together, is particularly pertinent now.”
The Honorable Sidney Barthwell, Jr. Scholarship Fund at Cranbrook School and Harvard Law School currently provides needs based financial support for three academically gifted, underrepresented scholars. These students from an under-resourced community receive four years of tuition, room, and board at Cranbrook. All three scholarship recipients demonstrate my friend Sid’s passion for education, leadership, community, social justice, and equity.
Together and through this Fund, we change individual lives while improving the institutions we care about by bending the arc toward equity, equality, and justice for all – a promise Sidney believed in deeply.
Learn more about our work by visiting honorablebarthwellscholars.org.
We’re delighted to welcome guests to the new winery, which had been under construction since January 2020. The culmination of 15 years of exceptional winemaking from the estate vineyard, it is only the second winery ever built in Knights Valley. The space was designed by Backen Gillam Architects, with inspiration derived from the wild, natural beauty of Knights Valley and the sublime grandeur of Mt. St. Helena.
The Knights Bridge winery and caves were constructed almost entirely underground, and the fermentation barn showcases elegantly understated architecture and dramatic glass walls. Mt. St. Helena and the surrounding vineyards are visible through the floor to ceiling windows, while the intimate tasting salon places an important focus on natural light. Entering directly through the state-of-the-art production facility, guests follow the same route that grapes go through at the winery, past five stunning, custom tulip-shaped concrete tanks, through the grand barrel cave, into an art-filled light well for a private, seated tasting.
Designed with an immersive visitor experience in mind, Knights Bridge Winery offers elevated, private tastings in a luxurious setting. Guests also have an opportunity to enjoy spectacular views of the property and a glimpse of Mt. St. Helena across the valley.
Our new winemaking facility—which processed its first harvest in 2021—contains some of the most groundbreaking winemaking technology in the world, with an optical sorting table, five custom concrete eggs, and separate climate-controlled rooms for vinification and aging. Remotely operated fermentation tanks with automatic pump-overs are sized to match the unique production of each individual block on the estate. We aim to offer a limited and exclusive experience that highlights the seclusion and untouched beauty of Knights Valley while upholding the heritage of the region, which has been planted to wine grapes for more than 160 years.
Our guests will enjoy a place of retreat and respite with natural spaces to discover and a vineyard that is truly a hidden gem. To request an appointment for a tasting email email@example.com or call 707.341.3391.
Please visit knightsbridgewinery.com/privatetastings to submit a reservation inquiry. Our team will be notified and be in touch regarding your reservation. Learn more about the journey to the new winery here.
Images by @mikelarsonlifestyle
Images left to right, top to bottom:
@knightsbridgewinery, @bangnapavalley, @bangnapavalley, @bangnapavalley, @winedreaming, @bangnapavalley
One of our favorite KB late summer traditions is fresh Estate Meyer Lemon Curd prepared by Chef Richard in our Knights Valley estate kitchen. Made from sweet and seasonal Meyer lemons, enjoy this Knights Bridge homemade curd on scones, with berries and whipped cream, or straight from the jar.
Knights Bridge Meyer Lemon Curd
2 teaspoons Meyer Lemon zest
4 egg yolks
6 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons fresh-squeezed Meyer Lemon juice
4 tablespoons butter
Beat yolks and sugar until well blended, stir in lemon juice, butter, and salt. Cook over medium-low heat or double boiler, stirring constantly, until curd coats the back of a spoon, 196 degrees. Strain through a wire-mesh sieve, add lemon zest. Place plastic wrap directly on surface and cool in refrigerator.
Where did you grow up?
Any favorite memories from your childhood?
Time spent outdoors involved in sports and music.
Were wine and food a part of your early years?
Not until high school.
Where did you attend college?
Michigan State University (International Relations), Lycee Agricole et Viticole, Beaune France, University of California Davis.
Tell us about your career before coming to Knights Bridge.
I am fortunate to have enjoyed my entire career in the food and wine world. Living and schooling in Burgundy for three years gave me an appreciation for sharing the joys of the table and the emphasis on local ingredients. I took special interest in how the history of food and wine forms regional identity—especially in Burgundy, Jura, Rhone, and Piemonte.
What were your first impressions of the estate vineyard?
I was taken in by the peaceful surroundings and serene isolation of Knights Valley. As I learned more I came to appreciate how the moderate climate and terroir creates wines that emphasize complexity and varietal purity.
What makes Sonoma and Knights Valley so special?
Sonoma County encompasses 18 diverse sub-appellations. Each gains distinction through complex geology and proximity to the Pacific Ocean that creates distinct climates. Knights Valley holds a special place in all the North Coast in that it is the only sub-appellation that can produce world class Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
How does the Knights Valley region differ from other California winemaking regions?
