• Image about Jeff Fontanella

A growing number of Napa Valley microboutique wineries are giving their larger competitors a run for their merlot.

WHEN JEFF FONTANELLA was at University of California, Davis, studying premed in hopes of making his mark in sports medicine, he had a problem. He needed to take a chemistry course, but none was available. His adviser suggested he meet the requirement by attending a class in wine fermentation. That class changed everything. “I wandered into the wine program by accident and never left,” Jeff says.

Today, he and his wife, Karen, own and operate the 26-acre Fontanella Family Winery in Napa Valley, Calif., where they produce 1,200 cases of artisan cabernet, chardonnay and zinfandel a year — firmly establishing them as a part of the region’s growing trend of microboutique wineries.

“There are over 600 wineries in Napa Valley,” says Bill Kane, co-owner of Cristal Blue Carriage, a limousine service that specializes in custom tours of small wineries. “At least 30 percent of those can be categorized as microboutique.”

These wineries turn out only a few hundred or a few thousand cases per year and, in general, aren’t open to the public without an appointment. According to Kane, the movement is on the rise.

“At least 10 new small wineries sprouted up [last] year,” he says. “More people are entering this sector of the business for the passion of the art form, rather than to make a buck. Most of them already have a financial base, and they’re not interested in producing a lot of wine; what they want to produce is the best wine.”

But beyond the draw of buying exclusive, high-quality wines, the real attraction for visitors is meeting the vintners themselves — winemakers like Jeff and Karen Fontanella, who are forging a path to their passion and pouring it into a glass.

“Jeff is a balance specialist,” Karen says. “He tries to get as many elements into the wine as needed to create depth.” To illustrate her point, Karen escorts visitors from their small tasting room to a behind-the-scenes area for wine storage and processing, where Jeff, surrounded by French oak barrels, explains the magic behind making an artisan wine.

“Napa Valley contains a full half of the soil types found in the world,” he says. “One cabernet is made from grapes grown in volcanic ash, while a second cab comes from fruit grown in shale. They are made the same way, but the soil drives something distinguishable in each one.”

Jeff ’s fine hand at blending wines has paid off. Fontanella’s 2007 zinfandel and chardonnay won gold medals at the 2009 Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition, and a recent write-up in Sommelier Journal described their 2008 chardonnay as “elegant, understated and well priced.”

Similar to Jeff Fontanella, an accidental vintner who came to discover his passion by chance, Stan and Joan Boyd began their venture into the world of microboutique winemaking with a dream of living surrounded by vineyards.

“What my wife, Joan, and I wanted was a second home on two or three acres with a vineyard feel,” Stan says. “We looked for five years, and then one day we drove to the end of a road in Napa and there it was.”

Both in the midst of high-powered executive careers, the Boyds wanted to use their Napa house as a weekend retreat where they would eventually retire. Winemaking was not in the plan. Then providence set in.