Napa Valley Winemaker Conquers Coombsville AVA

In my quest to support local wineries during the COVID19 pandemic and demonstrate the safety procedures they are using, I reached out to one of my former students, Marbue Marke, who has been making wine in California for more than 20 years now. He has an impeccable winemaking background, with a B.S. from UC-Davis in winemaking, an MBA from Sonoma State University, and winemaking stents at Jordan, Gallo, Benziger, Cosentino, and Caldwell Vineyard in Napa Valley. Several years ago, he started his own successful firm called Marbue Consulting (, and now crafts wines for several small prestigious brands in Napa Valley.

Marbue Marke, Consulting Winemaker in Napa Valley

Italics Winery in the Coombsville AVA of Napa Valley

One of Marbue’s clients is Italics Winegrowers, located southeast of the town of Napa in the rolling hills of one of Napa’s newest AVAs (appellations), known for its cooler climate and well-balanced acid-driven cabernet sauvignon wines. I had never been to Italics Winery, and was impressed with the large arch over the entrance and then a set of gates requiring an entry code. Once through the gate, I drove along a winding road through the vineyards and past a golf course, until, eventually, I reached the tasting room and caves at the top of a hill.

Marbue met us, wearing his mask, and we spent some time outside observing the vineyards. Marbue, who holds the title of Director of Winegrowing at Italics, explained that they had 34.5. planted acres, with 70% composed of cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux red blends. Sustainable farming methods are employed, including use of recycled water in the vineyards and solar panels for the winery.

Marbue with Mask in Italics Caves

We were impressed with the extensive underground cellars, complete with expensive French oak barrels and private tasting nooks. Marbue led us to a room at the far back, and we caught our breath at the beauty of the chandelier arching over a long wooden table spread with food and wine glasses. The decanted wines for our tasting were arranged on a long table to the right.

Marbue started the tasting with some older vintages from different client wineries, and then we focused on Italics wines matched to different gourmet food pairings:

  • 2019 Italics Rosé, 100% Malbec paired with turnip soup
  • 2017 Italics Placemark Red Blend, paired with duck rillete and black garlic crostini
  • 2017 Italics Weapon X Cabernet Sauvignon paired with beef braciola with arugula pesto and parmesan
  • 2018 Italics Cabernet Sauvignon paired with smoked cocoa beef brisket with honey verjus glaze

Marbue’s Winemaking Philosophy – Elegance and Balance Start in the Vineyard

As someone who has produced many 90+ wines over the years, Marbue can easily pivot to create different styles of Napa Valley cabernet based wines, ranging from big, masculine powerful wines to those with more finesse. Lately, Marbue has gravitated to wine styles that are more balanced, yet filled with grace, elegance, and a long concentrated finish. He believes that this has to do with having control over how the vineyard is farmed. “It is one thing to get a score,” says Marbue. “It is quite another to design a program that reflects the uniqueness of the vineyard and the people who steward it. Truly authentic wines reflect both.”

Discussing “Black Lives Matter

Obviously the topic of “Black Lives Matter,” came up during the tasting, because of the recent events in the news. Since Marbue was born in Sierra Leone, Africa, he doesn’t believe he can comment on the experience of African-Americans born in the USA. “I had heard about racism in America before I arrived,” said Marbue, “but being from Africa I have experienced it differently than black Americans who grew up here. Is there racism in America? Yes, there is, but many people don’t want to admit it.”

Marbue describes a situation where he interviewed with a company in the South and on the way to the interview, his black taxi driver warned him that he wouldn’t be able to buy a house or join a gym in certain parts of the city because he was black. “It was then that I decided to focus my career in California,” states Marbue, “because it is a more liberal state regarding racism, even though it is still here.”

On the positive side, Marbue admits that having the professional degree and experience of a Napa Valley winemaker has its benefits. He described a time when he visited Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux with John Caldwell and a few other colleagues. “At Chateau Margaux, when they learned I was a trained winemaker, I was the only one from our group that was allowed on the floor of the winemaking facility. So being a winemaker, regardless of the color of your skin, does have its privileges on some occasions.”

Highlights of the Tasting

Though we tasted many excellent wines during the tasting, several stand-outs for me were:

2009 Marston Family Vineyards Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon – showing black plum, spice, oregano and earthy forest floor notes, this wine sang with elegance and complexity. Crafted in a lighter style, it harkened back to the early years in Napa Valley, when the Judgement of Paris was won.

2013 Caldwell Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville – opulent and perfumed nose of blackberry and violets, this wine exhibited the plush velvety tannins for which Napa Valley is known around the world. Yet, it also showed grace and elegance with well- integrated oak and a long concentrated finish.

