Napa Valley trendsetter winemaker takes on Signorello Estate rebuild after fire
Signorello Estate became an icon of the deadly destructive power of California’s wildfires in recent years.
But the winemaker behind its rebirth wants it to become an icon for the wine business’ preparation for fire, drought and climate change.
Priyanka Dhar French herself is a trendsetter: a young female winemaker from India who leads a Napa Valley winery.
Now she’s a key figure in bringing back the winery and hospitality center, which along with the proprietors’ house were destroyed in the Atlas Fire, one of the early October 2017 firestorms that destroyed thousands of homes in Sonoma and Napa counties.
The 30 planted acres of vineyards survived — except for five vines lost when a burning fence fell on them. Under construction now at the 100-acre property at 4500 Silverado Trail near Calistoga are the fermentation building, set to be done in September 2023 just in time for harvest, and 18,000 square feet of caves. The roughly 6,000 cases of wine produced annually have been made at a custom winery since the fire. The hospitality center and owners’ home would be built the following year.
“It’s Signorello 2.0, as we’re affectionately calling it,” French said.
The plan for the rebuild is for the winery and hospitality center to be totally run off the grid by renewable energy and storage. That has called for engineering for energy efficient lighting, refrigeration, heating and cooling, employing special insulation and night-air cooling. Electric vehicles, including forklifts, would be employed. Water use would be closely tracked.
Piping is being planned for capture of carbon dioxide during the fermentation process preventing release of the gas blamed for climate change. But the task is not as straightforward for the wine business as with the beer business, French said. That’s because beer is produced year-round, while wine fermentation surges just after each harvest then tapers off. French said the technology likely will improve in coming years, as some European manufacturers are starting to develop smaller systems that could store carbon dioxide in tanks in smaller amounts.
Also part of the planning process for Signorello 2.0 are Celia Welsh, consulting director of winemaking, and Steve Matthiesson, consulting viticulturist.
French’s path to the business took an unusual route for a winemaker. Rather than originally being a lover of wine who wanted to make a career out of the how and the why of what goes into the bottle, for French it was a love for the science behind the beverage that drew her to the industry.
Born and raised in Mumbai, French didn’t grow up around wine.
“Wine wasn't really a big, or it's not necessarily always a beverage of choice,” she said. “When you're looking at the food and beverage industry, it's definitely a more liquor and beer dominant market.”
French pursued a career path that mirrored that of her scientist parents. She graduated in 2009 from the University of Mumbai with a Bachelor of Technology in food science and technology. The engineering aspects of the degree was a relatively new approach at the time, so during her senior year the students spent time visiting food and beverage production facilities in various industries to see which suited them.
One of the places the students visited was Sula Vineyards, still the country’s largest volume vintner. Sula was started in 1999 in the near the city of Nashik northeast of Mumbai in an area already known for growing table grapes. Famed Sonoma County winemaker Kerry Damskey is Sula’s consulting winemaker.
And Sula is where French experienced what she said was love at first sight.
“It had been a long day of touring other facilities that I hadn't necessarily found very intriguing or even exciting,” French said. “So to walk into this winery in the middle of harvest and then have a chance to taste wine in the tasting room, it was something that immediately caught my fancy.”
When French looked into the technical aspects of the business, the science of winemaking excited her. She then set her sights on graduate level training and started taking wine-appreciation courses to prepare.
She earned a Master of Science in viticulture and enology from UC Davis in 2011 and a graduate research diploma from AgroSup in France the following year. Throughout that time she worked harvests as an intern in Napa Valley and France then worked a the 2013 harvest in New Zealand as a harvest winemaker before. After a short stint in the cellar at Stags Leap Winery in Napa Valley, French was hired as a cellar master at Dalla Valle Vineyards in Oakville, before being promoted later to enologist.
After four and a half years at Dalla Valle, Signorello Estate proprietor Ray Signorello Jr. hired her as winemaker in March 2019. The previous Signorello winemaker, Pierre Birebent, retired just after the fire and two decades.
French became the third winemaker at the now 45-year-old winery, which Signorello and his father started in 1977.
Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-4256.