Meet a Farmer – Jim and Laura Regusci of Regusci Winery
To say that Napa Valley is synonymous with California wine is a bit of an understatement. It’s been a destination for wine lovers as long as most people can remember, but that wasn’t always the case. When Gaetano Regusci purchased a 286 acre estate in the Stag’s Leap District in 1932, making wine was probably the last thing on his mind. The property had been home to one of the state’s preeminent wineries, Occidental Winery. But between phylloxera, the Great Depression, and Prohibition, most wineries had since closed down or were barely making ends meet. Gaetano retained one block of grapes for home–winemaking, and used the property to produce grain, meat, milk, walnuts and prunes.
Gaetano’s son, Angelo, took over the ranch in the early 1960’s. Around ten years later, he began planting Bordeaux varietals on the property for local wineries. Over the next decade, the wine industry began to flourish and Napa wines were gaining traction.
The right place at the right time…
When Angelo planted those first Bordeaux varietals on the property, he couldn’t have imagined the significance of those grapes. The Reguscis were uniquely positioned to benefit from the most pivotal moment in the history of California Wine: the Judgement of Paris. In 1976, Stephen Spurrier hosted a blind tasting in Paris, pitting California wines against their French counterparts. In a stunning upset, two Napa Valley wines took top honors. One of the winners just happened to be Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. As you’ve probably guessed from the name, the winning winery was also located in Napa’s Stag’s Leap District. Just a stone’s throw north, it shares a property line with the Regusci property. And if you’ve been following along, you‘ll remember that Angelo Regusci had heavily planted his property to Bordeaux varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon. The Judgement of Paris had catapulted California Wines, specifically Napa wines, onto the international stage. By the early 1980’s, the Regusci family’s grapes were suddenly some of the most sought after in the world.
Twenty years later, the Reguscis were farming over 200 acres of winegrapes but had yet to venture into commercial winemaking themselves with all of their fruit under contract to other big name wineries. In 1996, Dan Duckhorn (yes, that Duckhorn) and Jim reached a deal that allowed Jim to keep every other row of Duckhorn’s contracted wine grapes. Together, Jim and his father, Angelo Regusci, bottled the first vintage of Regusci wines. They restored and reopened the property’s original 1800’s historic Occidental cellar and turned it into what is now Regusci Winery. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Caring for the land…and the people
As a multi-generational farm family, sustainability is especially important to the Reguscis. Good stewardship of the land is of the utmost importance. This ensures that the land is prosperous for years and generations to come. The vineyard and winery operations have embraced a number of sustainable measures – composting, water recycling, solar for clean energy, sheep for weed management and lower fuel load, integrated pest management and a host of others are in place.
An equally important, although lesser known, pillar of a sustainable operation is social equity. Farm and vineyard workers aren’t just seasonal employees. In fact, more often than not, the opposite is true. Many of the men and women who work alongside the Regusci family have been there for decades. Case in point: Jim started the vineyard management business in 1986 with one truck, one car and three young field laborers by his side. After 35 years, those three men, Armando, Jocobo and Jorge Perez, are still with the Regusci family. They’ve gone from inexperienced field workers to invaluable vineyard managers…and have become part of the family. In fact, five of the Perez children have also worked alongside the Reguscis for over twenty years… two as cellarmasters, and Armando’s grandson (Jocobo’s son) Johan, a third generation Perez, works in the Regusci Winery tasting room while attending Napa Valley Junior college!
The Perez family certainly isn’t the only example of men and women who have been with the Reguscis for decades. Jim, Laura and their children are proud that nearly 40 employees have been with the family for over 25 years. When you’ve spent that much time working together on the same piece of land, the property feels like “home” and certainly more like family than the typical employer/employee relationship.
The people that work in the vineyards and winery are as proud and protective of the land as the Regusci family themselves. That became abundantly clear when the Atlas Peak Fire swept through Napa in 2017. Jim and Laura were home with the youngest boys when they got a call that the fire was rapidly approaching the ranch. Jim made just one call to Jason Lauritsen, director of Vineyard Operations who has been with Regusci Vineyard Management for 18 years. Before long, vineyard and winery workers, friends and family showed up in the middle of the night, risking their own lives to push back the flames and protect the property. “We realized this ranch and our livelihood means as much to our family of employees as it does to us,” Jim states.
Thanks to their brave efforts, the heroic team managed to protect all of the structures. That’s not to say that the property didn’t sustain any damage, as all of the water sources, fences and electrical systems were destroyed. In the months and years that have followed, the whole Regusci team pulled together to support the extensive rebuild of infrastructure, and at the one year anniversary of the fire, the Reguscis honored the valiant efforts of those men and women by bottling a special limited edition release, a red blend called “Brave Night”.
Sharing the bounty
The Regusci family strives to make their employees feel valued and like part of the family. One of the many ways that they show their appreciation is by distributing freshly grown produce and culinary goods in weekly CSA-type Ranch Goods boxes. When the pandemic hit in 2019 and food supplies were hard to come by, Laura began weekly meal kit care packages for 50-60 weekly employees so that they could take fresh food home to share with their families.
With the help of chef Angel (the oldest Perez brother), they filled the boxes with fruit and vegetables from the winery’s culinary garden. They added bacon and eggs raised on the ranch, freshly baked bread, butter, pasta, cheese, nuts, and marinara + pesto sauces. The kits also included recipes and heartwarming letters to the family that helped bring everyone “together” during a time when the world was isolated.
The recipients were so appreciative of the bounty that the Reguscis decided to dramatically expand the operation the following year, dedicating three acres near the Napa River to grow more crops for CSA boxes. James Regusci Jr. (who had previously worked at the French Laundry culinary garden) stepped up to help expand the footprint of the project, growing additional vegetables at a greater scale. These boxes are hand delivered by the family directly to vineyard crews working in the fields so that each employee receives a tomato box and a mixed veggie box weekly.
Since the new acreage often produces far more than needed fill their CSA boxes, additional boxes are sent to neighboring wineries to be distributed among their staff, then the remaining go to a nearby farm labor camp, local fire and police departments, and ultimately the local food bank.
Fall is an exciting time for families who work on the Regusci Winery and Ranch. The Reguscis plant a two acre pumpkin patch for the children of their employee’s and for school classes to visit. When harvest wraps up, the family hosts a harvest party exclusively for vineyard and winery workers and their families – complete with 6-8 different food trucks, live mariachi bands, clowns, pony rides, bucking bulls and miniature train rides. It’s a celebratory and tangible way to show appreciation for the men and women who work hard throughout the year. As Laura states, “When you take good care of people, they take good care of you, too”.
How to show your support
There’s one remaining pillar of sustainability that we haven’t mentioned – economic sustainability. Profitability is what allows sustainable vineyards and wineries to pursue long-term environmental and equitable measures. These measures protect the health of the land and supports and improves the surrounding communities. The best way to support sustainable wineries is by scheduling a tasting, or by simply buying their wines! If you would like to book a tasting at Regusci Winery, or to purchase Regusci wines, head to www.regusciwinery.com.
Love California Wines? Same.
Article by Hilary Rance. Photography courtesy of Regusci Winery.