Keeping Busy in Napa Valley
A prevalent stereotype of the Italian would be fun-loving, gregarious, earthy sense of humor, high energy, elegant dresser, in other words like Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former Prime Minister. That’s not Frank Romeo. Frank may be warm, hospitable, and generous, but he takes life seriously and devotes himself to family and work in much the same way that his parents did after they immigrated to the U.S. from Southern Italy. If Frank reflects any pre-existing image, it would be that of the striving immigrant, even though he isn’t one. Despite substantial success, his occupations and pleasures continue to be work and family seemingly in equal measure.
At 61, Frank Romeo participates in two businesses. Together with his brother and sister, he owns and operates Romeo Packing, a fertilizer company that his father started, located in Half Moon Bay about 25 minutes south of San Francisco. “A lot of families don’t work very well together, but we do for whatever reason. We grew up doing this. It’s our hangout, and it’s also our work. We’re very fortunate,” he says. In 1996, he and his wife Gina were looking for a weekend respite and purchased a 40-acre vineyard in Napa. Eventually, the vineyard morphed into a full wine business. In addition to California, Sempre Vive wines are now distributed in New York, New Jersey, and Texas. “We bought this vineyard, and it gives me things to do when I go up there on weekends. I have to have things to do. We had the vineyard, and it’s a project. We started fixing it, developing it, and building things. It never ends basically. And that’s my enjoyment.” I repeat our conversation here, slightly edited for length and clarity.
How did purchasing the vineyard in Calistoga lead you to making wine?
Originally, we sold the grapes. In those days, we sold to Montelena, Grgich, Trefethen, a lot of people. And then in 1997, I had a friend who was the winemaker at Quenoc, and he bought some of my grapes. I said let’s make 250 cases for me. So he did, and it was good. In those days, we had just one clone on the ranch, a Cab, but we didn’t know what clone it was. We made wine more for fun, not really to sell it. Around 2002, some of my grape contracts were ending, and there was an abundance of grapes that year, so we sold half, and with the other half, we made wine. It’s a process. You start doing one thing, and then think why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that? It snowballs. We started planting more grapes, planting other clones.
You’re Italian. Did your family make wine when you were a kid?
My grandfather made wine every year. And his wines were strong. When he drank a glass of wine, he would get all red. Even his head would turn red. Unfortunately, he passed away before we started to make wine. He was 94, and my grandmother was almost 100. My grandmother cooked every day, and they ate good food. They weren’t real active, but they were always doing stuff. They lived in San Francisco in North Beach, so every day, my grandfather would walk down to Fisherman’s Wharf to see his friends. He had this routine that he did. My mother had a long life too. She passed away in 2011 and was almost 94. So we grew up with wine, but actually I don’t drink a lot. I drink a little bit if I go out on weekends or if somebody comes over to the house.
How did you decide what style of wine to make?
Mainly, we make wines that we like. When we do our blending, it’s basically my wife, myself, and our winemaker Alison Doran. We have records of what we’ve done in the past. So for this year, we’ll start with the blends that we did last year and taste. If it’s not just right because it’s a different year, then we change it. We try to get a certain taste that we think is good. We try different varietals plain. If the wine is good without blending, we’ll do that. But I find most times when we mix different clones of Cabernet, different clones of Petite Verdot, different Malbec clones, all this mixing, we get more complex flavors, the taste at the beginning, the middle, the end. Our wines are very smooth in the mouth, but they’re not hot from too much alcohol. A lot of my bigger cabs are 14.5 percent. But any higher than that gets to be too much. We try to get certain flavors and tastes, not too dry and not too acidic. But we all have to agree on it. If two of us like it, but one doesn’t, then we still have to work on it. We all have to be happy.
So you’re all educating one another.
We are, and our winemaker Alison does a super good job. She’s been with us since the 2003 vintage, and she’s just good, one of those hard working people, who goes out to the vineyard all the time and checks things. We were very fortunate to find her actually. I like to taste different vintages of wine. I’ll drink my 2002s, my 2003s, and they follow certain patterns of taste. If you like that taste, we’re consistent. That’s the advantage I have over somebody who’s buying grapes. I watch the grapes. I probably spend more money in the vineyard than if I were just selling the fruit. But I want a certain product for myself, and I’ve got to make sure that it’s good. If you don’t have good wine, you’re gong to have a heck of a time selling it. You’ve got to have a good product whatever you do. For 2012, we’ll be making around 4000 cases. I still have another five or six acres to develop, so I’ll probably at some point hit 5000 cases.
What did you plant in the vineyard?
