Know Your Grower: Phil Sunseri

Last summer, Winemaker Todd Graff trekked up to the remote Chiles Valley, a slender sub-appellation of Napa Valley within the Vaca Mountains, to meet with Phil Sunseri, fourth generation of the Nichelini Family, one of the oldest grape growing families in Napa Valley. Over glasses of Frank Family Zinfandel, the two discussed Phil’s ancestral past as well as the future of grape growing.

Since the early 2000s, Frank Family has sourced high-quality Zinfandel grapes from Sunseri Vineyards, whose land has some of the oldest history in the region. As Napa Valley continues to evolve and become more Cabernet-centric, we feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with Phil and to work with this rare and beautiful fruit connected to such an iconic Napa Valley legacy. 

T: Can you tell us some history about the Nichelini family? Start from day one and get us up to speed.  

P: It all started in 1884 with my great grandfather, Anton Nichelini. During the 1880s, homestead properties were offered for very little to no expense for anyone willing to come out here and develop the land. At the time, he was farming and winemaking over in Sonoma with the family but in 1884 he was entitled to 160 acres and took the opportunity to move his entire family out here. Throughout his lifetime he acquired more property from other homesteaders who weren’t as successful in farming. When those families moved, Anton would either be gifted or would purchase their property. At the end of his life, he owned almost 640 acres of land.  

As his home country of Switzerland was mostly hills, he thought Chiles Valley was the greatest farming land ever and he started planting Zinfandel grapes. He planted a Zinfandel clone, called the Nichelini clone, in 1928 that we still grow today and it’s part of the grapes that Frank family purchases. 

T: Family is clearly very important to you. What’s one way you have paid homage to your family history as the guardian of this property? 

P: We decided to dedicate the vineyard to the A. Nichelini family and their twelve children. Ironically, we had thirteen distinguished vineyard blocks, so we named each of them after the twelve children and the 13th block was named after Anton and Caterina, which happens to be the block at the highest point on the hill, looking over the property.

Frank Family has the distinction of purchasing block 1 which is named after the first born, William and block 8, named after Catherine. We’re currently growing another seven acres of Zinfandel in the Mary block and Frank Family will be getting those grapes starting in 2023. 

T: When I drove out this morning, it was great to see this fog coming through the hills. It’s burnt off now, but there’s still this nice cool breeze. What sets the climate of Chiles Valley apart from the rest of Napa? 

P: Chiles Valley is about 800 feet above sea level and the high peaks are about 1200 feet which makes it very cold, much colder than the Napa Valley floor. It’s a unique place because Chiles Valley is not really a valley. It is a drainage of two creeks, Sage and Chiles, that both go into the Napa River. So, we have this area that has no hills to block off the winds giving us this natural circulation every afternoon, especially this portion of Chiles Valley. It really makes it unique for growing grapes because you also get the coastal influence. We get a cooling effect with fog in the morning and in the afternoon, it warms up. 

T: One of the things I enjoy most about working with this ranch, is that it’s planted to several different clones. Can you talk a bit about the clones you’ve selected to plant here? 

P: Currently we’re growing and have grown four mature clones. We have the Nichelini clone, the Sonoma clone, the Seghesio family clone, Primitivo, which is the exact DNA match of the European Italian clone, and we also grow the Deaver clone, which is famous in the Shenandoah Valley, east of us in Plymouth, California. In addition to those four clones, we have made a major investment in planting around 15 acres of new Zinfandel grapes from the Heritage 9 Clone. We want to be in the game for Zinfandel and we are really excited about this new project. Our first harvest of Clone 9 will be in 2023.