2017 Italics Placemark Red Wine Coombsvilleblended in 2018 when Marbue first started working with Italics, this wine spoke clearly of the cooler climate of Coombsville and the rich complexity that can be achieved by a master blender. Comprised of 43% cabernet sauvignon, 43% merlot, and 14% petit verdot, it exhibited classic cassis, spice and peppercorn with refreshing acidity, great balance, and a long elegant finish.

2018 Italics Cabernet Franc Coombsville – with a heady nose of raspberry and violets, I could have just enjoyed smelling this wine all day. Vibrant with red plum, cocoa and tobacco notes, this graceful and seamless wine seduced with fine-grained tannins and a long elegant finish.

6- Foot Wine & Food Pairing at Italics Winery in Napa Valley

A Place in Napa Where They Make Wine the Old-Fashioned Way: Charter Oak

I have lived for 20 years now in Napa/Sonoma wine country and still have not been able to visit the more than 1000 wineries that are located in this world famous wine region. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging across the nation, I have decided to venture out to the wineries that are open and try to support them as a local tourist. I am not the only one doing this, as many of the tasting rooms are now booked weeks in advance by locals. Due to the pandemic, you must make an appointment to visit, and the tasting rooms are following all of the safety protocols, including the requirement to wear a mask and sit 6 feet apart.

Charter Oak Winery. Photo Credit: Charter Oak Winery

So, this past Friday, I visited 3 wineries in Napa that were new to me, with my friend Charlie Johnson. Please keep in mind that over the years, I have probably visited more than 200 Napa/Sonoma wineries, but never before have I encountered an old fashioned commercial winery like Charter Oak Winery. Located in the town of St. Helena, it is in a small house tucked away down a side street. I was surprised to find that it is not only a small gem of a winery, but also the home of internationally acclaimed artist, Layla Fanucci, who began her art career in that very house 20 years ago when she retired as a local music teacher.

Layla with her paintings & Liz standing near Layla’s larger canvases

The Chateau Wineries of Napa Valley

It’s not that I don’t like visiting the very famous old wineries of Napa Valley, such as Beringer, Robert Mondavi, and Chateau Montelena; or some of the newer landmark wineries with their unique architecture, such as Opus One, Darioush, Sterling, and Castelo di Amorosa, as illustrated below. They are large and exciting to visit with well-crafted high-quality wines, and professional tours. At the same time, I still remember the Napa Valley before the turn of the century (2000), that was more relaxed. This is what I found at Charter Oak Winery – a warm welcome and a tasting in the kitchen at an old wooden table.

Some famous wineries of Napa Valley. Photo credits: wikipedia commons

Charter Creek Winery – Still Making Wine by Hand in Basket Press

Winemaker and owner, Rob Fanucci, inherited Charter Oak and the cute little white house and half acre of vineyards from his grandfather, Guido Raggihaiti, who came from Italy more than 100 years ago. As was the traditional of many Italian families, Guido planted some vines and made wine in his barn, sharing it with family and friends. Now, Rob, does the same, using the same winemaking equipment as his grandfather.

It is rare today to still see a winemaker using an old-fashioned wooden barrel press, because they are a lot of work and require much muscle power.  But not only does Rob honor this ancient technique, he also picks all grapes by hand, used natural yeast, and ferments in large open containers using his grandfather’s wooden paddle to punch down the grape cap three times a day. Once the wine completes fermentation, he performs the pain-staking labor of crushing it in the 100 year old press, and then transfers it by bucket to age in barrel, before bottling unfined and unfiltered one year later.

Rob Making Wine. Photo Credit: Charter Oak Winery

Wine and Art Meld in Layla Fanucci’s City Scape Paintings

When we arrived at Charter Oak, Rob’s wife, Layla Fanucci invited us into the house and led us to the kitchen where we sat at a small oak table for a tasting of four red wines. On the way, we passed her art studio where she creates large oil paintings of “city scapes,” in which she uses a unique technique of painting multiple cities on top of one another. She has been incredibly successful with this technique, and exhibits her paintings in galleries around the world. She also showed us several books that had been written about her and the amazing style of paintings.

Wines we tasted in Kitchen at Charter Oak Winery

As we tasted through the wines, Layla described each one by reading Rob’s poetic descriptions, and it really made the wines come to life. They were primarily red blends, made in the old Italian fashion of field blends, as well as several zinfandels.  All were delicious and would easily pair well with Italian food. Even better, many of the wine bottles were graced by labels depicting some of Layla’s paintings.

