The name Rafanelli is all but synonymous with the art of Sonoma County winemaking. Over the course of its century-long history, A. Rafanelli Winery has produced some of the most storied vintages ever conjured by California soil, helping to define the region itself as a winemaking destination on par with its neighbor, Napa. Since 2000, Shelly Rafanelli has carried the torch as head winemaker at the winery, the first woman in its history to do so. With a steady hand and exacting palette, she’s largely responsible for the label’s consistent success, even in a year plagued by fire and pandemic.
Here, the winemaker opens up about facing these challenges, and how she feels lucky to be a part of what is still “a real farming community.”
What do you find special about making wine in Sonoma, specifically Dry Creek Valley?
I was born and raised here and still have a real love for it. Dry Creek is such a beautiful little valley. And, from a winemaking standpoint, it can grow so many different varieties very well. We have a special microclimate, sub-microclimates, this great soil...Sonoma County itself is so diversified in that way. It can support so many different types of crops, not just great wine but great produce in general. I think when I do my job well I’m ultimately showcasing everything this place has to offer, and I love sharing my home with people who might not be familiar with the region.
Well the community here is obviously a huge part of that, too. All these great winemakers and artisans living and working in the same place. It’s a lot of fun.
It is. And I think what’s so great about Sonoma County is that we’re still a real farming community. So many of the families that make wine here today started in grape growing. Sonoma obviously has a great reputation as a winemaking region, but so much of that is built on a history of farming. I think that’s a big part of what connects us here and makes us unique. Even though it is a big county you do get this sense of being part of a family.
That’s absolutely true, and I think we saw that this year more than ever. How did the wildfires affect you and your team?
We’ve seen pretty bad fires for four or five years now, and it’s one of those things that’s a little unbelievable. Being here in Dry Creek we were in the smoke path for a couple of days. One of the most challenging decisions we’ve ever had to make was deciding not to pick any of our fruit, so we won’t have a 2020 vintage. In four generations of winemaking we’ve never lost an entire vintage, so that was a really big deal. But, despite all that, it was really great to see this community come together and support each other. And I think we’re learning more every year; proper forest cleanup, defensible space...I think in the future we’ll be able to figure this out. I see a lot of hope there.
And I hope in the next few months we’ll start seeing some kind of return to “normalcy,” I’m confident in that. What excites you about the future?
We miss the people the most. Being a small family winery we mostly deal in direct-to-consumer, so that personal connection is a huge part of what we do and why we do it. When people visit us they’re not just visiting our winery, they’re essentially visiting our home. We love getting to share our history and our story in this environment. We obviously found a lot of cool ways to keep those connections virtually over the last year. We did wine tastings over Zoom, we revamped our website and online store, and a lot of that has been really fun, but the in-person connection is definitely something I look forward to. There’s nothing like pouring a guest a glass of wine and getting that immediate, visceral feedback when they taste it for the first time. For me, it’s all about that experience.