Sonoma County winemaking power couple make wine for Lasseter, Gloria Ferrer
Winemaking is not an easy career choice if you are contemplating marriage and raising a family.
In 1979, Bob and Julia Iantosca found that out. They met when Julia arrived at Dry Creek Vineyard to apply for an intern position.
“I was to go to lunch with Dave Stare,” said Julia, but the plan changed and Dave told her, “You can go with him.” The “him” was Bob, Dry Creek's cellarmaster. It was a chance meeting that has lasted 38 years.
Today, Julia Iantosca, 60, is the winemaker for Lasseter Family Winery in Sonoma Valley and Bob Iantosca, 65, is the executive winemaker for Gloria Ferrer Winery in Sonoma Carneros.
Early in their careers, Julia chose to focus on still wines, while Bob moved over to sparkling wines. Deciding on different winemaking directions has likely kept the sanity level of managing two careers and a home life under control.
“Both of us being winemakers can be tough at times, especially during harvest, but it helped that the sparkling wine harvest is just ending when the still wine harvest is getting underway,” Julia said.
And while the Iantoscas are not the only husband and wife winemakers in California - other notable couples include Dawnine and Bill Dyer and Rosemary and Bruce Cakebread - the Iantoscas lay claim to being one of the first couples in California to pursue their careers while being married to each other.
Both of them started out with other careers in mind before the desire to be a winemaker took hold. Julia, a native of Southern California, wanted to be a veterinarian, while Bob, who was raised in Massachusetts and went to college in Arizona, planned on a career in fine arts.
In the 1970s, winemaking was still a new and unusual career move, with most roads in California winemaking leading to the North Coast. Except for working together at the Stevenot Winery in the Sierra Foothills, the Iantoscas have spent their wine careers in Sonoma County.
Julia made wine at Lambert Bridge and William Wheeler and now Lasseter.
Bob started at Buena Vista in 1975 and has made wine at Mark West, Dry Creek Vineyard, Dehlinger and Stevenot and has been at Gloria Ferrer since 1984.
In their spare time, the Iantoscas farm a small pinot noir vineyard at their home in Bennett Valley, selling the grapes to Gloria Ferrer. The Iantoscas rate the cool climate conditions in Bennett Valley as “outstanding” for growing pinot noir, although it is not as well known for growing pinot noir as the Sonoma Coast or Russian River Valley.
Julia credits her pinot noir attraction to her time working with Merry Edwards on some of Edwards' early wines made as a custom crush project at Lambert Bridge.
“That time with Merry Edwards taught me a lot about pinot noir and the value and art of blending,” Julia said. “The most important lessons in blending, (which) I learned from Merry, are to always pursue excellence and never stop trying new and innovative approaches.”
All things French
Being innovative and trying something new appealed to John and Nancy Lasseter, owners of Lasseter Family Winery. They share a love for all things French and in particular, Rhone and Bordeaux wines, and were looking for new approaches to blended wines.
In 2007, Julia met with the Lasseters and discovered an opportunity to further her interest in making blended wines from Rhone and Bordeaux varietals. The Lasseter wines all carry a fanciful French name and include two Rhone-style blends, Enjoué (a rosé blend based on syrah) and Chemin de Fer (a red blend based on grenache). The Bordeaux-style blends include Paysage (mostly merlot) and Amoureux (based on malbec and cabernet sauvignon.)
“We have six wines that are the same each year, with vintage variations, and two wines that I can experiment and play with,” Julia said.
The value and importance of blending is not lost on Bob Iantosca, who uses the technique extensively at Gloria Ferrer.
“Last year (2016), we had 10 blends of bubbly,” Bob said. “With sparkling wines, blending the base wines is important for structure and maintaining a consistent style from vintage to vintage.”
“Blending forces you to be focused and develop a mental image of where you are going and to be specific,” Julia said.
A year before he joined Gloria Ferrer, Bob worked as a consultant to Eileen Crane, now the director of sparkling wine producer Domaine Carneros. And before that, he worked for Mark West wines.
“My early experience making bubbly at Mark West in 1981 was hugely important in preparing me as a sparkling winemaker,” he said.
For Bob Iantosca, life at Gloria Ferrer has not been all sparkling wine. In 1991, Gloria Ferrer added varietal chardonnay, pinot blanc and a list of estate pinot noirs made from different vineyards. And, while he has no preference, Bob is most passionate about pinot noir. Grapes from the Iantosca's home vineyard went into Gloria Ferrer's 2007 Royal Cuvee and NV Blanc de Noirs, both gold-medal-winning sparkling wines at the 2017 North Coast Wine Challenge.
Besides making award-winning sparkling wines, Iantosca has been researching pinot noir clonal material.
“Mike Crumly, VP of production, and I have an ongoing project to determine the best pinot noir clones for our wines and where these clones grow best,” Iantosca said. He considers Carneros a special place for growing chardonnay and pinot noir, the two major grapes used in making Champagne and other high-end sparkling wines.
“Before we built the winery on the west side of Arnold Drive, we visited the Champagne region of France, Oregon and Spain, to find out what techniques we could use to make sparkling wine in Sonoma County,” Bob said.
Although they have helped each other over the years, talking through problems, Julia and Bob Iantosca say that they don't usually discuss winemaking and their respective wineries at home.
With decades of combined experience at winemaking in Sonoma County, the inevitable question for the Iantoscas is, “Have you ever considered starting your own winery?”
“Probably not, but Bob is more interested than me,” Julia said.
“Stylistically, our winemaking styles are not that far apart.” Bob said.
Gerald D. Boyd is a Santa Rosa-based wine and spirits writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org