Mendocino Cabernet.

When Mario Rosati purchased an old cattle ranch in southern Mendocino County south of Hopland in 1980, he never dreamed he would be in the wine business. However, when given budwood from one of the world’s most renowned Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards, Mario Rosati planted grapevines. At first he and his wife Danelle Storm Rosati made wine just for family and friends. When the prolificacy of those vines began producing more wine than Mario and Danelle could give away, they bonded Rosati winery.

The Rosati family’s vineyard crowns the golden oak studded hills above one of Mendocino County’s heritage ranches south of Hopland like a brilliant green tiara. The once ramshackle 150-year-old farmhouse and 100-year old barn have been completely remodeled. Private events for clientele and the trade take place at the barn.

The Rosatis only make Cabernet Sauvignon from estate grown vines, which originated from the renowned Ridge Vineyard’s Monte Bello vineyard in the Santa Cruz mountains. Today, Sunday, September 13, Rosati releases its seventeenth vintage, Rosati 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon at their Hopland vineyard.

The two native Californians and long time aficionados of good wine traveled distinctive paths on their way to becoming wine producers. Mario grew up in Walnut Creek in the East Bay and Danelle in Fresno and Bakersfield.

Danelle discovered wine while attending UC Santa Barbara when she spent her junior year abroad in Madrid, Spain. She loved Spain so much she went back after graduation for another year and then returned to California. In 1978 she started her career in executive search. In the 1990’s she founded Storm & Company specializing in services for high tech and life science industries In 1992 she met Mario “an Italian-American,” she says with delight.

An attorney for more than 35 years, Mario graduated from UCLA and worked as a Contra Costa sheriff’s deputy putting himself through law school. He is a partner in corporate law at Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich and Rosati in Palo Alto.

Mario, who has a fresh ruddy look and affable persona, loves to tell the story about the event that eventually led to creating the family wine brand. “John Wilson, a founder of our law firm, asked me if I would take on a winery client because he was a scotch drinker and he knew I liked wine,” says Mario. That client was Ridge Vineyards, which had already garnered acclaim for some of the best Cabernet and Zinfandel in the wine world. Mario served on the winery’s Board of Directors as its fame grew. By then Mario had purchased the 940-acre ranch in Mendocino County.

In 1987 one of Ridge’s co-founders, Dave Bennion, came to the ranch for a visit. He scouted the property and found the ten acres he thought were perfect for a vineyard. “We planted with Cabernet Sauvignon clones from Ridge’s prestigious Jimsomare Ranch,” says Mario, who until he met Danelle, mainly used the ranch as a respite and hunting preserve.

Ridge Vineyards, under the tutelage of winemaker Paul Draper since 1969, has had a consistently avid following. When Ridge’s 1971 Cabernet Sauvignon was entered in the famed “Judgment of Paris Tasting” in 1976 (the subject of the recent movie “Bottle Shock”) it came in fifth place among ten French Bordeaux and California Cabernet Sauvignons. Thirty years later at a retasting of the same wines, Ridge came in first.

By 1992, when the Rosati vineyard was producing enough grapes to bottle the first vintage, Danelle suggested they design a label to put on the wine for Christmas presents. “We had about 200 cases and the whole family came together to work on the label,” says Danelle, slim and personable with a Jackie Kennedy refinement. The family includes three married daughters (all lawyers, Mario says proudly), their spouses and three grandchildren.

Rosati’s classy red label with gold trim has evolved but its centerpiece has always been two feisty steeds with raring heads. Danelle and Mario kept horses near their home in Atherton and wintered them at the ranch. “We rode together for about five years,” says Danelle. Then Mario was thrown by his ex-rodeo horse and had to be helicoptered out and hospitalized for quite a while. “I was so worried about him” she recounts, but he recovered completely. They gave up horseback riding, but not their love of horses. The cross marking the grave of Danelle’s old polo horse, Carmella, is within sight of their farmhouse’s wraparound porch. The horses on the label have the look and feel of the famed statues at San Marco’s Square in Venice, says Danelle.

In 2004, when the vineyard had matured to producing 900 cases, the Rosatis decided they needed to figure out how to sell the wine. They got a group of oenophile friends together and did a blind tasting of Cabernet from Napa Valley’s Grigch and Heitz, Santa Cruz’s Ridge and their own winery. “Ours won the tasting!” says Danelle, noting that the other wines retailed at $100 to $130 a bottle. Rosati Cabernet Sauvignon is priced in the mid-twenty dollar range. “We wanted to offer a wine that was approachable and affordable – at least at the outset,” Danelle

“Our first customer was Chantilly restaurant in Atherton,” says Danelle, who is chief marketer and sales distributor for Rosati Family Wines. “We built on that success by going door to door to high-end restaurants,” adds Mario. And, with awe, stated “Danelle sold 300 cases in the last three months!” Rosati Cab is in “all the Pebble Beach projects” and at such restaurants as Kokkari in San Francisco as well as in wine shops like Draeger’s, K& L and SIP! Mendocino in Hopland.

After making the wine at different custom crush places, Rosati soon will be ensconced at John Fetzer’s winery Saracina, just north of Hopland. Renowned winemaker Zelma Long oversees the wine from vineyard to bottle. Long comes from an illustrious winemaking career that includes Robert Mondavi, Simi Winery and Chandon Estate. In addition to custom clients, Long has a winemaking venture in South Africa, Vilafonte Vineyards. She lives in Sonoma County and as a winemaker, speaker and consultant she is held in high esteem in the industry.

“Our winery is not a business, it’s a passion,” says Mario. He also loves to fly planes, scuba dive and, according to Danelle, “tickle the tail of the dragon.” The Rosatis, who both still work more than full time professions, find that they spend much of their free time “doing wine.”

“We love fine wine and food” says Danelle. She has put together two small cookbooks employing the talents of chefs like San Francisco’s Joyce Goldstein, Evvia’s Mario Ortega and Chantilly’s Bernabe Oropeza to create beef and lamb recipes to pair with Rosati Cabernet Sauvignon.

Danelle describes their wine as “very rich and earthy—old world style. While some Napa Cabernets appeal to certain consumers,” she adds, “we want to appeal to those who prefer the fruit forward balanced flavors that come directly from our vines.”

Tasting Notes: What a delight to pair Rosati 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon with a Tuscan style peppery beef stew recipe by Joyce Goldstein. The Cab’s layer of luscious bright fruit flavors went from fresh black cherry to dried plum and then came the complementary peppery nuances that segued perfectly with the rich beef and sauce.

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