When we bought the vineyard, we didn’t know what our original Cabernet clone was, and it made such nice wine. The pHs were good. The tannins were good. Everything was really good about this one clone. So we brought samples to the University of California, Davis, and they did these grafts from the bud and cloned them. It takes five years, and at the end of five years, they gave me 12 plants. I keep two at U.C. Davis as insurance in case something happens, and I kept the rest. I brought them to a nursery in the Valley, and they made cuttings for me, which I planted. But we’re still not sure what it is, and Davis was not really sure either. So we’re planting some acreage over to that on different rootstocks. You can taste the flavors, the similarities with the original plants. So we have different clones of Cabernet, different clones of Petite Verdot. I have different Malbec clones. I was at Tony Peju’s one afternoon with a friend, and Tony wanted me to taste something. It was a bottle without a label on it. We drank it, and I liked it, and he told me it was Petit Verdot. So I planted some just because I liked it. I use it in a lot of my blends, and we make some of it as a varietal wine. One year, I had some Clone 7 Cabernet that was in the ground for six years. They told me that I had to have it because it’s good in Napa. But I wasn’t nuts about it, so in the sixth year, I chopped the heads off half of the vines and planted some Malbec there. Year seven, that Clone 7 made one of the best wines that I had. It took seven years for me to see what it could do. I made a mistake because of lack of experience.
You’re building a tasting room now.
For years, I looked for a place for a tasting room, and I couldn’t find it. I wanted to be close to Calistoga where the vineyard is. Once I started thinking about it, I knew I would spend a lot of money doing it and wanted the right thing. So finally, I saw this place in Calistoga that was a commercial piece of property right on the main strip there. It had a house on it and a place in the back. So we knocked that down and built a tasting room right on the street. I like to eat outside on a street. I like noise and people walking by. I like that atmosphere. So this place has that. We were remodeling it, and I wanted to have food there, an outdoor kitchen. I have a big pizza oven, but not that I want to serve pizzas there like a pizza house. But when people walk in, there’s this giant brick oven about eight feet high and six feet wide. People say, ‘Oh look at that thing, look at that smoke coming out, the barbecue, the pizza.’ I resisted doing this for many years. I used to go to all of these tastings, these places, and people would ask where my tasting room was. I didn’t have one. We could have done it, but I don’t like to party. I didn’t want to do that kind of stuff. But this tasting room is coming along. We have a lot of tables. The house in the front was built in 1875. It’s all refurbished. It’s nice, and that’s where we stay on weekends. Hopefully, the tasting room on the same property is going to be okay. This tasting room is a separate building, but I hope I don’t feel like I don’t have any privacy.
When you bought the Calistoga vineyard, you probably knew a lot about agriculture from the fertilizer business.
That was a good part of why we even bought it. It was a nice place to visit and stay. And for years, we stayed on the ranch. But I liked the idea of growing things. Around the house we always had vegetables and ornamental plants. We deal with a lot of nurseries that grow a lot of crops, poinsettias and cyclamen and azaleas. So just from years of doing this, we’re familiar with growing things. I make my own fertilizers for my ranch. In the spring time if it rains, you can’t get in there, so I make these slow release fertilizers that I put down after we pick in October or November, and they’ll last till the next August. So in the springtime when everything starts to bud, the fertilizer’s there, everything works and works slow. It’s wonderful to see how plants grow and then produce fruit. Romeo Packing makes hundreds and hundreds of fertilizers, soil release fertilizers, soluble fertilizers for soil mixes, and we sell them to nurseries, to farmers, outdoor landscape growers, and all that. We sell all over the place now. We do chemicals and organic fertilizers, hundreds and hundreds of items. I’m more of a production person. At the ranch, I build stuff. We make stuff, and I have a lot of equipment. I make sure things are working. That’s what I do. At Romeo Packing, I have my office work, but I still drive forklifts and do a little bit of everything. This time of year we’re very busy, and my guys are there till seven o’clock. I get there a little before eight in the morning, and I stay at least till about seven or seven thirty and get home about eight o’clock. I’m good all day. I don’t get tired until I stop.
What are your aspirations for the business?
First of all, I have to finish all of this construction and have it all working with the tasting room up and operating. I want to get things going right so that I just need to oversee them. Then at that point after I get all these other projects settled, I’ll probably build something on the ranch. At the vineyard, I have about three quarters of an acre on top of the hill that’s flat. At some point, I may build a house up there. We’ll keep doing something.
You seem relaxed, but you’re a very productive person.
We came basically from nothing. My father almost went bankrupt when the fish business went under. But he kept going. He didn’t stop. He never had a bad attitude. He always said things will change. Things will get better. So we as kids never realized how bad it was. You have to keep trying because there’s a problem everyday. Everyday something happens. You can’t get upset. You just go fix it.
