Wednesdays with Winemakers – Steve Tonella 4 min read

Steve Tonella was born in Napa Valley and grew up living in Sonoma and Rutherford.  From an early age he worked in the vineyards with his father and grandfather.  Enjoying the hot sun and helping in the vineyard by suckering vines (removing unwanted shoots) tying, training, and irrigating formed his early encounters in vineyards.  He says he is amazed to have survived as the mode of transportation was the infamous 3-wheeler motorcycles that were accident prone and tipped easily.


Fast forward to the turn of the century when Steve began making wine and produced small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon.  College took him to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where he earned a degree in Business Administration.  After college, Steve entered the high-tech industry and quickly moved into sales leadership positions that took him around the world.  Fluent in both Italian and Spanish, he’s lived and worked in Rome, Italy, and Barcelona, Spain, besides stints in England and Japan.  During all his travels, the dream of cultivating Rutherford wine never left.  After working across three continents, the time had come to resurrect the dream of producing Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon into a reality:   The 2010 is the ‘first’ of many vintages to come.

Why did you become a vintner/winemaker?

My family has been in the wine business for over 100 continuous years so I guess you can say it’s in my blood.  I was working in the vineyards since I was very young, made wine in the 90’s and my first release was in 2010.  My family has been growing the fruit so I thought after 4 generations, it was time to realize my motivation and enable others to enjoy the finished wine.


If you weren’t a vintner/winemaker what would you be and why?

A footballer (soccer player).  Grew up playing. Had the privilege to live in Rome & Barcelona where some of the best clubs in the world play.


What is your greatest strength as a vintner/winemaker?

I’m in the vineyards almost every day.  Truly believe wine is made in the vineyards so we carefully cultivate by hand.


What is your biggest weakness as a vintner/winemaker?

Having too much of a ‘house palate’.  I need to get out and try different varieties, styles and terroirs..  It’s on my to do list.


What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?

Making wine in the 90’s, I learned to dial in the oak program to complement the wine’s structure vs. being to major of a component on the palate.


What is your proudest achievement?

Releasing my first vintage after 4 years of cellaring and having it fully allocated in 6 weeks.  Happy that others could finally enjoy it.


What was your scariest vintage to date?

2011.  Great vintage just different.. Heat spikes with rain!  I’m still holding off on releasing.. It’s is and is going to be an elegant wine, just needs more cellar time.


What is your favorite word? Saying?

Old World: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”– Seneca 60ad.
New World: #Hustle.  Most luxury and mass market brands originated from humble beginnings.  Hustle is key.


What is your most prized possession?

A Kombolói , which is a string of Greek beads, used as a symbol of reflection.  I acquired in Athens. To me they keep me grounded, help me never forget the past, but focus on the present and future.


What song best sums you up?

Tie: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly & The Ecstasy of Gold – Ennio Morricone


What is your favorite memory?

Riding in the vineyard in the summer on a 3 wheel Honda ATV with my dog chasing me.


Which of the five senses is your strongest?

Smell.  I love the smell of pomace in the morning.


What is your biggest motivation?

To provide for my family & live well with no regrets.


Which bottle(s) of wine would choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?

A nice Sancerre, and a magnum of my 2010 Rutherford Cabernet.


What is the difference between a good and great wine?

In my view, a good wine is complementary with food and is enjoyable.  A great wine should make you stop drinking (at least for a moment).  It should engage multiple if not 6 senses that kick up memories, some that one cannot fully describe.  Create a longing, a milestone, an indelible memory.


Name three individuals you would like to have dinner with?

Paul Giamatti, Nelson Mandela, Joseph Ponti (my great uncle)


Who is your winemaking hero?

Joseph Ponti (my great uncle, 43 years at Beaulieu)  He won multiple awards, pioneered winemaking process that have been modernized and used today & made wine through prohibition.


What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?

Complexity with harmony.


What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?

That they shared it at some point. As a great wine with a heritage of where it came from, Rutherford, Napa Valley..


Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?

“Best Cabernet Sauvignon that I’ve never heard of and now heard of.”  – Multiple sources…

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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