Woman From India Leads As Winemaker At Beloved Napa Winery To Build A Better Tomorrow After Tragedy

As the terrifying words and shocking photos showing fierce fires destroying thousands of acres of land flooded social media, it was hard to not feel helpless. The over 50 mph winds assisted the fire in covering so much ground in such a short time that people who thought they were out of harm’s way would quickly realize within the same hour that they needed to evacuate as soon as possible. The direction of the wind changed constantly making it impossible for anyone within Napa Valley and Sonoma County to know if they were truly safe, as fleeing one’s home had many downsides since temporarily living in a crowded community center seemed to be a torturous alternative, or much worse, one could accidentally drive into the heart of one of the fast and furious fires, trapped with no way out.

Many living outside of northern California stayed glued to the internet to see if friends or colleagues in the wine industry were doing okay. All the messages, photos and videos on social media platforms created a chaotic storyline of everything seeming to be destroyed. Several wineries were listed as being damaged, or in some cases, burning to the ground but most of it was misinformation causing unnecessary nervous breakdowns for the owners. Tons of winery owners took to Facebook to inform people that the damage reports were untrue. So many devoted Napa wine customers demanded pictures showing wineries had indeed burned down if anyone dared even to mention that such a thing happened.

Signorello Estate patio overlooking the vineyards Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

It seemed like all the wineries would luckily emerge unscathed from the horrific 2017 fires but then all of a sudden many posts started to talk about the great historic winery of Signorello Estate. As more and more shared on the internet that they had heard rumors about the winery burning to the ground, there was a backlash of people demanding to see a photo before such rumors were posted… and then there it was… a photo of Signorello engulfed in flames. A place that had many precious memories for people as Signorello was one of the first Napa Valley wineries, located along the Silverado Trail, with a professional kitchen and full-time chef to create magical wine and food pairing experiences, and so, many of their customers have had beautiful memories on their Italian Terrazzo-style patio overlooking the valley.

In the middle of the night, Signorello’s longtime winemaker, who had been with them for 20 years, Pierre Birebent, saw the buildings burn down with his own eyes. He went there with one of his guys, trying to put out the intense inferno until he was forced to leave as he gagged from the black smoke. Just a month after this terrible event, Pierre seemed like a broken man speaking about the experience at a conference and despite the family owner, Ray Signorello Jr., being adamant about the fact that they would rebuild, Pierre seemed less sure of how they could go on.  

Priyanka Dhar French

Ray Signorello Jr.
Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

Pierre ended up retiring, which is more than understandable, and so Ray Jr. was on a mission to find a winemaker who would not only help rebuild Signorello but take this opportunity to make it even better. The property was initially built in the 1970s as a retirement home for Ray Sr. and his wife, and then when Ray Jr. came on board and realized that top wineries highly prized their vineyards, he saw that they had the rare opportunity to make stellar Napa wine. Significant advancements had also been made in understanding vineyards’ soil and the best way to build state-of-the-art wineries and cellars, and so in some ways, he thought he was given a gift to redo things the right way.

Priyanka Dhar French
Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

Ray Jr. was able to find a rising Napa star, Priyanka Dhar French, who is a fierce champion of diversity in the wine industry – she is one of the youngest female winemakers to lead a Napa winery as well as one of just a handful of Indian winemakers in California. She has worked at such stellar wineries in California as Louis M. Martini, Stags’ Leap and Dalla Valle, and gained more international experience in New Zealand and the Hospices de Beaune in Burgundy.

Priyanka was born and raised in Mumbai, India, and her parents, both of whom are scientists, thought that she would become a scientist like themselves or at least a doctor or a lawyer. She received her undergraduate degree in food science, which would have been an acceptable career choice to her parents but the idea of working at a factory that was all about creating a formula that would just be churned out did not sit well with Priyanka as she also has a creative side. One day she went out to Sula Vineyards, one of the most prominent wineries in India, and as she sat in the tasting room, sipping wine and overlooking the vineyards, she said to herself, “Oh my god, this is the life.” She reached out to an uncle, a food and beverage director, about her idea of working in wine and he immediately told her to do it. He also encouraged her to get her Master’s degree in enology at U.C. Davis in California.

At first, the wine career path she chose was not so easy to understand from her parents’ point of view. Despite her talking about getting a Master’s degree in winemaking for over a year, once she announced she was accepted into the program, they responded that they thought she was joking. Her father used to joke that he would love to go into wine once he retires as he could not imagine it as a real job. But eventually, she won them over when her father came out to California to visit one of the wineries where she worked and he saw the lab, the winery, the cellar and the vineyards – that it was a tremendous amount of work to make great wine. After the visit, he called up the family back in Mumbai and said that her job was a “real thing,” and today, he gets to witness his daughter becoming one of the rising stars of the wine world.

The Future for Signorello Estate

Since Signorello’s backup drive for their computer burned in the fire, they were left with none of the data recorded over the years. Priyanka made sure to spend as much time with Pierre in the winery and vineyards, before his retirement, as she wanted to write down everything important. Also, Signorello’s vineyard foreman Carlos, who has been overseeing the vineyards for 36 years, is a great help to Priyanka every day.