Knights Valley exudes a timeless sense of California charm, wines that are easy to embrace. I like the grapes because the finished wines always transcend heavy handed winemaking techniques. The fact that they remain vinous and immediately accessible at any age is a real selling point for me.
What’s your favorite time of day in Knights Valley?
Harvest at night and watching the sun rise over Mount St. Helena.
Favorite thing to do at the winery?
Taking a moment to observe the diverse biology surrounding the vineyard. Reflecting on our good fortune to produce and share one of nature’s most unique gifts.
Favorite things to do in your free time?
Our free time is consumed hiking, skating, reading, and cooking. Our time in Burgundy left us with a strong connection to rural agricultural settings. Hike around Angwin Airport and Pacific Union College on Howell Mountain. This is the eastern boundary of California’s Coastal Range. We also harvest blackberry leaves and fruit to make blackberry ketchup and pick wild chamomile to make tea.
How would you describe your role at Knights Bridge?
It is my role to deliver the best grapes and wine this unique terroir can offer. It is my joy to share what we do and make our special site come to life with our customers.
What are your favorite wines inside and outside of the Knights Bridge portfolio?
We have seasonal favorites: Fairview Sauvignon Blanc in the Spring and early summer, East Block Chardonnay in late summer leading into fall and Knights Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon during the winter months. Outside the portfolio we try to explore grapes we don’t make including classics: Chave Hermitage Blanc, Conterno Baroli and Donnhoff Riesling.
Are you a foodie?
Yes, my wife Mary and I currently plan menus two weeks ahead. We often are faced with delightful choices of what comes first, the wine to match the food or a seasonal ingredient that demands a certain wine.
What are your favorite foods?
It runs the gamut but we love singular seasonal produce to drive our choices. We gained a love of French cheese living in Burgundy – La France profonde.
Do you like to cook? Any specialties?
Mary has a gift to create fine dishes like quenelles de brochet, homemade bread, pasta and gnocchi. She assigns me to simpler dishes like chicken cacciatore and profiteroles.
Any favorite travel spots?
We love to see our school friends in Burgundy and Champagne. The Beaujolais has a warmth and hospitality that recalls an earlier time. The Italian Dolomites are great to get away from wine.
Where do you live?
On Howell Mountain in Angwin, CA surrounded by vineyards.
What’s your typical day like?
Rise at 5:00 a.m. to feed the cat. I am blessed to have a diverse set of work environments including the vineyard, cellar, and meeting with customers to share wine.
What’s your perfect weekend night?
Exercise before dinner to stimulate the appetite. Enjoy an Aperitif on the deck. Take a moment to give thanks that we have not only have food on our table but that we enjoy an incredible bounty of food and wine choices in Napa and Sonoma. This area is the cradle of food and wine in America.
Are there any other things that are important to you, help define you or are just interesting to you in addition to family and business?
Mary and I were called to a winemaker’s life. It circles a full range of emotion when the exhilaration and excitement of making wine becomes a passion we can share with customers. Like all agriculture it is fraught with challenges of vineyard and vintage. The importance of vintage is not relative greatness or weakness of a single year but how vintage becomes a measure of time. Other interests include ice hockey, French History, modern jazz percussion (Antonio Sanchez), Travel to explore the history of Roman Gaul. Selection of favorite books includes Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand, and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.
What was your first exposure to fine wine?
I took my first trip to France in high school. This was still a moment that one could enjoy the culinary traditions of post WWII France. I had a sip of 1973 Chateau L’Angelus at a bouchon in Paris. At that moment I knew what I would do for the rest of my life.
Was there a particular wine that got you hooked?
It is normal for wine enthusiasts to start with Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon to understand the world of wine. We were kidnapped in Burgundy by a wine exporter who introduced us to the marvel of Burgundy at a time when the region was struggling to find customers at all appellation levels. I had the good fortune to visit and work at all the great Burgundian domaines.
What possessed you to get into the wine business?
A passion for wine and a yearning to understand how wines could be so markedly different from a limited geography like the village of Chambolle Musigny.
What do you look for in great wine and what makes it great?
Great wine is fundamentally delicious. You know you are in the presence of something special when you experience an array of complex flavors yet none is dominant in the mix. It is the wine you never want to stop smelling or tasting.
Do you speak any languages fluently?
Lily, the black cat.
Yes, Mary and I will celebrate 38 years together next month.
A special Father's Day message from proprietor Jim Bailey, and an invitation to visit us in beautiful Knights Valley!
Laura hosted Chef Josh Silvers of Jackson's Bar and Oven over wines paired with lobster and duck breast crostini during a recent Facebook Live broadcast, and the replay is now available to stream on our blog. Featured wines include the 2017 Knights Bridge Chardonnay, East Block, and the 2015 Knights Bridge Petit Verdot.