Napa’s Fotinos Vineyard: from Lefkada to California
by Maria A. Karamitsos
Located in the heart of Napa Valley’s Carneros region, Fotinos Vineyard is celebrating its 50th anniversary of fine wines. Today, three sisters and their families – the third and fourth generation – are keeping the family legacy alive. I recently traveled to Napa to learn more. Their story traces back to the Greek island of Lefkada, where their grandfather, Christos, was born. He immigrated to San Francisco in 1908, ultimately opening a grocery store in the Mission District. Christos and his wife, Angelina, had five children. As the family prospered, they acquired a country house in Sonoma, which included a small vineyard. They pressed the grapes and made wine in their garage.
Sons George and Tom were fascinated by grape growing and winemaking. Over the years, Christos passed down his secrets on sustainable farming practices. The brothers decided to take things a step further, and in 1969, purchased a 26-acre parcel of land in Carneros, on the south end of Napa Valley. This location is ideal for the cultivation of Pinot Noir grapes, due to the daytime heat for good sugar concentration, combined with the evening winds to aerate the tight grape clusters to prevent mold. George and Tom nurtured their vines and built their business selling grapes to home winemakers in Marin. In the 1970s, they began a decades-long relationship with Robert Mondavi, who along with several other wineries purchased their premium grapes. A structural engineer by trade, the forward-thinking George made the property self-sustainable by designing and building their own water source. The large pond built in the 1980s irrigates the entire property and sustains it during droughts and helps to maintain consistent yields.
As their children were born, George and Tom put them to work in the vineyard, instilling a love for the vine and the wine. Tom passed away in the early 80s, though his sons maintained a portion of the land until 2014.
By 2003, George realized his lifelong dream – bottling wine under the family name. Following his passing in 2014, his daughters – Angela, Margaret, and Elaine – pledgded to continue their father’s legacy. Along with their husbands and their mother, Vivian, they continue to produce exceptional Pinot Noir. George’s grandchildren – now the fourth generation of Fotinos winemakers – are learning the family tradition as well.
On a beautiful November day, Margaret led me on a tour of the vineyard. It was so peaceful among the vines. The grapes were harvested weeks ago, and the vine leaves were changing colors. I’m used to seeing the vines with verdant leaves, loaded with fruit. Nonetheless, the rich fall colors were a sight to behold, as rich reds and golds transformed the landscape with their autumnal show. As we walked among the vines, she revealed stories of growing up in the vineyard. “I remember coming to the vineyard, my dad teaching us to respect nature and the value of hard work,” she recalled. “From a young age, we helped remove the milk cartons that were placed over the smaller plants to protect them. As we got older, we learned to prune the vines with care, and even drove the tractor. Now, we teach our children.”
Fotinos Vineyard is truly a family effort, as every member – young and old – plays an important role. Angela and her husband, Ted, coordinate the winemaking. “Our wine’s richness and softness aptly represent the qualities of terroir which are ideal for Pinot Noir grapes,” Angela explained. “It gives us great pleasure to produce a wine that would make Dad proud.”
Margaret manages vineyard operations, while her husband, Mike, helps with technology. “I love working on our vineyard,” Margaret added. “it’s part of the fabric of who I am.”
Elaine is responsible for web design, and her husband, Jim, takes care of equipment and facilities. She also shared what the vineyard means to her. “The land was purchased the year I was born. I grew up working alongside my father and sisters,” she said. “Now my three sons love scampering through the vineyard and learning the fine art of grape growing.”
There is no tasting room or winemaking facility on the grounds. Fotinos Vineyard works with a custom crush facility, where they crush, destem, ferment, and barrel wine – on average 160 cases of Pinot Noir every other year. Today, the only grapes they don’t use to make their signature wine are sold to Mumm Napa to make sparkling wines.
The Fotinos Family recently marked 50 years of fine wine with a special celebration held in Burlingame. The fourth generation was on hand to help with catering, serving, packing, etc. They’ve also produced a limited quantity of 160 cases of a special 50th anniversary wine.
Their elegant vintages are a wonderful tribute to their grandfather and father, as well as their family tradition. Fotinos Vineyard is all about the love of family, the best grapes, and the finest wine. That love shows through in their dedication and in every drop of wine.
You can purchase Fotinos wines on their website (fotinosvineyard.com) and have them shipped to your door. They’re also served in select Napa area restaurants.