When Priyanka had her first meaningful conversation with owner Ray Jr., the idea of elevating their practices to achieve even a greater level of winemaking and setting up a solid business that would survive for several generations was of the utmost importance. So Priyanka recommended bringing on two legends of the industry to help consult in overseeing the vineyards and building a new winery, consulting director of winemaking Celia Welsh and viticulturalist Steve Matthiasson. They started to dig several soil pits to understand the many layers underground that affect the vines in various places of the vineyard, as well as Steve creating a sustainable and regenerative environment that includes laying down some of the foundations for a potential carbon capture program that will be implemented once an economically feasible way is discovered so low-margin businesses such as wineries can implement such programs.

Signorello Estate Winery sign
Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

When it comes to the new winery and cellar, they have planned to build 18,000 feet of caves into the hillside on the estate that will act as a cellar for storing barrels and include some of the winemaking processes. Only non-flammable material is being used, such as concrete and glass, to build the structures, and there will be a huge high-pressure sprinkler pump that can either push out water or specific, fire-retardant chemicals. All entrances will be double sealed, and vents will be installed with special filters that will trap volatile compounds related to smoke. A full-time generator and fire pump will be on-site, and even if the winery doesn’t need it, the fire pump’s water source will be available to firefighters who may need to tap into it to save other properties.

Priyanka is extremely excited to get the opportunity to not only lead a great Napa winery into a better future but also to be given a chance to truly know the property from the bottom up as Signorello is starting from scratch – except when it comes to their vineyards as those were never damaged in the fire.

Tragedies Bring Out the True Character of Someone 

Hands filled with Signorello soil
Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

The 2017 fires not only destroyed a lot of homes and land but it also dampened the spirits of several residents, many still trying to recover from such traumatic experiences. Ray Jr. has another home in Canada and once he found out that his winery was burning down, he made sure he was there the next day. The area was evacuated and no one outside of first responders or media was allowed, so Ray Jr. joined a national TV news crew to visit his property; the structure was completely destroyed but the wine was safe within the sealed stainless steel tanks. 

At that moment, the cameras were rolling and could capture Ray’s reaction when he first saw his parents’ beloved dream burned to the ground. He immediately expressed gratitude that no one was hurt and when he saw the vineyards were untouched, he proclaimed at that moment that he would rebuild. Priyanka, who was working at Dalla Valle, said seeing Ray on the news was one of the most powerful memories she has from that time because while so many around her were getting pulled down into the darkness, here was a man who had lost so much, and within seconds of seeing the tremendous devastation, expressed grace rooted in a determination for a better future. And now she gets to be part of making that better future come true.

2019 Signorello Estate ‘Padrone’ Cabernet Sauvignon & 2019 Signorello Estate ‘S’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd
2019 Signorello Estate’ Hope’s Cuvée’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Signorello Estate’ Hope’s Cuvée’ Chardonnay, Napa Valley: Estate-grown Chardonnay fruit and unfiltered wine. The Chardonnay come from a part of the vineyard where the vines were planted in 1980, and it is a single estate block wine. It is an emotional bottle for Ray Jr. as Hope Signorello was Ray’s mother, and she is why they ended up in Napa, but unfortunately, she passed away pretty early on and she didn’t see the growth of this winery and where it ended up. And so, when she passed away, Ray Sr. and Ray Jr. named this wine Hope’s Cuvée as an homage to her. An enchanting nose with orange blossom, white flowers and stony minerality with rich lemon curd flavors on the palate and a beautifully textured wine that finishes with uplifting acidity. Only around 400 to 450 cases are made of this cuvée. $98

2019 Signorello Estate’ S’
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Signorello Estate S Napa Valley: S comes from a selection of acclaimed vineyard sites beyond the Signorello Estate vineyards and Ray Jr. describes it as a “modern, opulently styled Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon”. 2019 is the inaugural vintage of S Cabernet Sauvignon. 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot with fruit sourced from St. Helena, Rutherford and Howell Mountain, all farmed organically. Enticing nose with notes of black tea, blackberry liqueur and savory spices with hints of licorice and dark chocolate on the palate with juicy black cherries and broad yet silky tannins that give it power and elegance. $75

2019 Signorello Estate, ‘Padrone’
Cabernet Sauvignon
Photo Credit: Cathrine Todd

2019 Signorello Estate, Padrone, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley: Estate-grown fruit and unfiltered wine. 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc, 3% Merlot and 3% Malbec. Complex nose of black truffles, espresso and granite balanced by rich cassis aromas that has a mixture of freshly picked fruit combined with more mature fruit flavors that has hints of cigar box and lavender dancing in the background. $175

Ray Jr. has come out with an affordable Cabernet Sauvignon called ‘Edge’ and it is sourced from premium vineyards in Alexander Valley, an appellation in Sonoma County that is known for its high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon. The price is $25.

2018 Edge,
Cabernet Sauvignon
Photo Credit:
Cathrine Todd

2018 Edge, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County: 91% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Petite Sirah. Really impressive wine considering the price point! Freshly grated nutmeg on the nose and hints of crushed rocks with fine tannins along the palate with cocoa dust and blueberry preserves expressed on the sustained finish. $25

2020 TRIM
Cabernet Sauvignon
Photo Credit: Signorello Estate

Also, it was just announced that Ray Jr. is introducing new labels for his entry-level TRIM Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay-focused wines. The new labels debut with the 2020 TRIM Cabernet and the 2021 Chardonnay bottlings and highlight nutrition information and an ingredient list on the back labels. Both wines will be released late-June 2022 and are priced at $12.99 a bottle.

About damewine

Celebrating Wine, Life and Inspiring Colorful People in New York City and Beyond!
This entry was posted in Dame Wine. Bookmark the permalink.