Have you ever visited Italy?
No, I’ve never been there. I want to go, but it’s hard for me to get away for a long time. And I should, because time goes by like nothing, and you think, ‘Oh, I should have done that.”
California Wines of the Month
Sempre Vive – 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Winemaker Alison Doran’s Notes
This wine reminds me of my mother getting ready for a special night out, artistically and in good taste. The nose is elegant and cool, yet the sandalwood, spice, and cocoa dance about on the palate while the black current, white sage, and dark cherry gracefully taper in the finish.
Anna Maria’s Notes
I would say simply that this Napa Cabernet is an easy drinking and nicely balanced wine that is smooth and fruity with a mouthful of spice on the finish. A versatile red, you can enjoy it with a variety of dishes from roasted meats to mushroom risotto. And don’t worry if it doesn’t remind you of your mother getting ready for a night out.
Sempre Vive – 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay
Winemaker Alison Doran’s Notes
The wine exhibits a golden honey hue with pure Granny Smith apple aromas along with distinctive notes of lime blossom and nutmeg. The mouth feel is rich and round and unfolds to reveal shortbread and pineapple flavors that linger. This well-structured wine will pair well with seafood entrees, roasted poultry dishes and even spicy Asian cuisine.
Anna Maria’s Notes
I’d take Alison’s food recommendations seriously. This isn’t a mindless Chardonnay that you might drink like a cocktail. It’s not especially acidic, but it has a certain weight that will wonderfully complement food. Serve chilled.
Sempre Vive – 2005 Napa Valley Petit Verdot
Winemaker Alison Doran’s Notes
A balance of refined tannins, sweetness, and acidity give this wine the power to carry the grace. Opulent, rich and round, the nose bellows with warm spice, nutmeg, anise, and blueberry compote intermixed with violets and fig. This wine caresses the palate and keeps you wanting another sip.
Anna Maria’s Notes
Petit Verdot grows mainly in Bordeaux and produces full-bodied, deeply colored wine with peppery, spicy flavors and lots of tannin. It is used mainly to add flavor, color, and tannin to the Bordeaux blend. It ripens late, which can be a problem in cooler Bordeaux. But in warmer California, it can easily mature to produce its best expression, which you will certainly appreciate in this wine. Not much Petit Verdot is grown in California vineyards, but this delicious Sempre Vive should encourage more plantings.
Sempre Vive – 2005 Napa Valley Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon
Winemaker Alison Doran’s Notes
A slightly brawny wine, it reminds me of a male ballet dancer, rippling with grace and elegance yet muscular. Assertive tannins with bold blackberry, cassis, and plum finish with a hint of cedar box and spice.
Anna Maria’s Notes
Made from Frank Romeo’s mysterious old vine clone that has managed to baffle the University of California, Davis, this Cabernet Sauvignon is indeed delicious with or without a name. After eight years of aging in barrels and in bottle, the tannins are no longer assertive. What we taste is a mouthful of smooth berry flavors.
Menu of the Month
Celebrating the Rebirth of Nature and the Soul
Thinly sliced fennel, topped with orange slices, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt,
and garnished with green castelvetrano olives and finely chopped parsley
Boneless leg of lamb with a garlic-oregano rub, served with a bulgur wheat salad and
spring peas with finely sliced green onions and fresh dill,
dressed with olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice
Field greens, including radicchio and endive, tossed with finely sliced red onions,
dill, and scallions, and dressed with olive oil and lemon
Baklava walnut, almond, and honey phyllo pastry,
served with fresh mint and honey tea or sparkling Moscato d’Asti
Recipe of the Month
Garlic and Oregano Rub
Lamb has been an important celebratory meat throughout Europe and England, and in the Arab world, in North Africa, Central Asian and North India, among Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and the ancient peoples who preceded them. For Christians and Jews, lamb has a significant place at the table during the spring holidays of Easter and Passover. The menu above combines dishes from some of these traditions in versions that are common in the U.S.
The Greek-inspired garlic-oregano rub is a terrific multi-purpose seasoning, equally delicious with lamb, chicken, duck, or pork. Rub it on both roasts and chops. You can make it in any quantity, and it keeps in a sealed glass jar like any other spice. Regarding, baklava, it’s a delicious, lighter dessert, simple enough to make with prepared phyllo dough. But if you’re not inclined to do so, ask a restaurant that serves it to sell you some. And make sure that they make it with butter instead of any other fat or oil.
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano, pinched into very small particles
Measure each ingredient, salt, pepper, garlic, and oregano, into a bowl and mix together thoroughly. Coat the lamb with olive oil and rub the mixed spices into the meat, roasting according to directions.