Fourth-generation Steve Tonella and his Rutherford vines

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You would think it was the early 1900s, standing there in Rutherford looking at the un-trellised grapevine shoots draping down over the protected fruit. Helping this historical trajectory back in time is the fact that the home of Joseph Ponti sits immediately east of these vines. Ponti was the first winemaker for Beaulieu in the 1900s.

But the year is 2018 and we are standing in front of Vertical Cordon-trained vines which grow naturally without the support of wires — as was historically done in California’s vineyards. The fourth-generation owner of these vines is Steve Tonella from S.R. Tonella, Ponti’s great-nephew. Ponti’s house remains in the family today and another family home bookends these old vines to the west.

Joseph Ponti didn’t come to California to make wine; and he was not on a gold-digging hangover from the late 19th century rush. He came from Italy to help rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. There was a huge demand for workers, and Ponti was a mason.

Not long after that, Ponti began working at Beaulieu Vineyards, where he stayed for 43 years. Ponti’s nephew, Louis Tonella, joined his uncle at Beaulieu, and it was Louis who inherited the historically trained vines in Rutherford. He, in turn, passed them on to his son Raymond (Steve’s father). Raymond would go on to purchase additional vineyards, while managing Rutherford vineyards for other folks. Needless to say, Steve grew up around vines and winemaking.

This partly explains why his first vintage sold out in weeks.

Steve has been in the vineyards since he was 6 years old, and has been involved in previous winemaking projects. He also took time to earn a degree in Business Administration at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and entered the high-tech industry for a stint. His work took him to England, Japan, Italy and Spain; the latter two of which he called home for periods of time. As Steve explains, however, his love of Rutherford wine never left him, and he returned to the wine industry full time. With four generations and 100 years in Rutherford, the bond with the land and the vines appears unbreakable.

His first S.R. Tonella vintage was a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, and he has since released a Sauvignon Blanc. He collaborates with French winemaker Fred Delivert on each of the wines produced.

S.R. Tonella Wines

The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc has vibrantly fresh and intense flavors of mango, cantaloupe, peach, lemon citrus and pineapple. Eighty percent is fermented in stainless steel and 20 percent in neutral oak, including acacia – which Steve explains is tight-grained with less tannins, keeping the wine fresh.

The 2016 Sauvignon Blanc has lemon peel and pineapple flavors with a faint touch of light baking spices.

The 2016 Rosé is for club members only, for now. It is filled with fresh red cherry and blackberry fruit flavors, delivered on a rich, creamy-smooth palate.

The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford finely integrates blackberry and blackcurrant fruit with vanilla and spice flavors for a complexly rich sip. Seventy percent new French oak is used, but the toasting is medium light. The tannins are soft, and there is plenty of acidity to balance the overall structure.

Want to taste a bit of Rutherford history? You can find S.R. Tonella wines locally at the French Laundry, Dean & DeLuca, Market St. Helena, Rutherford Grill, Cole’s Chop House, and – for those high-flying wine enthusiasts – on Cathay Pacific Business/First Class, among other places.

Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. She is also the co-founder of the Napa Valley Wine Academy in Napa. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.com.