Rob and Layla had a video produced that describes the old-fashioned winemaking and her unique painting style. See below:

Magical Backyard with Event Grounds, Vineyard and Guest Houses

After the tasting, Layla encouraged us to wander through her studio and the back garden. We discovered many interesting displays in the garden, as well as an old barn decked out for private events, and several guest cottages for wine club members.  It felt a bit like a magical playground, and gave me a warm feeling to realize that there were still authentic wineries in Napa that make wine the old-fashioned way.

The Amazing Wreath Vines of Santorini, Greece

On my trip to Greece, I was very excited to learn that we would be visiting one of the “wreath vine” vineyards of Santorini, because they are reputed to be some of the oldest grapevines on earth, with roots dating to over 400 years old. The climate of this island is dry and windy, forcing the vines to hug the earth in one of the most unique trellis systems in the world – called the “Kouloura.” With this the vines are pruned in the shape of a wreath, so that the grape bunches inside the wreath are protected from the wind and can reach maturity.


Wreath Vine that Grows in Circle on the Ground in Santorini, Greece

We took a bus outside the main town of Fira, and were invited to go hiking through a vineyard composed of the wreath vines. The landscape was very barren, and it was hard to believe that these flat clusters of leaves and branches on the ground could produce grapes. We learned that after a number of decades, the wreath grows too tall, and is cut off so a new wreath can form. However, the original roots stay in the ground, resulting in grapevines that are hundreds of years old. During our visit, we were able to see one of the vineyard managers show us how to prune a vine.  See video below.

Assyrtiko – the Signature Wine Grape of Santorini

The main grape of Santorini is white and called “Assyrtiko.” It creates a wine that is known for its bracingly high acid, which some call the “White Burgundy of Greece,” and has been produced on the island since early Greek and Roman times. Many of the assyrtiko grapes are grown on the wreath vines, and because of the challenges of growing in this extreme environment, many of the wines are rather expensive and rare. The wines usually taste of bright lemon, hazelnut and a minerally salty note, and pair beautifully with seafood.

Santorini – An Island of Legend and Exquisite Wine

This was my second visit to Santorini, and like the first, I was stunned with the stark beauty of this island. We arrived by boat to see its huge volcanic cliffs soaring high above us, because Santorini is part of a sunken caldera. Originally much larger, the island was destroyed by a volcano that erupted in the 1630’s BC, causing some people to speculate that Santorini is the site of the lost city of Atlantis.

Our bus zig-zagged to the top of the cliff where the town of Fira with its white houses, pink bougainvillea, tiny winding streets, and blue domed churches enchanted everyone. We were able to spend three delightful days here, and tasted wines from many of its nearly 20 wine producers.  Some of the labels of these wineries are illustrated below.



Virtual Wine Tours on the Rise

Though we all enjoy traveling to the wine regions of the world, there are times that physical travel is not possible. Some of this may be due to work or health conflicts, but increasingly there are other issues that cause wine regions to close temporarily. Examples include the COVID pandemic, earthquakes in New Zealand, Chile and Napa; terrorist attacks in France, Spain and Germany, and wildfires and mudslides in California. Given these changing conditions, some wineries have started offering innovative virtual wine tours.

Virtual Tour

360 Virtual Vineyard Tour (Modified Photo Credit:

Three Types of Virtual Wine Tours

With the new virtual wine tours, tourists can tour a winery or wine region virtually by using their computer, tablet or smart phone. This can be accomplished with online videos, 360 photo tours, or 360 videos with VR glasses, and are designed to make the visitor feel as if they are really walking through the winery grounds. Currently there are three types of virtual wine tours offered by some wineries.

Engaging Online Videos showcase the winery and allow visitors to see the entrance to the winery, step into the tasting room, walk through the vineyards, see the cellars, wander the gardens, and see the wines. These can be fun and whimsical, or classy and elegant. Here are two good examples:

360 Photo Tours are simply photos of the estate filmed in a 360 format and then edited so that visitors can click on a link to take them into another room, such as the cellar, the wine library, the vineyard, gardens, etc. It is a technique that is often used by home sales websites, and is less expensive to produce than professional videos. Here is a good example :

360 Video Tours are filmed with a special 360 video camera and professionally edited. Virtual wine tourists are invited to don a pair of VR Glasses, which can be purchased inexpensively online, such as the Google Cardboard headset, so they can experience the 360 video as if they were actually there. Here are two examples:


NOTE: A longer version of this article was originally published at by Wine Industry Advisor at: