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.
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.